DULUTH Claire Lemp answered the door barefoot. She and her family had been investigating their backyard chicken coop. “Am I OK like this or should I put on makeup?” she asked.

After adding a pair of earrings, the Duluth artist was ready for her closeup.

Lemp recently completed a yearlong project in which she created one original painting a week. She coined the series Fancy Lady Friday, and charted her progress on her Instagram account, @clairesahara.

In watercolor and gouache, Lemp captures relaxing Northland snapshots.

 "Campsite Calm" a painting by Claire Lemp seen on Thursday, Aug. 19, 2021, at her home in Duluth.  
Clint Austin / Duluth News Tribune
"Campsite Calm" a painting by Claire Lemp seen on Thursday, Aug. 19, 2021, at her home in Duluth. Clint Austin / Duluth News Tribune

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A woman sits on rocks with her feet in Lake Superior, under blue and gray skies.

Another’s surrounded by grandmother trees and a foggy body of water as she cooks over an open fire. In another image, a woman wades through knee-high water, a camera strapped around her neck and cliffs hovering nearby.

Much of Lemp’s work derives from nostalgia, memory and emotion, she said. “I’m always inspired by feeling and often feeling as attached to a place.”

Lemp started taking her craft more seriously about two years ago, after giving birth.

Taking the time to devote to this process has been valuable on many levels. She now has a body of work to showcase, and she’s learned to let go of perfectionism.

“A lot of artwork is just playing around and making messes. Failure has been a big part of this, and learning from things that didn’t work,” she said.

Some weeks, the art was more detailed than others, and the project felt like a full-time job, but launching Fancy Lady Friday was “life-giving,” she said.

Claire Lemp pages through one of her sketchbooks Thursday, Aug. 19, 2021, at her home in Duluth.  “I used to be so worried about having a really beautiful sketchbook. To have one that’s really messy is really good for me," she said. "I want this to be a space for me that feels really free." Lemp just completed a yearlong project that she coined Fancy Lady Friday, where she completed one original painting a week. She charted her progress on her Instagram account @clairesahara.
Clint Austin / Duluth News Tribune
Claire Lemp pages through one of her sketchbooks Thursday, Aug. 19, 2021, at her home in Duluth. “I used to be so worried about having a really beautiful sketchbook. To have one that’s really messy is really good for me," she said. "I want this to be a space for me that feels really free." Lemp just completed a yearlong project that she coined Fancy Lady Friday, where she completed one original painting a week. She charted her progress on her Instagram account @clairesahara. Clint Austin / Duluth News Tribune

It gave her a sense of focus and purpose during a challenging time.

Two years ago, Lemp began experiencing chronic pain on the right side of her body, high fevers, rashes, sinus infections and stomach problems.

“I saw so many doctors. … I couldn’t trust it would be OK. I felt like I couldn’t trust my body anymore. Nobody had any answers, and I kept feeling so disappointed and hopeless,” she recalled.

She hadn’t experienced that level of loneliness, isolation or grief before, and she felt unable to be present for her family.

“When I started doing art, it felt like a space of release, a space of respite from all that. … I could remember beauty, remember connection and experience,” she said.

“It felt a lot more purposeful than this sickness that I didn’t feel like it had a purpose. It gave me a lot of hope in the midst of that.”

"Hiding Place" a painting created by Claire Lemp seen on Thursday, Aug. 19, 2021, at her home in Duluth. “That is a theme in my life, hiding,” Lemp said. “A lot of me feels most comfortable behind the scenes.”
Clint Austin / Duluth News Tribune
"Hiding Place" a painting created by Claire Lemp seen on Thursday, Aug. 19, 2021, at her home in Duluth. “That is a theme in my life, hiding,” Lemp said. “A lot of me feels most comfortable behind the scenes.” Clint Austin / Duluth News Tribune

This week, Lemp’s dining room was packed with boxes of her prints in preparation for an art fair. She held a piece called “Hiding Place,” in which a woman leans against a flower towering over her as she gazes upon a blooming mushroom. “That is a theme in my life, hiding,” Lemp said.

“A lot of me feels most comfortable behind the scenes.”

This was a joyful painting to create, said Lemp, who recalled getting lost in the process while her son napped. And, many of her pieces conjure specific moments during their creation or nostalgic images from her past.

Not everyone’s drawn to her work, she said, but for those who are, she relishes hearing what her work sparks for them.

Reflecting on Fancy Lady Friday, she said good things happen when you start to take yourself seriously. “I can learn to do the things that I was scared of. … Nobody is going to give me permission except myself,” she said.

Claire Lemp pages through one of her many books that she uses for inspiration on Thursday, Aug. 19, 2021, at her home in Duluth.  
Clint Austin / Duluth News Tribune
Claire Lemp pages through one of her many books that she uses for inspiration on Thursday, Aug. 19, 2021, at her home in Duluth. Clint Austin / Duluth News Tribune

Lemp, her husband, Max, and their son, Gideon, moved into their first house recently. In it, she has her first dedicated studio.

Natural light floods in from two directions onto work tables, built by Max.

An old coffee mug holds her paint brushes along with dried eucalyptus. That latter is mostly for décor but she sometimes uses it for reference.

Her gouache paints rest in a tray gifted for their wedding. “I’m super affected by my environment. … I like to be in spaces that feel right,” she said.

The Northland plays a role in her work — her characters are cross-country skiing, fat biking, or fly fishing — and it has been key in the development of the artist.

“I feel like I’ve come into myself, or come alive, being here,” she said.

An old coffee mug holds Claire Lemp's paint brushes along with dried eucalyptus. That latter is mostly for decor but she sometimes uses it for reference. 
Clint Austin / Duluth News Tribune
An old coffee mug holds Claire Lemp's paint brushes along with dried eucalyptus. That latter is mostly for decor but she sometimes uses it for reference. Clint Austin / Duluth News Tribune

On her shelves are books by illustrator Carson Ellis, one featuring Claude Monet, “The Kinfolk Table” cookbook and many on drawing and color use.

She has stacks of hand-painted color charts, with brush strokes of crimson, sepia, neon green and lavender. Color is her favorite element to work with, and also the most challenging.

Lemp wants her pieces to evoke certain emotions, and she spends a lot of time learning how to mix and use color.

Asked about her go-to color, she was quick to answer.

“Neutral colors are my favorite, but gray has so many possibilities. It can be a green gray, it can be a blue gray, it can be a warm gray, a cool gray, a neutral gray. … I love that grays can add a subtlety and make other things pop.”

"Greenhouse Dreamhouse" a painting by Claire Lemp seen on Thursday, Aug. 19, 2021, at her home in Duluth.  
Clint Austin / Duluth News Tribune
"Greenhouse Dreamhouse" a painting by Claire Lemp seen on Thursday, Aug. 19, 2021, at her home in Duluth. Clint Austin / Duluth News Tribune

Along with her watercolors are colored pencils, there are fancy crayons; high-quality hot press and cold press paper; and a plein-air painting kit.

She flipped through her sketchbook. “I did a life drawing class the other day, so there’s a bunch of naked ladies in here,” she said.

Lemp’s work often features women of different sizes and ethnicities: three women relaxing in a sauna; an Asian woman soaking in a bathtub; a plus-sized woman smiling in sunglasses and a swimsuit.

“I’m aware I’m not perfect in this area or express everything, but that’s a huge goal is to show diversity of beauty because beauty exists in so many different forms,” she said.

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