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Artists form co-op to exhibit on Main

The Blank Canvas has opened on Main, with members manning the arts cooperative. Bickey Bender, left, is president of the board. Scott Stewart, a writer, handles public relations and artist Janine Merrick, a Stony Creek Artist, is among the exhibitors. Artists, writers and musicians are among the members. (Jean Ruzicka / Enterprise)

An artists' venue has opened on Main Avenue, Blank Canvas, as the name allegorically implies, holding an ever-evolving display by area talent.

The idea for Blank Canvas Gallery and Education Center was sparked a year ago when Alan Zemek - attorney, entrepreneur and author - approached artist Bickey Bender on forming a cooperative and using the former armory for exhibitions.

"I took a deep breath," Bender recalls of the proposal, "and told him I'd think about it." As a member of a co-op in Fargo, she had experience with such an initiative.

She broached the idea to the Park Rapids Lakes Area Arts Council and e-mailed members of the White Birch Artists to measure interest. She received a mixed reply.

Meanwhile, Scott Stewart and Denise Gulbranson, both non-exhibitors as a writer and dance studio owner, respectively, expressed an interest.

The trio began speaking with artists - Terri Young, Judy Wegenast, Karen Sharbo and Steve Beaubien among the initial contacts.

The corps of seven artists, along with Wegenast's husband, Jerry, a CPA, began scouting sites.

They came upon the location adjacent to the Jack Pine Café, learning the building had a new owner, Todd Olson.

By Halloween, the group decided to give it a go and presented the concept to interested artists. The intrepid entrepreneurs began writing grants, looking for corporate and individual sponsors.

By early spring, "we were chomping at the bit to get in," Bender recalled, the building's finishing work completed by the co-op members.

The gallery opened Memorial Day weekend, 16 artists exhibiting a range of media. A board of directors has formed, Bender at the helm as president, Young as vice president and Gulbranson the secretary-treasurer. Four Stony Creek Artists are among the juried exhibitors.

"I marvel at how it looks," Bender said of the "professional" exhibit.

"Minnesota is known for its strong presence of artistic talent," Stewart said. "The gallery reflects the quality of life that draws people to the area."

"We are trying to show how art can enrich lives," Bender explained.

A focus of the gallery will be education, for kids and adults. Cuts in school funding have diminished the role art plays in the curriculum. Blank Canvas hopes to correct this, with a variety of outreach programs in the planning phase.

"We dream big," Stewart said. "We want Park Rapids to be an arts destination."

Blank Canvas exhibiting artists include Paul Albright, wood sculpture; Steve Beaubien, oils, watercolor and folk art carving; Bender, watercolor, acrylic and mixed media with handmade paper; Sandy Fynboh, blown glass, lamp work and jewelry;

June House, watercolor; Jon and Lucy Norman, wood and glass; Gayla McElroy Orr, watercolor, collage, oil and glass; Janine Merrick, watercolor, oil pencil, portraits and pastels; Sharbo, watercolor, collage, oil and glass;

Alretta Skellenger, gourds; Young, pastel, watercolor, pencil, acrylic, oils, photography and clay; Peter Young, clay and pottery; Ray Wattenhofer, oil; Judy Wegenast, oil, pastel and watercolor; Jerry Wegenast, woodturning and artistic wood furniture and Tarah Lynn Wolff, photography.

Plans also call for annual art fairs.

The gallery on the third block of south Main is open from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Saturday and noon to 4 p.m. Sunday.

A summer solstice grand opening celebration will be held from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. Monday, June 21 with a variety of music groups performing, another facet of the artists-writers-musicians co-op.