St. Croix Valley area artist finds inspiration in Minnesota and beyond.
Largely self-taught artist Mary Jo Van Dell evokes the beauty of nature in her paintings. The longtime St. Croix Valley area resident carved out her artistic career early on in her life and easily recalls her interest in the arts as a child. “I started drawing when I was really young, as a child, and I knew I was good at it,” she says.
As a mother of three children—now, all grown—Van Dell says practicing her craft allowed her to be a stay-at-home mother. Her early works in dog portraits created the pathway for her to transform her passion into a full-fledged career. “I was doing well, and people liked them,” she recalls. “It just kind of grew from there.”
After a stint in Colorado, where she opened a gallery and engaged in more Western-styled art, she moved back to Minnesota and began moving into landscape work. “I’ve been doing landscapes and portraying this area since then,” she says.
The contemporary artist serves as a coach and mentor to artists and has led several workshops at the White Bear Center for the Arts in White Bear Lake and at the Grand Marais Art Colony in Grand Marais, Minnesota. Van Dell explains how she doesn’t abide by artistic rules. “I ask that you leave room for experimentation in order to allow your own distinct style to develop,” she says.
During what she calls her coaching sessions, the experienced artists bring the pieces they’re currently working on, and Van Dell helps move the piece forward. “I’ll help you make it a better piece … They trust me and my opinion,” she says. For those just starting out, Van Dell recommends engaging in the local arts community, such as ArtReach St. Croix and local exhibitions.
The waves crashing onto the shore of Lake Superior; the sunshine peeking through the woods of greater Minnesota; and the sounds of streams running through rivers. Van Dell finds her inspiration in her surroundings. “I spend a lot of time outdoors in northern Minnesota, specifically the Arrowhead region, and, consequently, a lot of my inspiration comes from there,” she says.
As a studio painter, Van Dell has a particular process with each piece. “I do what I want to do—have an adventure—and something will hit me. I don’t look for it, I feel my paintings find me,” she says. Whether she’s exploring the St. Croix National Scenic Riverway or the beaches of Lake Superior, hiking through forests of northern Minnesota or backpacking along the North Shore, Van Dell’s inspiration stems from immersing herself in the wilderness. “I feel like a sponge when I’m out in the woods, and I absorb what’s around me,” she says. “Then, when I get back to the studio is when I do the work.”
Van Dell’s expressive paintings showcase the richness of nature and varied landscapes ranging from Midwestern terrain to the desert vistas of the Southwest and the scenery of the Pacific Coast.
Mary Jo Van Dell Studio, located above the Marine General Store in Marine on St. Croix, serves as Van Dell’s studio and gallery and evokes a particular sense of creativity. It is a large and bright space, donned with Van Dell’s large canvases, shelves of pottery, paintings and more, which has also displayed local and regional artists’ work.
“I’ve done pop-up events and have featured many potters in the Valley, glass and woodwork and more,” Van Dell says. Her current focus is on her own work and crafting her paintings; however, she plans to continue hosting pop-up events. She also works with her students in the space in elevating their artwork.
As a full-time painter, Van Dell has dedicated her life to mastering her vision, and she plans to continue doing so. “I have zero plans of retirement, and I can’t imagine not painting for the rest of my life,” she says. “I personally feel like I get better through the years, and this is one career where age doesn’t have to slow you down.”
Although her artistic direction may change paths, she says it’s a welcome change in her book. “The work evolves … I just let it happen naturally. I don’t force it or try to be different, but, over the years, it has changed dramatically,” she says.
Van Dell’s work is exhibited nationally and can be found in both public and private collections. Recently, her work has been shown in the Art in Embassies program of the U.S. State Department, the Minnesota Historical Society, the Minnesota Marine Art Museum and the National Park System.