Lamar Peterson, a Minneapolis artist, is the latest in a number of artists from this area and beyond who are taking time this summer to unplug from their day-to-day schedules and focus on their art at a rural residence in McCanna.

The property, called the McCanna House, was donated to the North Dakota Museum of Art by the late Margery McCanna Jennison and has been used as an artist’s compound since 2010.

The residency, which is open to artists, composers and writers, offers “a place of peace and solitude to unfurl the power of their imaginations, a space to contemplate and work out new ideas without distractions,” Laurel Reuter, NDMOA director, said.

“It’s very quiet here, very calm, especially in the evenings,” said Peterson, assistant professor of drawing and painting at the University of Minnesota. “I can sit with my thoughts and think about the work in a new way.”

Artists can apply for up to a four-week residency in the fully furnished home nestled in a grove of trees that also harbors grain bins and a Quonset.

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Another artist, Barbara Hatfield, who is originally from Thompson and lives in New York, took residency at the McCanna House earlier this month, and six others will be coming from California, Minnesota, New York, North Dakota and Rhode Island.

Peterson, who earned a graduate degree at the Rhode Island School of Design, worked as an artist for seven years in New York City until the economic downturn eight years ago prompted him to pursue an academic appointment.

At the McCanna House, he has been able to disconnect and concentrate on his artwork in the French provincial residence built in 1920 on 10 acres in McCanna, about 37 miles west of Grand Forks.

During his 10-day residency, Peterson created drawings that he intends to translate into large-scale pieces back in his studio in Minneapolis.

“I can’t really haul large pieces back to the Cities, so working with paper and acrylics is an easier way to do that," he said.

He’s also been working on his application for a tenured position in the U of M art department, where he has taught on a year-to-year basis for the past seven years, he said. He’ll know in the fall if he’s been granted tenure.

Time to reflect

The demands of teaching university-level art classes leave little time to reflect and develop his own artistic voice, Peterson said.

“It’s good to be away from all the worries of being in the Cities,” he said of his residency. “There are no distractions here.”

The experience has opened unexplored avenues of visual expression.

“I’ve been thinking of making a change in my work and take it in a new direction,” he said. “I’ve been experimenting and working on ideas, not finished artwork.”

Though much of his approach has been figurative and representational, he said: “I’ve been thinking a lot about abstraction.”

He’s also returning to oil as a medium of choice for a new body of work.

For years, he has worked in acrylics. Some of his art is displayed as part of the “Empower : Power” exhibit through July 7 at the NDMOA.

“Peterson creates graphic portraits of an irrational world where happy characters are resolutely accepting of grotesque misfortune,” according to a news release from the NDMOA.

His work is heavily influenced by the pop culture of his youth, as evidenced by bright colors and bold brush strokes.

As a child growing up in Florida, he collected comic books.

“I still look for comic books in thrift stores," he said.

The subject matter, which reflects his personal experience as an African-American, is executed in a style known as surrealism.

He describes his work as “universal."

“It is whimsical and humorous while simultaneously transmitting a sense of danger, risk or impending misfortune. It blends themes of humor and horror, the ridiculous and the mundane," he said.

Much of his past work has dealt with his “identity as a person of color, as an African-American living in the United States,” said Peterson, noting an increasing interest in the surface of his paintings, as well as “the brush stroke and the physical act of painting.”

Pastoral setting

The McCanna House and its grounds have provided a refuge to explore fresh vision for his art.

The house was built at the direction of Jennison’s mother who fell in love with French Provincial architecture while traveling in Europe, said Greg Vettel, NDMOA exhibition coordinator and registrar.

Her grandfather, Simon McCanna, was one of the first “bonanza” farmers to settle in the Red River Valley in the 1880s.

Jennison engaged Grand Forks architect, Joseph Bell DeRemer, one of the most acclaimed architects in North Dakota, to build a French villa on the family’s farm where she spent much of her childhood, Vettel said. Some of DeRemer’s buildings include the Masonic Temple, United Lutheran Church and St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Grand Forks and the state Capitol in Bismarck.

The two-story-plus-basement McCanna home, with five bedrooms and two full bathrooms, is fully furnished and features an equipped kitchen and a large screened porch that offers a serene view of the natural surroundings.

Upstairs, framed blueprints of the home are displayed in the hallway, along with a framed collection of photos and historical snippets about the home and the McCanna family.

Window casements, with antique iron latches, suggest the age of the structure and the graceful arched doorways reflect the classic French provincial architectural style.

‘Fantastic’ experience

Peterson said he hopes to reapply to the NDMOA residency program in the future.

“And I’ve talked with my colleagues at the U of M about it. I hope the residency opportunity can become more widely known," he said.

He describes the experience as "fantastic."

“I love the green grass and the blue skies," he said.

The idyllic pastoral setting has been a boon to his work as an artist, he said on a recent picture-perfect, 70-something-degrees afternoon.

“On days like this, it becomes an inspiration.”