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Art Fair

La Crosse potter Ann Goldman, featured in the upcoming 2018 Art Fair on the Green, works in her basement studio.

Pete Sandker is a believer in happy accidents.

A wayward splash of dark paint on an otherwise perfect field of daisies morphed into what would become one of the watercolor artist’s most popular works, “Summer’s End,” inspiring a series of paintings featuring a floral-tailed fox and an inky black crow.

Pete Sandker

Pete Sandker, La Crosse artist

“It turned out it was really meant to be,” Sandker said of the splotch, which evolved into one of his hallmark birds. Seated amidst the black-eyed susans and valerian blooming from the plumed tail of a petite orange fox, the oversized crow provides a striking contrast and a whimsical quality, brought to life with brush strokes so intricate they pass for ink.

Sandker, 38, of La Crosse, is a master of detail, a lifelong drawer who worked first in acrylic, watering it down over and over to achieve the realism he desired before switching to watercolor a decade ago. Now working exclusively in the medium, Sandker has developed a following on Etsy and local art shows, and will be one of the featured artists at this weekend’s Art Fair on the Green.

Celebrating its 60th anniversary, the fundraiser for the American Association of University Women returns Saturday and Sunday on the UW-La Crosse campus with over 90 artists working in mediums including pastels, basketry, stained glass, sculpture, woodworking and photography. The event draws around 3,500 visitors annually, with all admission proceeds going toward AAUW scholarships and grants. Since 1958, the organization has given $500,000 to community causes and scholarships benefiting women and girls.

Pete Sandker

"Crested Birds of North America" by La Crosse artist Pete Sandker. The watercolor painting features a trio of foxes inspired by blue jays, cardinals and titmouse. 

This will be Sandker’s third year at Art Fair on the Green, a show he loves for its relaxed atmosphere and tree-filled location. A nature lover, Sandker’s paintings are largely centered on animals, foliage and lake scenes, with much of his inspiration emerging during long walks in the woods, where fully formed images tend to pop into his head, ready to be put on paper.

The former landscaper didn’t always have time for art, set to start the physical therapy assistant program at Western when he realized it was time to follow his passion. A career artist for the past year, he was encouraged by friends and family members to pursue his talents, his aunt, an art teacher, convincing him after she marveled at his creations.

“She was blown away,” Sandker recalled. “She said, ‘You have to do this. You’d be nuts not to.’”

Making a living as an artist is a struggle for many, but Sandker has found his paintings resonate with people of all ages, including the men who approach him at shows to confide they don’t like art but they like his. A rendition of Madeline Island in Lake Superior, featuring a trout with scales so realistic they shimmer, is one of Sandker’s most popular, along with a four-season series of elegant peacocks. The serene, delicate imagines remind many of book illustrations, a pursuit Sandker may try in the future.

The portability of watercolor — Sandker frequently takes his palette to the park for some painting — appeals to him, as does the calm that washes over him when his focus is solely on the brush stroke. He spends four to five hours a day painting, with a single piece consuming up to month of his time, and allows the experience to be fully cathartic, leaving the image’s dissection to the viewer.

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“It’s almost kind of as mysterious for me as for them,” Sandker said. “I like to paint for someone out there who will appreciate it and tell me what it means. It’s been kind of weird and pretty exciting to hear people see something that’s really meaningful to them.”

Fellow Art Fair on the Green artist Annie Goldman has been throwing pots since before Sandker was born, and yet there is nothing she’d rather do.

Goldman, 70, of La Crosse, owner of Stoneware Pottery, took a class in college and has been making pottery for nearly five decades, quitting her last job in 2016 to work with clay full time. Never happy “working for the man,” free spirit Goldman spends four hours a day in her basement studio, lined with mugs, bowls, teapots and goblets in various stages, along with a row of glaze-filled buckets, a clay-spattered wheel and an ever stocked kiln.

Her children out of the house, Goldman enjoys the solitude of working in peace, at her own pace, and sells at shows, farmers markets and from her home, as well as taking on commissions. She has held a booth at Art Fair on the Green since 1984, and was the first woman to win a pot throwing competition at the Cambridge Pottery Festival. Goldman creates the anniversary cups given to Organic Valley associates, throwing, firing and stamping up to 125 for a full year’s order.

Known for her sturdy mug handles, Goldman is focused on function, creating heat-safe, dishwasher-safe items, and she uses her wares exclusively in her kitchen. Far from utilitarian, each creation is a thing of beauty, awash in color and patterns created with drips or spatters of glaze, some featuring glaze-drawn outlines of cats or dogs. She is partial to her rising moon design, a mural of river, bluffs, moon and sky, and feline designs, as a cat owner and lover herself.

Goldman relaxes on her function-first philosophy to create her signature “low-maintenance cats,” kitten-sized 3D models crafted from hollow clay orbs and embellished with ears, tails and whiskers. Undeniably cute — Goldman calls them her babies — her sales pitch is “They sit there and they don’t eat.”

Content to spend her days at the wheel, Goldman has no plans to retire, stating, “I’ll do this until they pull me out of my basement, feet first.”

“Pottery making, it can kind of be like ‘kumbaya,’ but it’s a business and it’s my happy place,” Goldman said. “I’ve been doing this 48 years, and I still look forward to making pots.”


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Emily Pyrek can be reached at emily.pyrek@lee.net.

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General assignment reporter

Emily Pyrek covers health, human interest stories and anything involving dogs for the La Crosse Tribune. She is always interested in story ideas and can be contacted at emily.pyrek@lee.net.

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