Ellen Kolbo McDonah tried to pinpoint her style for years. As an artist, she paints and sketches in her own unique way, finding inspiration from people and breathtaking scenes in nature.
People often told her she had a distinct way of portraying her art, but McDonah didn’t know what that was. She would sit inside of her studio and think, wondering what it was that separated her work from the rest — until now.
Adventurism art, the term McDonah uses to define her style, is more than just a way of creating art; it’s immersing oneself into different places and situations that bring about inspiration.
Instead of waiting for creativity to come, adventurism art is going out into the world and finding it. It’s not knowing what will bring about inspiration, but rather discovering it in unforeseen ways.
“Adventurism art is when you seek an exciting experience for the purpose of art,” she said. “I’ve been searching for my style, and I really think I’ve found it.”
And this summer, McDonah will execute her newfound method in a 2,350-mile kayaking trip down the Mississippi River.
“I’m so excited about it it’s ridiculous,” she said. “It’s going to be a gem that I’ll hold forever.”
McDonah will depart on her once-in-a-lifetime trip on May 24, two days before her 60th birthday. She will begin in Lake Itasca and end in the Gulf of Mexico.
Her husband, Jeff McDonah, will drop her off in Minnesota and pick her up in New Orleans, whenever her trip is finished. McDonah said the journey “wasn’t a race” and plans to take her time reveling in the experience.
“I want to challenge myself as a creative person,” she said. “It’s like my dream trip.”
The idea to embark on an extended trip down the Mississippi River came about when McDonah was 16 years old. She had always enjoyed outdoor recreation, she said, and was, of course, passionate about art.
McDonah began researching the river throughout the years to come and learned everything she could about the other adventurers who successfully completed the trek. Her biggest inspiration, which is also McDonah’s hero, is Janet Moreland from Columbia, Mo.
Moreland kayaked the entire length of the Missouri-Mississippi river system in 2012, a 3,800-mile trip. She was the first woman to complete the trek solo and recorded her experience online.
Similar to Moreland, McDonah plans to track her adventure through regular journal entries. But the journey, for her, will be more about the art than the actual outdoor pursuit.
McDonah will sketch or draw anything she finds inspiring on cotton and acid-free paper, she said. She will also bring a limited pallet of acrylic colors to paint with, including mars black, titanium white, burnt umber and ultramarine blue.
Upon returning home from the expedition, she plans to paint an estimated 50 pieces that depict her overall experience. McDonah hopes to display the art in an exhibit for the public to see, as well.
The trip, however unimaginable, was a natural progression for McDonah as she has experience kayaking on other lengthy trips. She finds pleasure and creativity in outdoor recreation and has “fallen in love with the river,” she said.
McDonah thought about the trip from time to time, but didn’t get serious about it until last year. That was when she was finally able to discover her style, two years after she retired as an elementary school teacher for the school district of Holmen in 2011.
“I had always taught my students to live their dream,” she said, “I had to remember to start chasing mine.
“My dream is to always be seeking art and learning about myself as an artistic individual.”
McDonah has been implementing adventurism art for years, before she knew exactly what she was doing.
Once, McDonah explained, she was stuck in an airport after her flight was delayed. As she waited for another plane, an older man and his elderly mother captivated her.
While everyone around her was stricken with boredom, McDonah was infused with stimulation as she began sketching the man and his mother. She gifted the family the drawing when she finished, right before they boarded their flight.
On another occasion, she drew a picture of a baby sleeping in its mother’s arms next to her on an airplane. McDonah gave the picture to the baby’s mother after the plane had landed.
She felt more joy from giving away the drawing than she would have ever felt had she kept it, she said. And the inspiration McDonah felt in that unexpected moment surpassed any of the revelations she experienced in the studio.
“Her style is separated from techniques,” said Nate Melby, McDonah’s son. “It all starts on some experience she had.”
In other instances; however, McDonah has found inspiration through intentional and sought-out experiences.
McDonah traveled to Bayfield, Wis. this past winter to visit the ice caves on the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore, for example. She camped in the snow, sketched the scenery and made friends with the passersby.
“I can’t really just sit in my studio and expect inspiration to happen,” McDonah said.
One of the most important things to McDonah is to pass on her painting to her children. She is the mother of three, including 35-year-old Melby.
Dozens of McDonah’s paintings scatter the walls inside of Melby’s home on French Island. Some are framed, others are not and a handful is stored safely inside of a closet to be rotated out into the home throughout the year.
One of Melby’s favorite paintings, among many others, is a piece McDonah painted of him sailing his boat during a race on Lake Onalaska in 2007. Another is piece of an old farm he grew up by that featured a shed Melby had to paint as a kid.
“Her art is amazing,” Melby said. “It’s beautiful.”
McDonah finds inspiration wherever she goes, and in 47 days, she will depart on a trip of a lifetime.
Surrounded by dozens of paintings and other works of art, a packing list, piles of gear and supplies are found lying in a pile in the Galesville resident’s home. Her kayak, named Inspiration, hangs safely in McDonah’s garage, ready for an adventure.
“I’m scared to death for her,” said Melby, fire chief of the Campbell Fire Department and president of the La Crosse County Fire Officer’s Association. “But on the other hand, I’m so proud. Not everyone would retire into a kayaking trip.”
“I am just thrilled for her,” Moreland said, “and the life-changing experience she will have.”
The only emotion McDonah can feel is excitement — for both the trip and the lifelong adventurism art experiences to come.
“There will be another adventure,” McDonah said. “This is just the beginning.”