ELY, Minn. — In Wendy Rouse’s art stash, you’ll find the usual paints and brushes — also plastic babies, a tiny toy construction worker and an RX bottle containing dead bugs.
“A friend in San Diego sent those,” Rouse said, standing in her studio. “One might be a cockroach. The other one, that blue-green one, is some kind of scarab.”
Longtime Northland creative Rouse uses all sorts of “models” in her oil paintings that are earnest and playful with a touch of magical realism.
In one, a brown elephant, trunk raised, peeks its head from behind native grasses and rock, his reflection floating below. Toy figures, male and female, ride a canoe around a big boulder with M&Ms on board and a crescent moon above. A Tonka truck carrying native grasses sits among rocks, a single crow on its hood. Some are so crisp, they look like photographs.
Rouse was born and raised in Duluth. She moved away several times, to New York and San Francisco, but it’s the north woods that drew her back.
Penny Clark of Lizzard's Art Gallery & Framing in Duluth said they’ve shown Rouse’s work since before her time. She has pieces on display there now, and last year, the gallery hosted Rouse’s show, “What Goes Around.”
Her technique is detailed, exquisite, almost always whimsical, and her body of work as a whole is bright, clear and crisp. Even if some of her subjects are dark, her colors seem to pop off the board, Clark said.
“She is probably one of the premiere artists in our area as far as her style," she said. “She could sell in Chicago, she could sell in New York.”
When they first met, Clark said Rouse was more quiet and modest than she expected. “She doesn’t seem to have an overwhelming ego. She just paints.”
Rouse uses her guest house as her studio. Its red exterior matches that of the home she shares with her husband, tucked near a wooded area, the Shagawa Lake in their backyard.
The workspace has a vaulted ceiling, a ladder leading to the second floor, a fireplace and bathroom. “The only flaw is when company comes, I have to clean up all my painting stuff,” Rouse said.
She recently added some aquatic plants to a painting. They sat in a fish bowl of murky water as a point of reference. Her studio can be messy, she said, with different projects and plants in various stages of decline.
Rouse said she will dig up daisies, buttercups, forget-me-nots and bring them into the studio for “little forest still lifes.” She loves working with nature, and for her, the little plants symbolize life.
“It’s so fragile, it seems so impermanent, and then it’s all gone in an instant," she said.
A mix of figurines can be spotted throughout the studio. She finds some in vintage shops or on the garbage pile, and they pop up in various places around the studio. Look up for the toy battleship on an overhead beam.
In one corner of her space is a short cabinet with hand drawings. There’s a radio with CDs by Elvis, Tony Bennett, Van Morrison, but Rouse doesn’t listen to them. Either the radio’s on when she’s working, or her preferred genre: silence.
Rouse worked in watercolors for 20 years, but switched to oils because she was “craving darkness and density” in her work. She opted for more realism in her paintings to draw people into another world. “It’s kind of my way of saying, ‘You can’t believe everything you see, so take life with a grain of salt.’”
Her latest was of blooming strawberries and grasses in front of a taped-up bright yellow background. It gleamed like a highlighter.
An oil painting can take months to dry properly, and if there are mistakes, Rouse said she will sand it down or paint over it.
“If left to my own devices, I would just paint, and I’d probably wither away; it’s not really good.”
Creativity has been a way to escape to a safe place, she said. It can bring people together, and it’s a way of seeing the world, she said.
After a strong reaction to the news of the day, Rouse painted “Political Figures,” a large piece with presidents, the pope, and more depicting stark and seemingly benign moments in time.
“After I painted a picture of them, I felt like I could move on," she said. “It helps to get things out of my system.”
Rouse said she understands history through art, noting works by Hans Holbein, a big influence. “The more you look closely at something, the more it applies to everything," she said.
Her tips are to follow your instincts even if it’s goofy; follow your heart, paint your strangest ideas or sculpt them or photograph them.
“That’s where you’re going to find out more about yourself. And art is, for me, it’s been finding out about myself.”
More info: wendyrouse.com