Inspiring artists and careers

•  Arts in Harmony comes full circle for George Ishmael

by Britt Aamodt

Contributing Writer

George Ishmael, of Big Lake, was a teenager. He had business at the Sherburne County Government Center.

Whatever the errand was, it soon gave way to a parade of color, shape and image. Everywhere he looked, on every wall and every freestanding pedestal, was art – the kind in galleries and museums, not in someplace you go to get that driver’s license picture that will haunt you the next several years.

Ishmael saw the art and thought, “Hm, I want to do that.”


“Now he’s a professional artist represented by galleries in Kansas City and Chicago,” said Bob Meyer, exhibition director of Arts In Harmony, the same show that triggered the teenage artist.

This year Arts In Harmony, the largest international juried show in Minnesota, is celebrating 19 years, and it’s still in the same place it began, at the Government Center.

The show runs through February and includes some 220 works of art in every conceivable media from oil painting and bead work, to metal craft, ceramics and digital photography.

Submissions came from 30 states and four foreign countries. It’s a testament to the show’s reputation and significant purse ($10,450 in prize money) that artists are willing to spend an arm and a leg to ship work from Asia and Europe.

But there’s also the rare mishap with mailing art. The artist who sent work from England just got the heartbreaking news that his art was damaged in transit.

Yet at core, art is a risky business. Visual arts are even riskier than other forms because of the cost of supplies. The price tag adds up over the years it takes an artist to get good enough to be accepted in a show.

Every piece hanging at the Government Center has years of persistence and devotion to craft behind it. Every piece has an artist’s dreams riding on it. The hope for many is that they’ll be discovered. Maybe they’ll get an award or an invitation to another show.

Maybe someone will buy their pastel or $3,000 bronze sculpture.

Meyer said one of his messages with the show is that “art as a career is an option.”

He referred to Ishmael’s story, which has come full circle now that Ishmael is one of this year’s participating artists.

Norm Holen is a well-established Twin Cities sculptor. He has been in the show several times. He continues to enter because, he told Meyer, “You have one class act” and, unlike the State Fair show, the representation is international.

Judge Curt Pederson added his own global perspective. He often travels to Scandinavia as curator for Minneapolis’ Swedish Institute. This is his second year as show judge.

“We’re really honored to have him,” Meyer said. “He’s knowledgeable across a broad spectrum, and he has a deep respect and love for art.”

The unspoken benefit of this kind of exhibition is the opportunity for artists and would-be artists to scope out the competition, get new ideas and become inspired.

That’s why for two years Meyer has invited high school students to volunteer with setup and hanging. This year someone finally did: Elk River sophomore Julia Abell.

Abell got to walk around with Pederson as he decided on prizewinners. At one point, he turned to the student and asked her opinion a particular work, which, she said, surprised her but then really got her engaged in the process.

Currently in Drawing II, she brought her portfolio to share with the artists hanging the show.

Meyer said Abell and Ishmael are all part of Arts In Harmony’s legacy and its future. Next year the annual event will be celebrating 20 years, and the director and Elk River’s Arts Alliance, the show sponsor, want to plan something special.

The show takes an entire year of behind-the-scenes work to pull off. It’s a huge effort but worth it.

“Sometimes when I’m feeling really tired,” Meyer confessed, “I look at all these pictures and I think how glad I am to be part of this. It’s a real pick-me-up.”