‘Prairie Life’ exhibit explores uniqueness of North Dakota

North Dakota artist Michael Dunn talks about his technique during a reception held Tuesday, Oct. 16 for his ‘Prairie Life’ exhibit at the Red Door Art Gallery. The exhibit runs until Nov. 17.

A horizontal line is the demarcation between sky and land. In North Dakota, it may be the tops of a corn crop or the bottom of a thunderstorm. 

Professional artist and art educator Michael Dunn said his current body of landscape paintings features that horizontal line that is so unique to this part of the country. 

For more than 40 years he has taught art and painted for a living. His work has evolved, both in medium and subject matter. 

Dunn’s exhibit, “Prairie Life,” is up now at the Red Door Art Gallery in Wahpeton. A reception was held for him Tuesday, Oct. 16 where he spoke about his techniques, his teaching style and his work.

He has been a wildlife artist for many years, and several of his pieces on exhibit include animals native to North Dakota, but his most recent work takes a wider lens and looks at the bigger picture.

“A theme I have in all my landscapes is that horizontal line. I’ve been getting beyond the subject, I’m working on that. I decided to study North Dakota,” he said. “I’ve made a commitment to a concept – to the uniqueness of our part of the country.”

He explained that an artist needs a relationship to their painting. His landscapes don’t necessarily duplicate an actual location, but rather represent places he’s seen and spent time in.

“It recalls a feeling or thought that was going on with me at that time,” he said.

He uses a custom curved palette to spread paint on thick and textured, layering color over color and scrubbing it in, until he finds the perfect combination. Dunn said one of the things he does at the start of each painting is to lay down a complementary color. If the painting will be primarily blues and greens, he lays down a bright orange or pink to begin with.

“It truly throws your mind off. What it does is creates a translucency so you can see through the colors,” he said.

He teaches his students to work on colored canvas or boards, because a blank white canvas or sheet of paper can be intimidating.

“Our biggest fear is messing it up,” he said, “so putting a complementary color down, now you have to fix this canvas.”

He enjoys working alla prima – or all at once.

In one large landscape with a turquoise sky, he said he worked on the sky alla prima, although it was eight straight hours.

He explained the importance of negative space in his artwork, as well as composition, which he said is often the most neglected part of any drawing.

“The idea is to keep the viewer visually engaged in that space, keep the eye moving around,” he said. 

He also uses shots of unexpected color to draw the eye or stop the eye.

“There’s a reason for every mark,” he noted.

He also shared a bit about his upcoming workshops, offered this Friday, Oct. 19, Saturday, Oct. 20 and Saturday, Oct. 27, all at the gallery’s classroom.

Most of Dunn’s exhibit is for sale through the Red Door Art Gallery. To sign up for one or all of the three workshops, register in advance at the gallery or by calling 701-591-1010.

The Red Door Art Gallery is located at 418 Dakota Ave., Wahpeton.

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