Robbie and Paul Brokken of Harmony have each received a $5,000 McKnight Individual Artist Grant for projects they are working on this fall and winter. This husband and wife team not only respects each other's talents, but provides encouragement and support for the other artists in the area.
Robbie and Paul Brokken of Harmony have each received a $5,000 McKnight Individual Artist Grant for projects they are working on this fall and winter. This husband and wife team not only respects each other's talents, but provides encouragement and support for the other artists in the area.
Art brought Paul and Robbie Brokken together and their mutual love and respect for art and the artist has fueled and sustained their marriage. The two have championed each other in their pursuit of creative expression as well as celebrated the arts on a local and regional level.

Paul and Robbie have different interests and each create pieces that are unique to them. Paul paints abstracts in oils on canvas while Robbie uses heirloom jewelry pieces incorporated with new stones and other antique jewelry pieces to create one-of-a-kind adornments. She has also sculpted clay into serene faces and figures in the past.

The two Harmony residents have recently been rewarded for their past work and their future artistic visions when each received a $5,000 McKnight Individual Artists Grants by the Board of Directors of the Southeastern Minnesota Arts Council, Inc. (SEMAC).

Robbie's look to the past

Robbie will be using her funds to pursue the project, "Wearable Adornment from Keepsake Jewelry." She will include artistic, emotional, cultural and historic elements into her new work.

"Every woman I know has bits and pieces of artifacts in her drawer that were her mother's or grandmother's and have not been worn for years," she said. "We hold onto these pieces to remember our loved ones and their stories."

Robbie will be working with four women that live in Fillmore County and have several generations of family history in southeast Minnesota. She plans to interview these women, asking them to contribute to the project by sharing stories and photographs of their heirloom jewelry.

She will document the stories, and take elements of that jewelry (chains, pendants, earrings, watch parts, beads, clasps and other useable fragments), and combine them to create a new piece of art that can be worn and passed down to future generations.

"Many of these women are farm wives and didn't have anything beautiful. The only pretty thing they would have would be a piece passed down from their foremothers," Robbie explained.

These jewelry pieces will be integrated with the historic photos and the stories she collects into shadow boxes that will be part of a public exhibit planned for next summer at the Lanesboro Art Center, where she currently serves as the gallery director.

When describing her work, Robbie said, "I repurpose vintage and heirloom elements with freshwater pearls and gemstones to create more modern pieces."

She finds her treasures in antique stores, garage sales, on ebay and other various places. "I'm always looking," Robbie added. "The hunt is part of the fun."

Paul's artistic dream

Paul's project is entitled "Body of Work Inspired by the Cave of Smoo" and will be a series of paintings inspired by an upcoming trip to Scotland where he will tour this cave. His project will reflect what he refers to as "a further exploration of the shared human condition found within the unconscious mind."

The catalyst will be from Paul's direct contact with a cave in northern Scotland, the Cave of Smoo.

"Experiencing this cave has been a dream of mine for 35 years," Paul shared. He still remembers his first reaction to touring Niagara Cave near Harmony at the age of 5.

"Something frightened me as well as excited me about the cave," he explained. It wasn't until he was much older that he found out what it was: at the end of the cave it was a feeling of being alone, separate from the world yet for the first time with oneself.

"This is where the stirrings of my work begin," said Paul.

Smoo Cave lies at the inner end of a narrow inlet eroded by the sea and freshwater. The cave and this part of the country have a violent history and Paul hopes to be inspired by the experiences he has here during a 10-day trip next spring.

Paul explained that his way of painting has everything to do with the type of solitude found in places like Smoo Cave. It is where he can access the deeper areas of his unconscious mind -not unlike certain religious endeavors such as that of the priest or the shaman whom are a conduit for religious experiences.

While experiencing the solitude of Smoo Cave in Scotland, Paul will take photographs and make sketches, gathering research for oil paintings that he will create when returning home to Harmony.

"My experiences will become part of me and come through in my art," Paul said.

He said his artistic goal for the project is to have his work serve as a "doorway to the mystery inside the viewer that will show them a new way of seeing."

He explained, "I have an inner need to create images that excite and shed light on the mystery that surrounds us all."

His public exhibit will be held next fall at the Lanesboro Art Center.

Artistic journeys

Paul grew up in Duluth, Minn., but visited Harmony many times during his youth as he had many family members living here. He is a descendant of Tallekk Brokken, one of Harmony's founding fathers.

He said he started drawing "all the time" when he was 3 and his parents put him into art lessons when he was about 10.

"I still remember the smell of the oil paints, the feel of charcoal," Paul stated. "It was electric for me."

Paul didn't get serious about pursuing art until he was 19 and a student in college. "Since then, I've been a dedicated, professional artist."

He describes his art as a way to explore "what's around the corner?"

"Painting for me has no rules," Paul continued. "It's the only place I answer only to myself. It is a calling. It is the only thing there is for me."

Paul feels he has been making really good art for about 20 years. "The 15 years before that, I was getting there," he added.

Robbie was 8 when her artistic career began. "I had a neighbor who was a painter and I would go and watch her paint for hours," she shared. "I took some lessons in high school and felt a connection to a love of art I knew had to grow."

She went to New York to attend FIT (Fashion Institute of Technology) where she pursued her dream of design and artistic expression. Robbie has experimented with several media forms along her artistic journey, but for the past five years has focused her energies on creating her one-of-a-kind jewelry pieces.

"People who are artists are almost compulsive," Robbie shared. "We have to make art. We have to create."

She joined the staff at the Lanesboro Art Center seven years ago, serving as the gallery's director. It is a fabulous opportunity for her to help support and celebrate other artists in the area and is inspired by what she finds there as well.

Robbie also serves as a judge at several art venues and participates in the Arts Advocacy Day. She has been nominated to various arts planes, including the Minnesota State Arts Board.

Journeys merge

Paul and Robbie met in an art club in Sag Harbor, Long Island, and have been together ever since. They lived in the Hamptons before moving to Minneapolis where Paul earned his Masters of Fine Arts at the University of Minnesota.

When the two attended the funeral for Paul's grandmother in Harmony, Paul and Robbie began contemplating a move here and talking about the benefits of living in a small town, which included the fact each would be able to work only one job and have more time to pursue their art.

Robbie, who came to the marriage with her daughter, Mara, said they wanted another child as well. They knew Harmony would be a wonderful place to raise their children.

"We tried to raise our children to appreciate art and introduced them to all different kinds of experiences," Robbie said. Mara has pursued a career in opera, but is not currently performing, becoming burned out after several years on stage. She continues in the industry, however, working behind the scenes to help design the productions.

Jesse, now a college student, is pursuing a degree in bio-engineering. "He can draw, but chooses not to," Robbie said with a tint of dismay.

Celebrating the arts

"We both appreciate the commitment to arts here," Robbie said. "The Legacy funds have been a great investment into promoting the arts in our small communities."

Paul agreed and, as an artist who has had work shown in many galleries, feels the work done locally and shown at the Lanesboro Art Center is better than any shown at even the largest galleries in New York City.

Both are excited about their future exhibitions at the gallery, resulting from these McKnight grants, and hope to have many local people come out and celebrate their artistic expressions with them.