Several years ago Natalie Warren loaned me a special canoe paddle for an unexpected trip down the Minnesota River, and it was the most beautiful paddle ever … until a recent visit to Legacy of The Lakes Museum in Alexandria, MN, where area artists put their creativity to work onto and into nearly three dozen wooden canoe paddles.
Of course, Warren’s paddle has some authenticity these creative paddles lack since her’s bore the York Factory brand … with the F being part of the right wing of the staunchly thick Y … signifying her and Ann Raiho’s completion of the challenging “Canoeing with the Cree” trip from the confluence of the Minnesota and Mississippi Rivers to the Hudson Bay. The college buddies were the first two women to complete the trip made famous by Eric Sevareid’s 1935 report of his trip that has served as an inspiration for many. Just holding it would have been enough, but her encouragement to go ahead and use it was unbelievable.
Those on display at the Alexandria boat museum are of a different breed and of varied medium.
Carol Swenson, the curator of the Legacy of the Lakes, who this spring prior to the coronavirus situation, put a call to artists to create paddle art as a fundraiser for this unique boat museum (which was a treat to visit even before the paddles!). The paddle art she received almost defies imagination. For an example, Quincy Roers titled his “Padd’led to the Bone” and not only carved a skull into the blade, but continued the carving up through the handle! How many of us have felt like this paddling across a blazing hot lake in the BWCA in the middle of summer?
Many artists painted lake scenes or used a Viking’s motif. There was an imitation of an Alaskan Tlingit paddle. Kristin Roers made a waxy aurora borealis encaustic painting that was eye-stopping. There were wood burnings, a collage and even a couple of paddle sculptures. Mary, my fiancée, painted one of her beloved Sandhill Cranes on her paddle blade, and mine was a “paddle river” created by using a curved “current of grain” from a maple board.
Swenson found it interesting in the many ways artists responded with their affiliation with nature and native peoples, of how artists saw the “canvas” in the blade and stopped there, or saw the blade and the handle as the canvas as a whole. Some artists worked with the characteristics and colors of the wood of the paddle to create an artwork. “Since it was the first time we’ve done something like this, we didn’t know what to expect. But we believed that community artists’ responses would be awesome and they were,” she said.
This was intended partially as a fundraiser for museum with artists paying a small fee to enter, with an option for the paddles to be sold at the end of the exhibit. Some will be, although many opted to keep their creations. Although there was more to it than that. “We have talked about the front of the museum having a temporary gallery being used for art in recent years, and last year we featured the framed prints of woodcuts by the late Charles Beck,” said Swenson. “So we were looking for ideas.”
A member of the museum’s Exhibits, Education and Collections Committee, Jack Driscoll, suggested “applying the concept of ‘mail art’ with paddles being the focus to incorporate art into the exhibit. This sent us on a mad internet search and quickly discovered https://algonquinoutfitters.com/event/ao-charity-paddle-art-auction/ which included samples their beautiful paddles,” she added. An idea was born, or more accurately, shared.
“Blank” paddles were ordered from Cabela’s, and the call was put out through the local Artist’s Guild, for one, along with word of mouth within both the boating and artist communities, and the fun began. As the paddles began streaming in, mostly during the pandemic lock down due to the coronavirus, Swenson and her team got a huge lift mentally, as well as a bit of trepidation … the same sort of fear and concerns most of us had during that time. Would the museum be opened in time for a tourist season … if there was going to be such a season. The museum actually opened on July 1, with the paddle art being part of a temporary exhibit on “Slo Boats” that includes a historic dugout canoe, among others.
“Our original thought was to allow a couple of weeks of People’s Choice voting and then announce winners of that category as well as the Artists’ and Jury’s categories,” said Swenson. “Because of the pandemic, we started rethinking how that will be done, but there will definitely be a public recognition of the project and the artists sometime in the future. Unfortunately, there are a lot of ‘to be determineds’ which is very frustrating.”
Despite the challenges she and the museum are facing, the hangable paddles have been hung in various fashions on darkened panels, with the paddle sculptures placed nearby. While social distancing and masks are requested, the Legacy of the Lakes is open to the public from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday; 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. on Saturday, and from noon to 4 p.m. on Sunday. Besides the paddle art, an immense fishing lure collection and an interesting variety of boats, the museum also has a picturesque park with formal gardens. Legacy of the Lakes is located on Third Avenue West at the very north end of downtown Alexandria.
“It’s been fun and makes an interesting and rather unique display,” said Swenson. And for us, it was fun to be a part of the creative exhibit. No, Natalie Warren’s special canoe paddle isn’t part of the display and is a beauty into itself, but the array of artistic paddles is well worth a visit.