AITKIN, MINN. – There’s only one stoplight in this northern Minnesota town, population 2,000. The Rialto Theatre plays a single film — currently “Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker” — while around the corner, the fluorescent lights of a Snap Fitness illuminate the snowy sidewalk.
Swing a left at the stoplight, drive a few blocks, and pull up to the bright yellow sign of the Jaques Art Center (JAC), housed in a former 1911 Carnegie library. Commemorating wildlife painter Francis Lee Jaques, who spent his youth in Aitkin, the Jaques Art Center is a gem in the snowy expanse north of Lake Mille Lacs. This month, the center is celebrating its 25-year anniversary with a blowout show.
The exhibition features 83 works by Jaques, including 10 paintings loaned by the University of Minnesota’s Bell Museum, two “duoramas” (three-dimensional diorama sketches) and five works on loan from collectors Paul and Ruth Hauge, who helped found the center.
The show also includes a literary touch: wall labels with prose by the artist’s wife, nature writer Florence Page Jaques.
“He specialized in black-and-white scratchboard prints, and then she used her prose,” said James Bzura, a Crosby, Minn., artist and JAC board member. “Combined they make a really vivid experience.”
Bringing the two together was a natural move. Jaques illustrated more than 40 books, including his wife’s most famous works: “Canoe Country,” about her first canoe trip in northern Minnesota, and “Snowshoe Country,” about a winter they spent on the Gunflint Trail. Their collaborative books and a catalogue raisonné of his work await visitors on a table in the second gallery.
Jaques was 15 when his family moved from Geneseo, Ill., to a homestead along the Mississippi River in 1903. During his youth in Aitkin, Jaques (pronounced “JAY-kweez”) tried his hand at many careers.
In 1905, he made his first small watercolor painting, “Wood Ducks,” a peaceful scene of ducks floating on a lake, their heads tipped forward in a search for food. He owned a taxidermy shop; the original price list and a buck head he mounted are both part of the show. (Kingfisher birds cost $1.25, moose heads $60-$70.) He journeyed to Duluth to work on the railroad; he was also an electrical engineer.
Throughout his job explorations, he continued to paint. He even painted the French countryside while serving in World War I (that’s also represented in the show).
After returning to Aitkin, he sent several drawings to the American Museum of Natural History in New York City and the Bell Museum in Minneapolis. The New York museum hired him as a staff artist. It was there, in 1927, that he met and married Florence, who was studying literature at Columbia University. He brought her to Minnesota to honeymoon in the Boundary Waters, where they soaked up inspiration from nature.
Jaques’ paintings convey “an incredible authenticity of seeing the wildlife and the landscape,” said Bzura. “He had a rare quality of making it exactly as it was. He knew it so intimately.”
In 1940, he returned to Minnesota to work at the Bell Museum, where he designed nine large and 11 medium-sized dioramasover the course of two decades. That same year, his drawing of two black ducks in flight became the 1940 Federal Duck Stamp; the original painting and the stamp are both on view at the JAC. So is a beautiful 1945 painting, “Wolf Pack,” of five gray wolves racing across the snow.
Jaques never saw those wolves; he spotted their footprints in the snow, then painted from memory.
“His depiction of the natural [makes me think]: ‘I’ll never see that, but I believe it,’ ” said Pamela Andell, JAC director.
Growth of the art center
The center was founded in the summer of 1995 by the Hauges and two other couples: Jerry and Cherie Holm, and David and Louise Hasskamp. There was already an Aitkin-based arts organization called Friends of the Arts to promote arts in the area. But the three couples wanted a way to focus on just visual arts.
The Holms loved the Jaques dioramas at the Bell Museum, and then discovered that he, too, was from Aitkin. Naming an art center after him made sense.
The 5,200-square-foot center was established the following year. “They bought this library from the city for a dollar,” said Barden Heft, JAC’s treasurer and curator.
An architect, Heft moved back to his hometown after working internationally with the U.S. Air Force. He designed the building’s second gallery, added in 2004. His sister, Pamela Andell, is JAC’s director. Their father was an artist from Aitkin, and painted in a similar manner to Jaques.
Downstairs, two classrooms offer art classes. Every year in January and February, JAC puts on an all-Jaques show. It also hosts exhibitions by local and regional artists every six weeks. The center brings in visitors from as far away “as Europe,” said Heft. Somewhere between 1,500 and 4,000 visitors come every year with a desire to see the marvelous natural world as Jaques did — through his art.
Jaques Art Center 25th anniversary show: 11 a.m.-4 p.m. Tue.-Sat. through March 7. Reception: Noon-3 p.m. Sat. Where: 121 2nd St. NW., Aitkin, Minn. Info: 1-218-927-2363 or jaquesart.com.