Athena Gracyk is well aware of the challenges of watercolor painting — that’s why she considers any courageous soul who works with it a “risk-taker.”
“Watercolor appeals to people who have a bit of a wild streak,” says Gracyk, who has explored the medium for nearly 20 years. “You’re working with the element of water, which is very wild. It’ll go where it wants to go.”
As president of the Red River Watercolor Society, Gracyk surrounds herself with artists who embrace the beautifully chaotic element to create captivating works of art. To provide an avenue for water-based painters to share their work, the group hosts its 26th annual National Juried Watermedia Exhibition at the Hjemkomst Center, 202 First Ave. N., until Aug. 10. The exhibition features 48 pieces by artists from around the country and is the largest of its kind in the Upper Midwest.
Although the competition originally accepted only watercolor works, the Red River Watercolor Society expanded it to include all watermedia in recent years, like acrylic on paper, water-based ink and gouache.
“Any media that is water-based is eligible, but (the painting) has to be on paper,” Gracyk explains.
Each year, the volunteer-run organization hires a juror to sift through hundreds of entries and find up to 50 pieces that they believe “exemplifies the best watercolor work today,” Gracyk says. The juror this year is Iain Stewart, a renowned watercolor artist from Alabama who specializes in urban landscapes.
In addition to choosing pieces to display in the show, Stewart selects the winners to be announced at a public reception from 6-8 p.m. Tuesday, June 18, and leads a watercolor workshop throughout the week. Gracyk says one of her favorite parts of the annual exhibition is walking into the gallery in the lower level of the Hjemkomst Center and observing the overall tone and aesthetic through the juror’s eyes.
“You can see a lot about an exhibition that someone has chosen when you look at all of the pieces together,” she adds.
When jurying any exhibition, Stewart says he looks for multiple factors, like technical ability, strong design, use of value and mood, just to name a few. But he also looks for a sense of individuality and expression of emotion.
“What I look for above all else is what the artist is trying to say and if they have done so in a way that surprises me,” Stewart says. “(The) joy I take in viewing a painting has everything to do with how the artist expresses their idea and the overall narrative.”
Selected works range from first-time entrants to seasoned members of the Red River Watercolor Society. Many artists enter every year to try to attain signature status, which is conferred upon artists who are accepted into the National Juried Watermedia Exhibition three times in a 10-year period. Submitted work must differ each year to be qualified, Gracyk explains.
“(Signature status) indicates a high level of proficiency in watercolor painting,” she adds.
Although the society has hosted this exhibition for 26 years, a group of 13 women artists started the organization in 1989 to promote education, achievement and inspiration for watermedia hobbyists and professionals. Nearly 200 artists are part of the group today, with about two-thirds from outside the Red River Valley. Gracyk says anyone is welcome to join for $25 a year.
“There is no admission test,” she adds with a smile. “We have members who are brand new artists and only have an idea that they want to do something with painting, and we have long-standing artists who have been working for many years to hone their skills.”
Gracyk says she’s excited to see the set of works in the exhibition this year and expressed gratitude to her team of dedicated volunteers, who are the reason the organization and exhibition are still going strong.
“An organization like this cannot continue without generous, skillful and kind-hearted volunteers who have a good sense of humor,” Gracyk says. “Our volunteers are gold and we value them so much.”
For more information on the Red River Watercolor Society, visit www.redriverws.org.
What: 26th annual National Juried Watermedia Exhibition reception
When: 6-8 p.m. Tuesday, June 18 (exhibit runs through Aug. 10)
Where: The Hjemkomst Center, 202 First Ave. N., Moorhead
Cost: Free and open to the public
This article is part of a content partnership with the Fargo Forum and originally appeared in print on Monday, June 17, 2019.