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Artist Nancy Friese: Beauty of the wide open

The work of artist Nancy Friese offers a unique perspective on this region's wide-open scenery that captivated her as a child and inspired a lifelong interest in landscape art.

"Summer Noon" by Nancy Friese. (submitted art)
"Summer Noon" by Nancy Friese. (submitted art)
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The work of artist Nancy Friese offers a unique perspective on this region's wide-open scenery that captivated her as a child and inspired a lifelong interest in landscape art.

As a child, Friese, who grew up in Ohio, frequently visited the family farm near Buxton, N.D., that her great-grandfather homesteaded in 1878. The area is depicted in some of her plein-air paintings.

The exhibit of her artwork, "Nancy Friese: Encircling Trees and Radiant Skies," continues through Sept. 18 at the North Dakota Museum of Art on the UND campus.

Almost every summer, Friese returns for several weeks to the family farm and to the land she has drawn again and again, depicting the expansive fields, sheltering trees and vast skies.

The images she captures, whether in watercolor, oil or acrylic paints, can be as large as 9 feet wide by 5 feet high or as small as 30-by-30 inches. Her prints include woodcuts, etchings, drypoints and monotypes.

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Career in art

For years, Friese, who lives in Rhode Island, headed the printmaking department at the Rhode Island School of Design while working full time as an artist.

She has received numerous grants, awards and honors, including election as an academician in the National Academy Museum and School in New York City. She has been invited to paint at sites such as Monet's gardens at Giverny, France, and in Japan on a Japan-U.S. Friendship Commission.

In Grand Forks, Friese hopes visitors who see her artwork "will feel they can enter into the world of nature, to forget where they're at and get what nature brings," she said. "Being able to have that expanse, that all-encompassing nature, all around you is just a privilege."

Living on the East Coast may heighten her appreciation for the Red River Valley.

"Buxton is an area that's gentle, surprising-very surprising," she said. "For example, all the coulees are full after a rain. At twilight, it's shocking to see the light and color."

Her depiction of these scenes, "is a slow reveal, so people can look at them for a long time-the paint layers, design, color, contrast. It extends the viewing longevity."

Historic ties

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Friese's family roots in rural North Dakota run deep. Her great-grandfather emigrated from Norway in 1873 and, five years later, came to Traill County. He walked with his brother from the Fargo train depot to Buxton.

Friese said her parents influenced her interest in art early on.

"My parents did a lot of arts and crafts-like hooked rugs," she said.

Their generation funneled their creativity into the production of useful things. The next generation-her generation-"made things for nothing," she said, suggesting artistic efforts were linked less to practicality than "the creative urge."

At about age 8 or 9, she started taking private painting lessons, she said. "At 10 or 11, I was painting with oils."

In 1970, Friese earned a nursing degree at UND, but her interest in art never dimmed.

"I stayed with art, but a lot of people drop out. It's a hard lifestyle, a very difficult field," she said. "I could stick with it because of my nursing jobs. I put myself through art school with nursing."

Friese went on to earn a bachelor of arts degree at the Art Academy of Cincinnati. She studied for a year in the University of California-Berkeley graduate program in painting and completed a Master of Fine Arts degree at Yale University.

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She worked as a nurse until landing her first full-time teaching job in 1983. She taught at the college level and in art schools.

Not only is it difficult to maintain a career as an artist, so is the actual work of the artist, she said.

"Creating art takes extreme concentration and dedication all along. It takes incredible effort to get everything to work together intentionally. I think that's the magnetism of being in the creative realm-to think creatively abstractly."

Her artwork has been shown in 170 group shows and 30 solo exhibitions internationally.

"When you find something you can put all your interests in, then you go about solving, creating and advancing artistic ideas," she said.

Students' artwork

In conjunction with Friese's exhibit, artwork by some of her former students-including Todd Hebert, who teaches painting at UND-are on display on NDMOA's upper level.

Hebert, who grew up in western North Dakota, was a graduate student at the Rhode Island School of Design when Friese was on faculty. He earned a Master of Fine Arts degree there in 1998.

The school is considered one of the best in the nation, he said. "It's a top-notch school."

As a prospective graduate student, he remembered, his application "was my Hail Mary," he said.

He and Friese's common ties to North Dakota and their shared interest in landscapes may have paved the way to a friendship that lives on long past Hebert's grad school days. They take note of each other's artististic accomplishments.

"I love her work," he said. "Her work is very direct."

Not unlike the way she persuaded him, as a student, to meet with a "venerable" visiting artist, Sam Gilliam, whom no students had signed up to meet.

"She was like, quit being an idiot and take the meeting," said Hebert. "You should take every meeting with absolutely everyone who comes here."

The conversation with Gilliam proved to be transformational. The experienced artist's comments of Hebert's artwork were "very direct, distilled," Hebert said. "It changed the way I thought about what I did ...

"Now I say the same thing to my students, take every meeting, because you never know what someone can offer you."

Hebert admires Friese's approach to watercolor painting.

"Choosing that as a medium, the way she does, and having to mount that on linen, is uncommon. Her work is unique in its material presence."

The way she uses watercolor "is almost defiant," he said. "She uses it in a way that belies the simplicity of it.

"It's kind of off-beat, kind of quirky and unusual in a delightful way."

If you go ...

• What: Exhibit titled, "Nancy Friese: Encircling Trees and Radiant Skies."

• When: Through Sept. 18.

• Where: North Dakota Museum of Art.

• Museum hours: 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday; 1 to 5 p.m. Saturday and Sunday (closed Labor Day).

• Location: UND campus, 261 Centennial Drive (across from Twamley Hall).

• Admission: Free (suggested donation: $5 for adults and change from children).

• Information: Call (701) 777-4195, email ndmoa@ndmoa.com , or visit www.ndmoa.com .

Pamela Knudson is a features and arts/entertainment writer for the Grand Forks Herald.

She has worked for the Herald since 2011 and has covered a wide variety of topics, including the latest performances in the region and health topics.

Pamela can be reached at pknudson@gfherald.com or (701) 780-1107.
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