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Visual artist turns the page, walks away from studio and starts writing mysteries

"Prairie Volcano" by Jackie McElroy. Special to The Forum 1 / 5
"Layered Landscapes," by Jackie McElroy. Special to The Forum2 / 5
"Grain Drain" by Jackie McElroy. Special to The Forum3 / 5
"Vacuvator" by Jackie McElroy. Special to The Forum4 / 5
"Prairie Schooner" by Jackie McElroy. Special to The Forum5 / 5

MOORHEAD – The Rourke Art Museum hopes to cash in on a mystery of sorts.

This weekend, the Moorhead institution holds a sale of prints by well-known regional artists Robert A. Nelson and Jackie McElroy, the latter an artist who disappeared from the art scene about a decade ago.

As the story goes, a little bit ago staffers uncovered some intriguing prints by McElroy.

She taught art and art history at the University of North Dakota in Grand Forks, and from 1975 through 1998 created colorful silkscreen prints of the Red River Valley landscape, with fantastical twists. Grain elevators would be uprooted, floating through the air or exploding with vibrant lava. Drains would suck down fields or the sky would be pulled away like a curtain.

Rourke Executive Director Meredith Lynn and Programming Director Kaylyn Gerenz are relatively new to the 55-year-old institution and to McElroy's work. They wanted to learn more about her and what should be done with the prints.

"Prairie Schooner" by Jackie McElroy. Special to The ForumThe problem was that Jackie McElroy the artist disappeared sometime after retiring in 2000 from the art department at UND.

Her disappearance didn't warrant a police investigation or missing posters or stories in the media, but it could be a story for mystery writer Nora Barker. After all, Barker is McElroy's pen name. (Barker is the name of McElroy's grandmother.)

Shortly after she retired, McElroy walked away from the silk screens and started writing a series of thrillers set at a fictional Upper Midwest university. Her protagonist, Christmas (Chris) Eve Connery, is an art historian who stumbles across crime scenes on campus.

McElroy's books, "White Elephant: The Fine Art of Murder" (the emergence of a mysterious painting leads to homicide), "Murder in Primary Colors" (a museum director is found dead on the floor of a successful sculpture exhibit) and "Red Hot and Dead" (human remains are found in a kiln after a ceramics firing) are available on Kindle.

Lynn and Gerenz got in touch with McElroy and asked her if she wanted the prints back or if they should try to sell them. The former artist was surprised there would be any interest in her work.

But there was. The Rourke staff asked her to send more prints, thinking there could be interest in a one-time-only print sale.

"She was surprised people thought of her as a studio artist and not a writer," Lynn says, standing over a stack of 37 prints in her office at the Rourke. "Talking to her, this is not her life anymore. She moved on, and you don't necessarily see that."

Shortly after those prints arrived in the mail, Lynn started showing them to patrons, preselling a handful before this weekend's market. She had to go back to McElroy to see if the artist had more. Luckily, she had stashed duplicates of the images at a friend's house, and about 50 prints will be for sale this weekend.

"It's usually much harder to sell art," Lynn says with a laugh. "You usually have to put some effort into it and engage people, but people really relate to her art."

At this weekend's sale, prices will range from around $100 to $500 for the unframed serigraphs, or silk screen prints.

McElroy did not return phone calls for this story, but talked to The Forum in the past about her work.

"I disliked the landscape when I first came," she told The Forum in 1982. "This landscape is stark and unforgiving, but I learned to love it."

McElroy was also known for using bright colors to illustrate the scenery, a palette that now seems reminiscent of the rainbow and neon hues of 1980s designer Lisa Frank.

"I enjoy using improbable colors and making them work," McElroy told The Forum.

She would mix images, setting a clipper sailing across a wheat field ("Prairie Schooner") or a vibrant sunset swirling down the drain ("Color Drain"), earning her works adjectives like "whimsical" and "surrealist serigraphs" in a 1980 article.

Her work was shown at the Rourke and is in the permanent collection there as well as the Plains Art Museum and other regional institutions. Both the Rourke and the Plains currently have her prints on display in their respective permanent collection exhibits.

"There really are strong storylines in the prints. Her titles are very literary," Lynn says, referring to works like "Grain Drain" and "Day Broken."

Punny titles aside, Lynn said the art itself is serious work that holds up 30-plus years later.

"There's something about her aesthetic that's timeless," Lynn says. "There's an undercurrent of environmental issues that still resonate today, if not more."

If you go

What: Print and drawing sale of Jackie McElroy and Robert A. Nelson

When: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday. Members-only presale, 5 to 8 p.m. Friday

Where: The Rourke Art Gallery Museum, 521 Main Ave., Moorhead

Info: (218) 236-8861