Sponsored By
An organization or individual has paid for the creation of this work but did not approve or review it.



Grand Forks painters find their happy place

Joan Mullen wore a paint-speckled apron as she recently weaved her way through the large room spiked by giant wooden easels. The lifelong artist and painting instructor paused as she showed one student the right color mix for perfect purple-tippe...

Priti Patel, left, and instructor Joan Mullen study Patel's painting during a recent Park District class at Richard's West Park in Grand Forks. photo by Eric Hylden/Grand Forks Herald

Joan Mullen wore a paint-speckled apron as she recently weaved her way through the large room spiked by giant wooden easels.

The lifelong artist and painting instructor paused as she showed one student the right color mix for perfect purple-tipped clouds and another pupil how to brush on subtle shades of red to bring her barn to life.

It’s not paint-by-numbers, but Mullen insists oil painting is easy enough for beginners.

“We have people who say ‘I can’t even draw a stick person,’” Mullen said with a laugh. “But we say, ‘Come try it.’ You can’t be afraid of a blank canvas. Let’s face it, it’s a $6 canvas. If you don’t like it, you can paint right over the top of it. Oil is very forgiving.”

Mullen was a student in the Grand Forks Park District art classes for years before she became an instructor in 2006.


Each January, as many as 60 students begin the weekly classes held in the small art studio in Richard’s West Park. The season ends with an April exhibit in Choice Health and Fitness.

‘Happy trees’ Mullen and her students said the program has come to be as much about fun and friendship as it is about learning. She demonstrated by flashing the Bob Ross button pinned to her apron. The TV art instructor who gained fame in the 1980s and ’90s later turned into a pop culture icon who was both beloved and ridiculed for his Chia pet-permed hair, blue jeans and “happy little trees.”

It was wisecracking friend and student Arlene Gunderson who gave her the pin, but Mullen joked she wasn’t sure if it was meant as a beauty tip or as a compliment given out of respect.

In any case, it was worth a good laugh to the dozen or so artists gathered last week.

“This class is very casual. It’s very social,” Mullen said.

Then, in typical Ross fashion, she added: “Everybody is happy here. We don’t have a crabby one in the bunch.”

Zauna Synnott, another longtime instructor, said the art classes bring all sorts of people together.

“I think it helps to build community because it’s people from all different walks of life and all different ages,” she said.


Several global UND students have taken part through the years. And in the region, people have come from as far away as Michigan and Hatton, N.D., and Oslo and Alvarado, Minn.

Soothes the soul “Most painters are surprised by what they can do when they first start out,” Synnott said. “They find a talent for it, and it’s a different way for them to express themselves.”

Pam Heisler, Grand Forks, said she’s taken classes since the late 1970s.

“It totally relaxes me. If you need something to be totally stress-free and creative, oil painting will do it for you,” she said. “Sometimes we have so much fun we laugh ourselves silly.”

Mullen recalled one such case when she painted Santa Claus with a head twice as big as it should have been. When no one said a word until she noticed it herself, she pretended to scold them all for keeping quiet.

The artists share plenty of supportive feedback, but that doesn’t mean they don’t like to razz each other.

Artist and studio volunteer Ralph Tack said ever since a former instructor dubbed one of his paintings “Roadkill,” the portrait of his pet cat sprawled in slumber with its legs in the air has been the art show’s official mascot.

“We have a lot of fun, and we even get a little painting in there, too,” Tack said with a chuckle.


Every year there are new students, but many of the same keep coming back.

“It seems like once they start, they really don’t quit,” Mullen said.

And that’s likely the result of the strong friendships developed along the way.

“Joan has taught me a lot about my color because you can’t always get it out of a tube,” Marie Timpe of Grand Forks said. “A lot of times you just make mud.”

Sherrie Kjorsvik of Michigan started coming after her husband died in 2008.

“I just love it here. I really enjoy my painting, and I don’t know what I’d do without it,” she said. “It seems everybody here is just friends. I think some of us will always have to have a connection with Joan even if it’s not here.”

Grand Forks resident Priti Patel is another artist who craves the calming effects of painting.

“I could paint six hours here and never get bored or tired of it,” she said. “It’s fun and relaxing. Whatever you think at home or outside, you leave at home.”

Beginners welcome Mullen said no specific skill level is necessary for the class. The only requirement is for participants to have an interest in learning.

“Everyone paints at their own speed and their own interest level because not everyone wants to paint a monkey,” she said.

On the other hand, Gunderson said cute animals happen to be her go-to. Last week, she painted a cream puff puppy. Earlier, she finished a golden giraffe and a cotton-candy kitten.

“It’s not hard. Everybody can do this,” she said. “You can come to class and express yourself anyway you like.”

The 10-week class costs $58. To learn more, call Mullen at (218) 779-3200.


Related Topics: ART
What To Read Next
Josh Sipes was watching an in-flight movie when he became aware the flight crew were asking for help assisting a woman who was experiencing a medical problem.
Nonprofit hospitals are required to provide free or discounted care, also known as charity care; yet eligibility and application requirements vary across hospitals. Could you qualify? We found out.
Crisis pregnancy centers received almost $3 million in taxpayer funds in 2022. Soon, sharing only medically accurate information could be a prerequisite for funding.
The Grand Forks Blue Zones Project, which hopes to make Grand Forks not just a healthier city but a closer community, is hosting an event on Saturday, Jan. 21, at the Empire Arts Center from 3-5 p.m.