PARK RAPIDS, Minn. - Park Rapids, Minnesota, is known for the lakes and lands that surround it. Once a thriving timber town, the small community now caters to tourism with more than 70 lakes and six state forests in the area as well as Itasca State Park, the headwaters of the Mississippi River.

While the outdoors are the main attraction, there's a buzz coming from Hubbard County's 117-year-old historic courthouse. The second floor is home to the Nemeth Art Center, and it's attracting not just vacationers, but artists from around the country.

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"Over the last five or six years the Art Center has gradually been moving away from those paintings and focusing on showing contemporary artists' work," Michael Dagen, executive director of the Nemeth. "In that sense it is such an anomaly to find such a contemporary gallery in rural Minnesota."

The Nemeth celebrates its 40th anniversary this summer. The space just closed "The MYSYSYPYN"-the name a twist on the Mississippi River-exhibiting selections from its permanent collection-more than 42 paintings in the style of 16th and 17th Century European Masters-with works by current American artists.

"The Art Center has been a gathering place for creative folks throughout the region," Dagen says.

The operation, however, has European roots.

Nemeth is named after Gabor Nemeth, a Hungarian refugee who fled the Soviet occupation of his homeland in 1956 to resettle in America.

"He had a fascinating life," Dagen says.

According to a 2016 story in the Park Rapids Enterprise, Nemeth arrived in America penniless but the young artist started earning money making pictures for refugee camp guards, "drawing portraits from photos of their girlfriends, wives and more bawdy drawings for the other men."

After leaving the camp he painted impressionistic portraits and landscapes, started a screen printing business and eventually worked for the International Institute for Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works.

In the '60s he and his wife, Edith, moved the family to Los Angeles where he worked as an art restorer and helped an arts collector purchase works by Old Masters.

Nemeth and his family moved to Two Inlets, 14 miles northwest of Park Rapids, in the '70s. Later that decade he held an exhibit of paintings in the style of the Old Masters in a school gym. The show was a hit and attracted 3,000 visitors in a month, Dagen says. Park Rapids residents were so impressed with the display they banded together to take out loans to purchase the works and establish the North Country Museum of Arts in 1977 to help cultivate interest in the arts locally.

"Imagine that now, citizens taking out a loan, getting a loan to buy art work. It's pretty remarkable now," says Dagen, formerly of Fargo.

In 2011, the institution was renamed after Nemeth and the facility is open Thursdays through Saturdays, May through September.

"Wasps" by David Ruhlman is part of a show that opens Friday at the Nemeth Art Center in Park Rapids, Minn. Special to The Forum
"Wasps" by David Ruhlman is part of a show that opens Friday at the Nemeth Art Center in Park Rapids, Minn. Special to The Forum

While the works are in the style of Rembrandt van Rijn, Hieronymus Bosch, Peter Paul Rubens, and Titian, the Nemeth is quick to point out the 42 works are a "study collection," meaning they could've been done by the artists' students or other painters learning from the masters.

Raised just outside of Park Rapids, Aaron Spangler remembers going to the Nemeth regularly as a child because his mother was very involved with it. Since returning to the area from New York in 2010, Spangler and his wife, chef Amy Thielen, have been actively involved with the Nemeth. He's joined the board of directors and uses his connections to bring in exciting artists from around the state and the country.

"It obviously had a big impact on me and that's why I'm interested in keeping it going," Spangler says. "I think it's really important to give rural artists an opportunity and raise the competitive dynamics. When you up the ante in a community, people drive each other to work harder and to make better art ... Talent is created by opportunity."

He points out that the Park Rapids satellite of Fargo's Ecce Gallery adds to the arts appeal in the town, which has a long tradition of supporting creative endeavours.

One of the highlights of the 2016 season was a show by artist Jim Denomie, whose colorful paintings illustrate the American Indian experience. Spangler says that show was the premiere of a sculpture that was eventually relocated to the Minneapolis Institute of Art.

"They've been pushing and promoting contemporary artists that you're not going to see anywhere else outside of the Minneapolis or the Fargo-Moorhead area," Dagen says of Spangler and the board.

Dagen started there three years ago and says the Nemeth-open Thursdays through Saturdays, May through September due to the building not having heat-draws about 1,250 a year, but that he'd like to see grow closer to 5,000 a year.

The next show opens Friday with works by Christopher Harrison and brothers David and Matthew Ruhlman, all with Minnesota connections.

"It's important for us to create a social space for people interested in this kind of thing," Spangler said. "It's a slow burn but every year we get more and more interest."

If You Go

What: Opening reception

When: 4:30 - 7 p.m., Friday

Where: Nemeth Art Center, Park Rapids, Minn.