By Solomon Gustavo
DASSEL, MN - “My studio is my joy room,” Dassel artist Bonnie Utecht said of the basement space that once served as bedrooms for two of her four children.
She has been painting, primarily with oil, since she was a teenager. When she was 16, she transposed and enlarged the image of the back of a woman, standing in a prairie, from the cover of a book she had enjoyed. Her grandmother purchased it for $10.
After her first sale, a friend of her parents commissioned the 16-year-old Utecht to paint a portrait of children in straw hats for $20.
“That was a big deal back in the early 60s,” Utecht said.
She added she always felt encouraged by her family.
Two months shy of her 18th birthday, Utecht married and started a family of her own.
“He knew he was marrying a painter,” she laughed. “He knew what he was getting into.” This is to say, that she felt the same, strong support in her new family. “He has really been my helpmate.”
“My husband would say, ‘you have to come to bed by midnight, promise me,’” Utecht said.
“I’d say, ‘I’ll try.’ He was so patient.”
Their 50th anniversary will be next summer.
Utecht would hire a babysitter in the morning so she could paint and go to art shows in the Cities to sell her work.
“I feel like I had more time with the kids,” said the self-taught painter. “I did, I don’t know why. My son would come home from kindergarten and sleep on a beanbag in the back room of the gallery, you know, take a nap,” she said.
The gallery she referenced is her former Steppingstone Gallery, which had two locations in Dassel and Hutchinson.
She planned on sustaining the business with consignment art and picture framing, while painting in the back. Later, her partner bought her out.
Utecht does not find her art in comfort. Though she has always felt familial support, she mines her art in challenge, in staying up all night with her work. After leaving the gallery, she didn’t feel challenged, so she took a year or so off.
Above the Hutchinson location of her former gallery was Ingleman Designs. To challenge herself, Utecht walked in unannounced, pursuing work. She was hired, painting designs for the manufacture of wallpaper, dishes, fabric, and bedding.
She worked there six years, becoming art director and propelling herself into a career as a freelance manufacturing artist. She sold work to Target and the Sears catalogue, among others.
Dassel Art Tour 2015
Since then, the mid to late ‘90s, Utecht had not exhibited much a little, here or there but had not felt challenged. Then came the Dassel Fall Art Tour 2015. She jumped at the opportunity to participate.
“I thought it was wonderful. It was just perfect timing for me, giving me a challenge. It kind of took over my life and my thought process and everything over the past several months,” she said.
“It was hard for me,” Utecht said with a grin. “I would have a lot of overnights where I’d see the sunrise because I would start something.”
One day over the summer, while preparing for the art tour, Utecht walked outside after a particularly grueling spell of work. There is a pool in her backyard. Her grandkids were swimming and playing. Utecht was hot. She didn’t feel like changing out of her clothes. She jumped in. That’s what she does; she jumps in.
For one spurned by challenge, Utecht’s paintings convey her steely confidence through images of peaceful pictures of the outdoors; flowers, forests, and prairie landscapes. Her artistic process is one of daring, challenging introspection, but the work concentrates that energy into appreciation of her surroundings.
“I see beauty in so many things. I just see beauty in everything God’s created,” Utecht said.
“My goal now is to paint five hours a day and see what I can do, see what I can accomplish, see what I can learn, how I can grow. That’s my goal, to see what happens,” she added.
The painting she sold to her grandmother hangs in her dining room upstairs. After her grandmother’s passing, the painting went to her grandfather, then her mother, and now it’s back with its creator.