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Illustrating the Valley

magic, whimsy tie together painting, sculpture exhibit

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by Hope Greene photos by Andrea Paulseth

WHAT ARE YOU, CHICKEN? Brianna Capra and Brent Gonyea show off some of their creative creatures.
WHAT ARE YOU, CHICKEN? Brianna Capra and Brent Gonyea show off some of their creative creatures.

I found Brianna Capra perched on a wooden bench amid her tools, paintings, and labels in the middle of setting up the Gatherings & Recollections collaborative exhibition at the Volume One Gallery. In the background of our conversation the sculptor Brent Gonyea energetically whirled about the room putting the final touches on hanging his half of the show. When I asked her about being an artist in the Chippewa Valley, she said, “It is so much better for artists here than it used to be. I think there’s a renaissance going on in Eau Claire, and I’m really happy to be showing here in this space.”

Capra has had a long-running artistic career in the Chippewa Valley. She now lives outside Menomonie, on the banks of the Chippewa River very close to where she grew up, continuing to be influenced by the very landscape that first inspired her to explore art making as a child. Capra studied art at the Glasgow School of Art in Scotland, and at the Minneapolis College of Art and Design where she earned a BFA in sculpture. She is well known locally for her illustration work, most notably in children’s books, and she has been involved in starting community arts initiatives such as the Open Air Festival of the Arts.

Early on, Capra started to make art based out of a response to the natural world she lived in paired with her native imagination and skill. She says, “I have always loved children’s book illustrations, and I still leaf through them today.” As an illustrator, her impish eye presents windows into a compassionate and magical space playfully cradled in curving and off-kilter lines, crosshatched or watercolored, softly glowing or intensely textured. There is a group of small watercolors in the corner of the gallery representing this more well-known work.

“Do you see that painting there with the river in it? That’s what you see out the window from my kitchen table.This is what it looks like to be home. – Brianna Capra, on how the Chippewa Valley inspires her paintings

Capra spoke of the difficult decisions she faces an artist and entrepreneur: On one hand, a book can have 30 paintings in it and be affordable to a lot of people, while on the other hand an original artwork will have a fairly small pool of buyers, but be itself a much more highly charged and precious object. She says, “There is a huge amount of artistic talent here, but the population of art buyers is very small.” When asked whether she would consider relocating to an area where buyers were less scarce, she simply said, “This is where I live. Do you see that painting there with the river in it? That’s what you see out the window from my kitchen table. This is what it looks like to be home.” So Capra has embraced a practice of reproducing her paintings in order to sell them as prints and widen her audience and ability to build a solid connection with the people around her, most of whom are not in the market for the exquisite and rare original oil painting.

All that said, standing here in the gallery we are surrounded by original oil paintings. The majority of her work exhibited here was not created for commercial projects, but to focus on the soul of the artist. “I wanted to paint in oil again and I was interested in orbs. That and chickens. And this seemed like the perfect place to show something new.” These oils sustain the magical quality of the book illustrations, but also incorporate the more primal, darker sense of her previous studio art. A collection of circles and crescents occupy space in these works, their archetypal form suggesting at the same time and in the same canvas the orbs of heavenly bodies, halos, cell structure, bubbles, eggs, the self, all presented in a open-ended mythical way. The circular forms share the compositions with realistic portraits of humans and fowl creating a dreamlike or theatrical setting where the particular interacts with the mystical. As illustrations the paintings offer a story, but slip through meanings, weighted as they are with symbolism and cannot be pinned to a single interpretation.

Capra’s oil paintings pair well with the sculpture work of Gonyea, also collaborating in this exhibition. His side of the gallery is again populated by archetypal forms, but these forms are personalities, characters such as the Sheriff or the Clown. Gonyea’s work shown here consists of large mask objects made from locally found or industrial materials. He exudes a great affection for the pieces, calling them by name and describing the evolution of their creation as a conversation, using the making of art as a way to explore a personal whimsical language that he hopes will resonate with meaning to others.

Together, these artists have found their inspiration and practice to be fed by the patterns, energy, and forms of the rural Chippewa Valley. Describing themselves and their practice as nothing more complicated than “being human creatures living in and loving a natural world,” they discover in the process deep meaning and abundant communion in this place that all of us living here can call home.

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