Charmingly situated in the back corner of the Peace Plaza downtown, SEMVA Art Gallery is more than just a neat exhibition of local art. SEMVA, which stands for Southeastern Minnesota Visual Artists, is a vibrant community of over 70 local artists.
Comprised exclusively of artisans from Southeastern Minnesota, SEMVA thrives through its collective members who pay monthly rent for exhibit space and work volunteer shifts within the gallery to display and sell their masterpieces. From handling burst pipes in the ceiling to balancing the books, all the artists do their part to bring fantastic creations to Rochester.
The gallery is an experience in itself. Bright, with a friendly ambiance, the outer walls showcase photography and paintings, while the center focuses on handmade jewelry and three-dimensional art from eye-catching, silk-dyed garments to one-of-a-kind sculptures by Tom Evans made from found objects, such as mechanical parts and small plastic dolls.
The artists come from a great diversity of backgrounds and present an interesting mixture of tastes and textures. They have their own sections of the gallery and exhibit pieces as they see fit, so displayed artwork rotates continually.
“I’m just fascinated by all the local artists and talents in the community,” says one customer as she looks at Beth Robbins Keller’s intricately spun Swiss-lace pendants. “I’m only able to come a couple times a year…but it is neat to come back and see an artist whose work you purchased several years past, and here their work has continued and expanded.”
There is also an air of the unexpected in visitors that pass through the gallery, such as musicians passing time after a show or celebrities that stop by while receiving treatment at Mayo Clinic.
“You just never know who will stop in,” describes Sandy Hokanson, vice president of SEMVA and fellow artist in the cooperative. “It’s like, ‘Oh my gosh! The king of Jordan just bought my art!’ and that is such an incredible feeling.”
On the walls are brilliant photographs of local scenes and familiar Minnesota birds, glass ornaments that reflect the light in an imaginative and delicate way, earthy woodwork made from storm-harvested tree branches, bottle stoppers, beautiful vase sculptures and hand-carved spinning tops.
Whimsical miniature birdhouses, carved by Dave Dunn, are designed to be the pull-string for lights or ceiling fans—advertised as “Minnesota State Bird” houses…for the mosquitoes, of course.
There is pottery in all shapes, sizes and colors from original, textured and fun hues found in ‘Bob’s Pot Spot,’ to functional kitchen mortar and pestle sets by Dave Munz to the nature-inspired motifs by Angela Krueger.
Eye-catching paintings in oil, acrylic and watercolors bloom throughout the gallery. Patricia Dunn-Walker’s bold collages juxtapose the softly-detailed botanical depictions by Denise Walser-Kolar just around the corner from HeeJune Shin’s dreamy representations of Silver Lake Park.
Contrasted nearby are the abstract, mixed-media murals and architectural sketches of familiar cityscapes by Gary Seaquist. For those looking for a painting on a smaller scale, prints and cards are also available in various artists’ styles.
Handmade jewelry includes Jane Beleau’s use of vintage Lucite beads to Jill Suk’s quirky bracelets made from recycled bike inner tubes. There are also pieces of intricate metalwork and glasswork, earrings made from turquoise or sponge coral, necklaces of lapis, quartz, gold and silver and netted woven bracelets that stretch or compress to fit any wrist.
“Art is usually a solitary thing,” says watercolor artist Wendy Westlake, “but the gallery provides this incredible opportunity for networking with other artists.”
Whether it is knowledge of art shows, classes or grant opportunities, this thriving community is an invaluable resource for access to information about the art scene within Southeastern Minnesota.
“It is interesting to hear of and learn from other artists’ struggles,” continues Wendy, “from those who are just beginning and even to our most established, successful peers who have international recognition.”
With such a wide variety of experience within the field, every artist is able to contribute, most particularly in the business end of the arts, which takes nearly as much energy and devotion as the creation of the art itself.
Uniquely, SEMVA is essentially a grassroots cooperative of artists who are all driven to create art, in their own ways and on their own time, while supporting and inspiring others to continue to do the same. It is also a great opportunity for local artists to showcase their work, as the gallery is always looking for new talent and encourages anyone who is interested to come and apply.
“So many artists blossom here,” says Sandy Hokanson. “It’s an amazing thing to see how this great variety of people work together, accepting each other’s quirks and helping each other along.”
Twenty years ago, the Peace Plaza was a dead-end corner of nowhere, the historic Chateau theatre boarded up and pigeons holing in the abandoned buildings. A group of artists—then connected by meetings and phone calls and word-of-mouth—needed a steady place to sell and show their work. In a leap of faith, they wrote up contracts and dedicated themselves to the idea of the gallery.
“It took forever for it to be known there was a gallery here,” says Sandy.
But they worked together, for themselves and each other, put on classes, formed a board and made it happen.
“It’s been a wild ride!” Sandy laughs. “It’s like herding cats, but there is the Midwestern modicum of trust, dedication and hard work, and somehow it works. Everyone reaches their happiness level in SEMVA, and we all get out of it what we put in.”
For more information on each of SEMVA’s 70 artists and their work, stop by the gallery or visit www.semva.com.
Amanda Wingren is a freelance writer living in Rochester.