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Family farm inspires colorful work of Bob Crowe

Bob Crowe has a new show of pastels and charcoals on display at ecce gallery. Special to The Forum1 / 4
Artist Bob Crowe looks at the landscape, the frequent subject of his work, on his farm near Comstock, Minn. John Lamb / The Forum 2 / 4
Special to The Forum3 / 4
Special to The Forum4 / 4

FARGO – Sitting on a small, screened-in porch on a sunny, summer mid-morning, Bob Crowe looks out at some of the 280 acres that push his farm house/studio back to the Red River.

He’s asked how much of this land, a family farm for over 40 years, inspires his art.

“Absolutely every part of it,” he says, nodding toward a shelter belt, explaining that he’s depicted the scenery numerous times in his art, but always with a different take.

At 62, Crowe is in his prime later in the game than some other artists, but making up for lost time. He has a new show of pastels and charcoals on display at ecce gallery and earlier this summer unveiled a high-profile triptych in the Loretta Building.

The ecce show has all of the elements that make him one of the most easily identifiable artists in the area. Vibrant color. Energetic lines and space. Landscapes that paint a picture deeper than just the paper.

“Bob’s work has become more refined. This is one of his finest collections that he’s done,” says ecce owner Mark Weiler. “With his new work, he’s exploring some different modern painters and the work he’s been inspired by.”

Some of the influences are so obvious they’re part of the title. You don’t need to read the label for “Mondrian’s Forest” to catch the nod to the colorful grids of Piet Mondrian.

“Those are really abstract,” he says of the piece and its companion, “Hillside with Sumac and Young Maples,” both featuring square leaves of red, orange and gold shooting stretching out of tree trunks.

“That really just happened,” he says, explaining that’s just how he instinctively drew the scene rather than as a pre-determined nod to Mondrian. “Sometimes you have to be open to just seeing things happen. If you spend your life drawing trees and nature, it’s fun to work with them in different ways.”

Another piece shows a very different influence. “First Snow, Last Night” is compositionally similar to Fergus Falls’ artist Charles Beck’s woodcut, “Early Snow,” with its stylized barns and trees.

“He was a huge influence on me,” Crowe says of Beck. “He was one of the innovators in this area.”

Crowe’s former-teacher-turned-contemporary, Carl Oltvedt, sees another artist in Crowe’s work

“Bob plays with that so beautifully in terms of marks, directional forces and colors,” Oltvedt says, praising his former student for his sense of patterns. “There’s this great illusionistic depth in them, and it’s like listening to Bach with all of these themes going in and out, but still the rhythm is in the music.”

Weiler sees a whole other influence in the work.

“This last winter was brutal on many of us and I think artists were able to reflect on that in their work. Some of the moodiness of this work came through that period,” Weiler says.

Crowe says the winter, his suffering from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease – which requires him to often to carry an oxygen tank – and concerns over the Red River diversion made it tougher to focus on work last winter, but that it was still a productive season.

“It was hard to keep it fun and light this last winter.... Yet the pieces came out very bright,” Crowe says. “I’m trying not to get too depressed about the weather or the diversion. (The weather) has to affect you. When you have a day like today, it saves your love for this part of the world. This is why I live here.”

He’s now looking forward to opening up the farm to 10 or so painters from Fargo and Minneapolis, like Oltvedt, Dan Jones and Zhimin Guan for an annual artist’s retreat. He says having city artists come out to his farm offers them landscape to work with and gives him opportunities to keep learning.

“It takes 2½ or three hours to be out here before the city gets out of your blood,” Crowe says. “People don’t relax any more. They’re too tense.”

He hopes his work helps people relax by looking at what he sees daily. He says that at shows viewers will insist they know the scene, even if they’ve never been to his place.

“I’m trying to find a place for people to find some peace and quiet,” he says. “Art has to capture the imagination of people without the tricks of TV. If you create it correctly, people relax when they see it.”

He stops and stares and quietly tells me to turn around slowly. On a clothesline he has turned into a bird feeder is a large, pileated woodpecker. Seconds later a goldfinch joins the feeding party

“It’s truly a wonderful spot. I think maybe I’m trying to share this with people the best I can,” he says. “Yeah, there are mosquitoes in the summer and it is cold in the winter, but it’s beautiful. It’s really beautiful.”

IF YOU GO WHAT: New pastels and charcoals by Bob Crowe

WHEN: through Aug. 10

WHERE: ecce gallery, 216 Broadway

INFO: Gallery open from noon to 6 p.m., Tuesday - Sunday