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NISSWA – When Samantha French was growing up in one of Minnesota's most beloved resort towns, she worked a lot of summer jobs: washing dishes, delivering pizzas, serving frozen yogurt at her family's shop.

She always kept her swimsuit in her car. After a long workday, she'd stop at North Long Lake and, alone under the night sky, go for a swim. "It's rejuvenating," the 38-year-old artist said the other day, sitting beside the mural she is painting in her hometown. "It wipes away the day. It's cleansing. It's solitude, especially at night when you're the only one out there."

Like many Minnesotans, water was an integral part of French's childhood. As a kid, she spent all summer on the water. She learned how to operate a boat before she learned how to drive a car. These days, water is an integral part of her flourishing career as an acclaimed figurative painter in New York. She has gained an international following for her colorful and realistic paintings that often depict women swimming from an underwater perspective.

Her typical canvas sells for $16,500. She's done art shows all over the country and a residency in France. Her parents, Mike and Julie French, sell her prints at the StoneHouse Coffee & Roastery they operate in Nisswa: $65 or $110, depending on the size.

So when French and her longtime partner and collaborator, Aaron Hauck, were planning a Minnesota vacation this summer to celebrate her father's 70th birthday, Mike French had an idea.

A building he owns on a high-traffic spot downtown — next to the outdoor beer garden at Samantha's brother's Big Axe Brewery — had a large, unadorned outdoor wall. Would his daughter like to use that wall to paint a tribute to her hometown?

So much for Samantha French's lazy summer vacation on the lake. The project was put together on the fly: purchasing paint and supplies, choosing the style of the painting (they used photographs of one of Samantha French's friends from when they attended the Minneapolis College of Art and Design together), driving halfway across the country in the middle of an Upper Midwest heat wave in mid-July.

For more than a week, French and Hauck have been starting before 8 a.m. and working in the sun until 10 p.m. The 11- by 25-foot mural has taken a few days longer than expected; that's what happens when a hometown-girl-made-good returns to her hometown, and old friends pop by to say hello. Hauck became dangerously dehydrated after one of their 14-hour days last week and spent the entire next day in bed with a splitting headache.

"Never again will we do a summer mural," Hauck said with a laugh.

From afar, the work almost looks like an underwater photograph: A blond woman, eyes closed and with air bubbles escaping from her full red lips, is breaking the surface of the water. Up close, it's a swirl of motion, blues and greens and lights and shadows. The mural is refreshing, cooling, Minnesotan.

Its placement on the wall next to her brother's beer garden also makes it perfect advertising. The mural is on one of the most prominent spots in one of Lake Country's most quaint main streets, across from the Chocolate Ox candy store and amid dozens of boutique stores that cater to summer tourists.

"It's perfect," Hauck said. "It's the best wall. Once we got here, we were like, 'Why didn't we ever think of this?' "

Some artists want their paintings to tell a specific story. That's not the case with French and Hauck; they hope people project their own experiences onto the mural, perhaps their own nostalgic memories of escaping life's chaos with the tranquility of one of Minnesota's 10,000-plus lakes.

Nisswa native Samantha French may have been visiting ostensibly for her father’s 70th birthday, but her trip was not a vacation. French and her partner, Aaron Hauck, worked 12- to 14-hour days for more than a week to complete the mural.
Nisswa native Samantha French may have been visiting ostensibly for her father’s 70th birthday, but her trip was not a vacation. French and her partner, Aaron Hauck, worked 12- to 14-hour days for more than a week to complete the mural.

Reid Forgrave - Star Tribune

Growing up, French never expected she'd be able to make a living as a figurative painter. Two decades ago, she met Hauck when he was playing in a band with her brother. He had just graduated from the Minneapolis College of Art and Design, and she did the same. She was a star in college, her paintings top sellers at the school's annual art sale. Her favorite artists became other figurative painters, both from Great Britain: Euan Uglow and Jenny Saville. French and Hauck moved to New York City, and she refined her technique, becoming more and more realistic. She was an early adopter of using the power of the internet to market her art. A few years ago, they escaped the bustle of the city and moved to 7 acres of woods on the edge of the Catskill Mountains.

Their work in Nisswa over the past week has been exhausting and meticulous. First they filled in the whole wall, then they worked on the details. One evening, they looked at a photograph they took of the mural, and they both saw something that didn't sit well: an implied line on the right side of the mural that halted people's vision. They fixed it.

"We could probably walk away and people would say it's great, but if you have your name on something, you want it to be perfect," Hauck said.

The two have done murals before. Their largest is a 90- by 25-foot mural in Kingston, N.Y. But this one means something different to these two Minnesotans. (Hauck grew up in Brainerd.)

There's something special about doing a mural in her hometown. Teenagers have stopped by, stared at it and asked questions; in those teenagers, French could see herself a generation ago, riding her moped up and down these streets, loving art but never imagining she could become a professional artist.

And over at the family's coffee shop, her parents are beaming.

"It's one of their best murals," Mike French said. "The Frenches are going to leave their mark on this town. I've got a lot to brag about with my kids."

The only bad thing? She was so busy painting, French has barely been able to get out on the water. She was, however, able to squeeze in 20 minutes on the Jet Ski before her dad's birthday bash.

Reid Forgrave • 612-673-4647