I Believe in Falcons by Kayeri Akweks (Upper Mohawk at the Six Nations Reserve, Ontario) was one of the paintings in the Aazhoomon exhibit. Aazhoomon, meaning "Convergence", was the first exhibit in Watermark's Miikanan Gallery.
Fresh & Faded:
Fresh & Faded Memories by Marley Kaul was the title piece of the first exhibit in the Marley & Sandy Kaul Gallery. This is the largest gallery in Watermark's new facility, boasting nearly 2,000 square feet. Marley Kaul, a former art professor at Bemidji State University, paints in egg tempera
Watermark began in 1982 as the Bemidji Community Arts Center. It was run out of the second floor in the beautiful but small historic Carnegie Library on the shores of Lake Bemidji. At that time, and for subsequent decades, the art center served only visual artists through a handful of single exhibitions each year and an annual art fair. But in Bemidji - a place whose natural beauty, cultural communities, and modest cost-of-living has attracted hundreds of artists, musicians, writers, and other creatives - such a presence wasn't coming close to fulfilling the community's needs.
Executive Director Lori Forshee-Donnay set about to change that. "After working at the art center for a couple of years, we hit critical mass. The organization was working on internal board development and capacity building, allowing us to increase programming which, in turn, increased a demand for even more. After a series of community surveys and focus groups, we realized that we were not meeting the needs of the community and that our facility was not big enough to accommodate any growth beyond what we had already achieved."
Forshee-Donnay assembled a team of artists, art leaders, educators, and community members who scoured the region seeking funding to create a new state-of-the-art facility. To help find the best spot for such an endeavor, the committee worked with ArtSpace in Minneapolis, a national leading developer of arts facilities.
Forshee-Donnay explained. "We wanted to stay downtown, but there were a limited number of available buildings that had a parking lot, handicap accessibility, and were big enough for us to grow into but modest enough to afford the upkeep. A lot of places would have been a good lateral move, but we knew we needed to grow."
After searching throughout downtown, the committee coincidentally chose a spot just across the street from the art center's original home. It was a building containing office suites. Over the years, it had housed public entities, such as school district offices and the Bemidji license bureau, as well as several private office spaces. But local residents still called the building by its original name - "Lakeside Luekens," the very first Luekens Grocery Store built in the 1950s.
"There were many wonderful things about this building," explained Forshee-Donnay. "Including the location and expansive layout. We have an amazing view of Lake Bemidji, with ample parking and green spaces surrounding the site. The building itself was literally a blank canvas for the Watermark to create a space to celebrate the visual arts. The fact that it was a former grocery store allowed us to create large open spaces to experience art whether in a gallery setting, the education room, or outside."
Watermark officially purchased the former Lakeside Luekens in 2012. The building was gutted and renovated, turning walls that had once housed vegetables, produce, and meat into a space to feature paintings, sculpture, photography, and more - from physical sustenance to emotional.
The new Watermark Art Center has only been open a matter of months but has impressed from day one. It boasts four galleries for rotating exhibits, including one dedicated to Native American art and another leased to Bemidji State University to showcase their print and ceramic collection. The art center also features a large education room for lectures and classes, a retail shop, and outdoor green space.
Approximately 700 people attended a two-day grand opening and visitors continue to steadily pour in. Eyes widen upon entering the large glass doors where visitors are met with expansive walls, full-length windows, and large rooms - the biggest gallery boasting nearly 2,000 square feet! A frequent comment is that the center could hold its own in a major metropolitan area.
"We've been very gratified by everyone's response," said Forshee-Donnay. "The art community now has an exhibit space that mirrors their own impressive level of talent and lets their work be seen in a light that is equal to artists beyond our region."
Bemidji & Beyond
Watermark serves a 9-county region. Its four galleries feature regional artists, as well as artists from a national and even international reach to continue to inspire and provide new content to local attendees. They also showcase both emerging and established artists.
Part of their growing programming has included expanding into other art genres. Though they still primarily serve the visual arts, Watermark also now features major events surrounding the literary and fiber arts. They will continue to expand, through partnerships and collaboration, to explore other art opportunities to meet their mission and support the arts in the region.
Perhaps the most significant expansion in programming, however, is the formation of the Miikanan Gallery. Miikanan, meaning 'many paths' in Ojibwe, references Watermark's unique location, situated between three reservations.
"Watermark's permanent space showcasing Native American art has already featured several exhibits that have included regional as well as national and international work," commented Forshee-Donnay. "This space, which is overseen by the Miikanan Gallery Program Director, Karen Goulet, is very significant for our region."
All of this new opportunity is provided at minimal cost to attendees. Watermark is open seven days/week and admission is free. Cost for classes and workshops vary, but the art center's goal is to keep costs at reasonable rates, especially classes for kids or families.
"As a nonprofit, we seek to provide opportunities for our region that are affordable and attainable," said Forshee-Donnay. "Our staff works very diligently to find business partners or grants to underwrite workshop costs, which offsets the end total for attendees. For example, we recently hosted a family painting workshop for only $10/person - including discounts beyond that for large families. We also offered a professional iPhone photography class last year that we were able to provide at roughly 60% savings for what a class with that teacher would cost elsewhere."
From a small upper floor with limited access to a modern, active center with burgeoning programming, the new Watermark Art Center is almost unrecognizable from its former self. After several years of fundraising, research, planning, and construction work, the new art center has gone from a long-sought dream to impressive reality thanks to the dedication of many area volunteers.
"We can't thank those who have supported our efforts enough," said Forshee-Donnay. "They have given the region a lasting gift through their generosity of time, talent, and financial support. A project of this scope takes time, determination, and dedication and the Watermark is pleased to see this vision realized."
Watermark Art Center is located at 505 Bemidji Ave N. The majority of fundraising for the new facility is complete, with 81% of their $3 million goal raised. However, certain financial hurdles still remain. To give to the project, or learn more about upcoming exhibits, workshops, and other programming, go to