Bob Crowe remembered for art as bright and colorful as his personality
"The best way to learn how to paint is to paint with a painter. It's like having a class with the best artists you know."
FARGO — A lot of area artists look to the landscape for inspiration. Living on the family farm near Comstock, Minn., gave Bob Crowe a more intimate view of the Red River Valley.
“Bob noticed the patterns in the trees a lot more than a lot of other artists. He was very good at focusing on one part of the scenery,” says his longtime friend and fellow artist, Dan Jones.
Artists and art patrons have been thinking and talking about Crowe, his work and his life since the artist died Oct. 29 following a long battle with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.
“Bob was well-known locally for his lush pastel landscapes that offered a glimpse into his everyday life on his beloved family farm,” says Mark Weiler of Ecce Gallery . “Bob was a big character with a booming voice and goofy grin that filled the room like the vibrant expressions of his marks on paper.”
Over the last 12 years, Weiler hosted nine solo shows and a number of group exhibits with Crowe. He was also instrumental in getting his work in high-profile spots like West Acres , Fargo City Hall and in the entry to the Loretta Building , where the family’s Bergstrom Crowe furniture store was once located.
On Sunday, Nov. 7, Weiler will host a reception for Crowe from 2-4 p.m. at 1 Eighth St. S., Fargo.
Crowe grew up in Fargo, across the street from Jones, but left the area in 1979 to work in Texas, Louisiana and around Colorado. He returned in the early 1990s to study art and education at Minnesota State University Moorhead. When Jones opened a gallery in downtown Fargo in the early 1990s, Crowe had the first show there.
Shortly after, they started taking drives into rural areas to paint, or if the weather was bad, to scout sites — what Crowe called, “photo safaris.”
“We’d just try to get lost on rural roads between Fergus Falls and Detroit Lakes,” Jones says. “Bob liked to go for a drive.”
Crowe considered himself a modern-day plein-air painter, a term often used to describe the impressionists who depicted outdoor light and atmosphere. He used a portable easel to set up a studio in grass to capture a scene.
“Pencils, eraser, charcoal, a can of Off, Advil, all the things an old man needs,” Crowe said with a laugh in a 2002 interview about what he brings into the field.
Using pastels instead of paint and a brush, he considered the process more akin to painting than drawing because of his use of colors. He built up the surface of the work, layering one color on top of the other to add visual depth.
“It's like stained glass,” Crowe said at the time. “It's a series of layers. It's almost like sculpting rather than painting. I've gone over a painting as many as 12 times. That's the nice thing about oil pastels is that you can fix it. I can change it if I want to.”
“When he got on the pastels, he really took off,” Jones says.
In a 2014 story about a show of his , Crowe acknowledged influences like 20th century Dutch painter Piet Mondrian and, closer to home, Fergus Falls woodcut artist Charles Beck. His former MSUM teacher, Carl Oltvedt, noted similarities to another artist.
“Bob plays with that so beautifully in terms of marks, directional forces and colors,” Oltvedt said, referring to 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.”
Crowe found such joy painting around his farm he started painter retreats each fall, inviting fellow artists like Oltvedt, Jones, Zhimin Guan, Bob Kurkowski and Jim Conaway to a weekend of painting and camaraderie.
“He was a great guy, charming and one of the most generous people,” Jones says.
The generosity was a family trait. Crowe’s mother, Marjorie Jean Crowe, started painting retreats there in the 1970s.
“She was a giving person and instilled in us to share what we have,” Crowe said in a 2018 interview with The Forum. “I was trying to give back and share like my mother had done. I love it out here so much I wanted my friends to share in that.”
Crowe was interviewed then about a 2018 Rourke Art Gallery + Museum show, "Crowe Farm Retreats : 25 Years Celebrating Art & Nature.” The show featured works by a number of artists who participated in those painting sessions.
“It's helped us become better artists,” Crowe said at the time. “The best way to learn how to paint is to paint with a painter. It's like having a class with the best artists you know. It's a win, win, win, all the way around.”
Days on the retreats began with artists going in their own directions to paint, then meeting back at the farmhouse for elaborate dinners, drinks and critiques.
“We had some outrageous retreats,” Jones says. “There was always a ton of laughing. That’s the thing I looked forward to most was the belly laughs.”
The last painting retreat was just a few weeks ago, in early October, though this time painting took a back seat to talking.
“It was a lot more about saying goodbye,” Jones says, adding that while Crowe no longer had the strength to cook or host guests overnight, he catered in a meal.
Jones says the farm has been sold to make way for the Fargo-Moorhead Area Diversion Project.
“He loved having people to the farm,” Jones says.
"Once you start looking at it as an artist, there's something to paint everywhere," Crowe said in the 2002 interview. "I start dissecting things. I don't just see a blue spruce tree, I see all of its parts. For years I thought the valley was all flat. It took me going out with Carl and Dan to figure out how to see and what to look for… I used to be political and make statements about ecology, but nobody feels the peace I do out here on the farm. I'm just trying to represent the peace and serenity I feel being outside with a friend and working on my art."