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Museum series pushes regional artists to bigger stage

A series of portraits of Mollie Douthit's good friend, Skylar Brennan, whom she painted during her stay in Ireland, is part of the Art Makers Series at the North Dakota Museum of Art. (Photo by Eric Hylden/Grand Forks Herald)1 / 3
Mollie Douthit mixes paints to capture the exact blue of the sky as she works on a canvas at the home of her parents, Chris and Kate Douthit, in Grand Forks. (Photo by Eric Hylden/Grand Forks Herald)2 / 3
A series of paintings, created while Mollie Douthit was living and studying in Ireland, is part of the "Art Makers Series" exhibit at the North Dakota Museum of Art. (Photo by Eric Hylden/Grand Forks Herald)3 / 3

While living and studying art in a tiny village in Ireland in the past few years, Mollie Douthit would set out from her home and walk a mile-and-a-half to spend Sundays with a rabbit.

"I would sit in the shade with a white rabbit named Joey," said Douthit.

"Sometimes I would have to wait a few hours before Joey would be calm enough to sit for a few moments. The pressure of not knowing when she would move allowed me to put paint on canvas in a very direct, honest manner.

"When she was ready, I was ready. Then I painted and she rested."

Douthit, 30, a Grand Forks native, moved to Ireland in 2014 to earn a master's degree in fine arts at Burren College of Art in Ballyvaughan. In the past year she was a visiting fellow at Burren College.

Paintings of Joey, the rabbit, and her pal Ginger, a guinea pig, are among the many pieces featured in the "Art Makers Series" on display through July 30 at the North Dakota Museum of Art on the UND campus.

Launched in 2015, the series introduces museum visitors to regional artists "who seem to be on the edge of a breakthrough in their work," said Laurel Reuter, director of the NDMOA.

The opportunity to exhibit their work at the NDMOA is a boost to artists' careers, she said.

"It's good for artists to see all of their work on the wall, not just a piece in a show with many other artists. It means they are taken seriously."

Douthit is the fourth artist, and only Grand Forks native, to be selected for the series.

"Mollie is an artist who is working very hard at developing as a painter," said Reuter. "She has thrown herself into her work. ... She is at a critical point in her development."

Reuter has acquired two pieces in the Douthit show for the NDMOA permanent collection.

"Mollie has become an artist to pay attention to," she said.

Douthit's exhibit is titled "Mollie Douthit: Paintings."

"It is such a diary," Douthit commented, as she walked among her paintings recently on the mezzanine of the museum.

"It's nice to hang out with them. It's just comforting—like a place of quiet calm."

She doesn't think about what she wants the viewer to take away from her paintings—or even what to think when they see them, she said.

"I think that would be dishonest; it would be more performative. Everyone makes their work for different reasons."

She's more interested in the viewer sensing "how I feel while or after I paint," she said. "I want you as a viewer to just enjoy it, or leave it."

It may be her connection with the subject, coupled with her exacting use of paint, that draws one in and evokes a sense of familiarity. She chooses to paint common items or scenes that have caught her attention and sparked a desire to document them in still life.       

The painting, “Frozen Desire,” is an example. It’s a mostly wintery-white image engulfing the features of a face.  

“When I painted it, I was really missing home,” she said. “It’s a self-portrait.”

As a painter, knowing when to put down the brush for the final time is crucial. Looking at the portrait, she said, “Damn, I stopped there; good.

“Painting is so much about listening to yourself. You just know when it’s done, when it becomes its own thing, because you’re inside the painting. Then you take a breath and you exit.”

A painting of a moon recalls nostalgia for her family.

“I felt a connection to the moon and certain stars,” she said. “There’s something about the moon, and the idea that they (her family) were looking at the same one.”      

Born and raised in Grand Forks, Douthit is the elder of Chris and Kate Douthit's two daughters. The 2004 graduate of Red River High School earned a bachelor of fine arts degree at UND and went on to study at Boston's School of the Museum of Fine Arts.

Then, in Ireland, "I spent significant time there and in Europe developing my artistic voice," she said.

Among the numerous awards and honors she has received, Douthit is most pleased with the 2013 Hennessy Craig Award from the Royal Hibernian Academy in Ireland. The $10,000 award "kept me financially afloat so I could pursue painting," she said.

She has spent two years "thinking about what could my voice be in painting" and preparing for the NDMOA show, she said.

"I'm just happy to be at this point in my career. I'm so proud of the show. ... I feel good about this work. I feel it's me."

Small but powerful

William Wosick, a Grafton, N.D., native who has underwritten the Art Makers Series at the NDMOA, is avid art collector.

"I was struck by the simplicity and complexity of Mollie's work," said Wosick, a Fargo radiologist. The pictures are "small, and yet they have tremendous power."

"These are simple subjects brought to a different light, to allow us to see simple things in a different way and to appreciate their value and quality."

"Some artwork causes us to stop and just pause for a moment—to stop and to look and to think," Wosick said. "Mollie's work does that to me."

Douthit's paintings represent "a cozy, warm, very strong exhibition," he said. "And it's a reflection of where she is right now."

Wosick owns several hundred artworks, including three paintings by Douthit.

"I enjoy the works of artists in their early years," he said. "Sometimes it's raw, unrefined, unpolished. Sometimes artists wander in different directions, but it's true to who they are—that's why Mollie's work is so important. Who knows where time will take them?"

Douthit's study of acclaimed artists in eastern U.S. and European galleries has been important to her development as an artist, said Reuter.

"It's very important to young artists—and Mollie has done this—to develop their visual language. She has seen lots and lots of art. She has taught herself how to see."

That ability is evident in her paintings, Reuter said.

"Mollie doesn't put down a stroke of paint without knowing where it's going and why."