Art Weeks didn’t shake my hand when we met.

It wasn’t because the artist was rude – he was actually polite. He didn’t want to smear my hand with the pastel pigment embedded on his fingertips.

We were standing on the second floor of the New Brighton Community Center, in a room full of passionate Minnesota artists — hailing from as far away as Duluth and Red Wing — working on easels, surrounded by boxes of varying colors, short, chunky of pastels.

The word “pastel” may bring to mind college art classes, but this sometimes wild, often messy medium has made appearances throughout art history. Édouard Manet painted a few pastel portraits, as did Eugène Delacroix.

But justifying the use of pastel wasn’t the goal of this annual paint-in by members of the Lake Country Pastel Society, an organization founded in 1997 by pastel enthusiasts. The American Swedish Institute in Minneapolis is hosting an exhibition of their work through March 4.

Fred Somers of Northfield, a professional artist who makes a living from his pastel work, is the chairman. Weeks, a retired architect, is the exhibition’s president. With 84 members from Minnesota, Iowa, Illinois and Wisconsin, pastel enthusiasts say the medium is easier to work with than oil paints because you don’t have to wait until it dries, but the colors are just as vibrant.

Pastel is a pure pigment and functions as a dry binder. It’s also more affordable than oil paints.

“Is it paint? Is it drawing? It’s both! exclaimed an excited member.

It was too cold to do an exterior ‘painting’ in the open air, but the weather made no difference to all the artists working hard, getting their pigment.

A table of cookies, coffee, nuts and bottled water functioned as the equivalent of a water cooler – a place where people could take a break before returning to their easels.

“He’s got that shine”

Artist Lisa Stauffer wore a bright blue sweatshirt and blue jeans. She had come all the way from Duluth to participate in pastel painting. Although she wasn’t working on anything that day, she had a few framed abstract landscapes and facades of buildings and barns on hand. Her love for pastel runs deep.

“It has this sparkle, this ability to layer one color on top of another, to make it shimmer,” Stauffer said. A nature lover who participates in numerous outdoor painting competitions, she teaches painting at the Grand Marais Art Colony, the White Bear Center for the Arts, the Bloomington Center for the Arts and even the State of Mississippi Pastel Society. (Each state has its own pastel society. There is also the International Association of Pastel Societies and the Pastel Society of America in New York.)

Given her background in painting, Stauffer says she often uses watercolor as an undercoat, then puts pastel on top.

“For me it’s fun, I can do it interactively. It’s great for water and messy grasslands.

Getting to New Brighton was a 2.5 hour drive for Stauffer. Even though snow was forecast, she didn’t feel discouraged.

“I’m going through a blizzard to get here,” she said.

Many of the artists present at the painting focused on landscapes, but Sue Rowe was deeply immersed in portraying a surly-looking rabbit. Other images of rabbits surrounded him on the table. It wasn’t the first time she had focused on an animal. Her path to pastels was quite haphazard and was born out of a feeling of restlessness.

“I’m an antique dealer in Stillwater, and I got bored and drew a bear in a magazine,” said Rowe, from rural northern Wisconsin. “I finally used my art degree from UW-River Falls – I graduated with full honors at the time, then didn’t draw from 1981 to 1997.”

She became a bear artist, creating what she describes as “fantasy bear art” – pink bears with yellow noses or a dancing red bear on a yellow background. But when she came to pastel, she also had a desire to diversify her mammals.

“I just got bored, so I took pictures of the bunnies at the State Fair, or stole some pictures online,” she said. She came to pastels by chance, and eventually overcame her aversion to them.

“I hated pastels,” she says. “They were messy and icky.”

As Rowe smudged cool magenta pigment around the bunny’s head, it was clear her relationship with pastels had completely transformed.

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