As Matt Wagner read aloud to his young son last year, one of the toddler’s favorites was a board animal book: Elephants, cats, hamsters – pictures of random creatures of all kinds.
But as happy as artist and teacher Winona was to have found a must-have book for his son, something was nagging at him.
“I thought to myself, ‘I wonder if there’s an animal collection that exists locally and regionally that I could read to my son,'” he recalls. “And those might be animals that he can see more often. And then he might relate to them. We might read about it and we might go out and hike and meet some of those animals. And after I did some research with this and found there weren’t many.
While there was certainly some animal artwork found locally, when it came to a collection aimed at children, “there really wasn’t anything like that out there”.
Wagner’s solution: create his own artwork for a forward-looking book, celebrating some of the diverse creatures found on the cliffs and lowlands of southeastern Minnesota’s scenic Driftless Area.
It’s the inspiration for “Animals of the Driftless,” an exhibition of black-and-white prints created by Wagner, on display at the Winona Arts Center through the end of June. The gallery is open on Wednesdays and Sundays.
The Driftless area was left relatively untouched by glaciers during the last ice age, resulting in steep cliffs and deep valleys.
“The area is so beautiful. There are geographically unique areas to explore. You have high cliffs and very low backwaters. And there’s just great diversity and opportunities to be on the outside,” Wagner said. “So I thought it would just be a great way to show that and a great way to celebrate the animals here. And now to have a (young son) and just kind of see things through his eyes – that was fun to go back and take a second look at the beautiful nature we have.
After finding inspiration, Wagner applied for and received an Emerging Artist Fellowship from the Arts Council of Southeastern Minnesota, to create a set of prints.
The 12 prints currently on display in the exhibit include images of a brook trout, a North American beaver, a timber rattlesnake and Skipper Ottoe – a butterfly listed as endangered. in Minnesota.
Wagner consulted friends familiar with the local environment to create a shortlist of animals – a varied representation of animals important to the region.
Then Wagner chose which ones would work best for creating prints – a specific species of dragonfly, for example, from 20 to 30 options.
Creating each sculpture to make the prints took about five to seven hours. Then there was the painstaking printing process, to get everything just right.
It takes time, but Wagner, 32 — who graduated from Winona State University and now teaches art and work-based learning from grades 9 through 12 at the Winona Area Learning Center — has said he was drawn to the story of engraving. He also loves how it simplifies shapes and designs, and it gives him the chance to share his work with more people.
“If you spend 20 hours on a sculpture, you can at least do as many (prints) as you want, instead of doing a really long drawing, and you only have one,” he said. he declares. “And I love giving my stuff away and sharing it and just spreading it out so people hang up.”
Wagner said he was pleased with the feedback he has received on the prints since the show opened last month. He’s planning another show this year at the Blue Heron Coffeehouse in Winona, and as for turning the prints into a book – “the gears are moving for that.”
“Opening the exhibit, it was a bit surreal to see people walking around and admiring everything,” he said. “I just hope this is an opportunity to learn more about an animal that they didn’t know existed, that might be in their own backyard.”
The exhibition also offers visitors the opportunity to hold and feel the sculptures used to make the engravings. It’s something Wagner’s son Beck also enjoyed – taking the project back to its source of inspiration.
“He watches them a lot,” Wagner said. “And it’s fun. He will say, ‘What is this?’ And I’ll say, “a snake,” or whatever – and yes, he likes it. It’s cool to see.
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