The December show in West Salem’s Marie W. Heider Art Gallery will feature a schoolteacher turned adventurer. When Ellen McDonah retired from teaching elementary school in Holmen a few years ago, she looked forward to having more time to work on her art—something she’s always loved to do.
Still, like many aspiring artists, McDonah struggled to find her own style. Plus, she found that even though she now had more time to work in her studio, inspiration did not always make its appearance.
“Creativity is such a weird thing,” McDonah said. “The harder you chase it the more elusive it is.”
After struggling with that concept, McDonah settled on a strategy that seems to work well for her. “I immerse myself in an adventure and let the inspiration come,” she said. It’s a process she calls “adventurism art.”
It’d be safe to say that when McDonah immerses herself in a situation, she commits totally. In 2014 — the year she turned 60 — McDonah paddled a 14-and-a-half-foot kayak on a 2,350-mile solo journey from the source of the Mississippi to where it enters the Gulf of Mexico. She was not only the first woman ever to accomplish the feat but undoubtedly also the first to bring art supplies along the entire way.
“While traveling on the river, I was overwhelmed with so many images that inspired me—and living outside is so beautiful,” McDonah said.
The trip itself took 107 days. On 73 of those days she was paddling completely alone, while another 24—she called them “zero days”—were spent ashore waiting for rains to stop and/or floodwaters to recede. McDonah discovered that she didn’t have a lot of time for full-scale oil paintings.
“For something like this you really learn to try stuff and if it doesn’t work you need to modify your approach,” McDonah said.
In the end, most of her luminous oil paintings were finished later from sketches she took along the way.
“That’s why my journal was so critical,” McDonah said. “In some ways putting things down in paint is an afterthought for me. I kind of work out in my head what I want to do ahead of time.”
She explained that, after St. Louis the river spreads out so that finding camping spots becomes easier. One of her favorite paintings recalls a magical night she experienced while camping out under an extremely bright moon in Mississippi. “It was just like daylight,” McDonah said.
When McDonah’s journey was over she wrote a book about her experiences. It’s called “One Woman’s River: A Solo Source to Sea Journey on the Mighty Mississippi.” The book, along with paintings and sketches from her trip will be on display during the reception for her at the Heider Center on Thursday, Dec. 7 (the book is also available at her website: ellenmcdonah.com)
One of the paintings from the book—“Saving Higgins Eye Clams—Frontenac, Minnesota” was awarded “Grand Prize Fine Art” in the 2017 Mississippi River Photo and Art Shootout competition. McDonah said she’s looking forward to the Heider show and the reception because it allows her to share larger format versions of the paintings people may have seen in the book. “It really does make a difference,” she said
Meanwhile McDonah said there’s been a good response to the book. “I’ve been speaking about it a lot locally even though I’m not particularly gregarious,” she said. “I think it’s important that I share what I learned on the river—and not only artistically.”
Since her Mississippi River adventure, McDonah found another famous river to be inspired by. This summer she completed a trip down the length of the Missouri. That one she did in two parts during the summers of 2016 and 2017.
As of today, McDonah said she hasn’t decided on what her next adventure will be, but she doubted it would be anywhere but on a river, stream or lake. “I like the water too much,” she said.