Steamboat Lake Memories

Tracy Frizzell shares how her childhood lake life days shaped her inspiration as a professional painter

WRITTEN BY JENNY HOLMES | ART BY TRACY FRIZZELL

Laying at the bottom of a lake, eyes wide open and looking up through goggles—she recalls the patterns that raindrops made as they hit the water’s surface.

Tracy Frizzell grew up a water-baby, spending as much time (if not more) in the water than out. In her family home, just outside of Laporte, Minnesota, on Steamboat Lake, she spent much time with her siblings exploring below the water’s surface and under the dock. Those discoveries stuck with her for years. So much so, she turned many of those memories into art. 

When she’s not working part-time at her family-owned furniture store in Walker, Minnesota, Frizzell lives in northeast Minneapolis and spends much of her time painting. Her indelible pictures have gained her acclaim from a variety of groups, including Artist of the Month from Art Force Minneapolis, winner of the annual United States Congressional Art Competition, a People’s Choice Award from the Five Wings Arts Council, and winner of the LHB Landscape Architecture sustainable design competition. 

For Frizzell, her art isn’t about the accolades, but rather the keen observation of nature and the opportunity to preserve memories through paintings instead of pictures. 

Painting passion

In kindergarten, Frizzell won a drawing contest, which earned her family tickets to the circus. This experience, although encouraging, wasn’t the true springboard to stepping into her creativity. It wasn’t until high school that Frizzell more closely explored her passion for painting. Creativity certainly coursed through her family’s veins, as her father and grandmother were both artists. Frizzell recounts pouring through books and publications written by and about painters, like Winslow Homer and Charles Russell. She gravitated toward the action that was depicted in their work, especially as it related to water. 

“I like to convey a sense of movement in my work,” Frizzell explained, “like with water, any kind of movement in the waves and how it plays into reflections. Big brush strokes invoke emotion much more than if you were looking at a realistic photograph.”

Frizzell painted a mental picture of her process
and vision: 

“Say you’re standing on a pier on a windy day. You can feel the wind on your face, and your hair is whipping around. You can’t necessarily convey that feeling in a photograph. But in a painting, using certain brush strokes convey that feeling, and it makes your heart race.”

Natural inspiration

As anyone who has visited the heart of Minnesota’s lake country can attest, the natural beauty of towering pines and sparkling bodies of water easily awaken the artist in all of us. But to paint a picture that makes you actually feel like you’re right there in the moment, is an area where Frizzell has been gifted. 

“I’m a big proponent of keeping natural spaces natural,” Frizzell said. “I had actually thought about going into the park service before I decided to major in landscape architecture, environmental design, and art. I bike a couple of times a week, know most of Minnesota’s trails, and I believe in the conservation of beautiful, wild areas for people to use.”

You could say Frizzell’s portfolio provides a glimpse into her soul, showcasing nature in all its glory, from waterscapes inspired by Minnesota and Lake Michigan, to the rolling prairies of the Dakotas—glimmering in the setting sun. But a surprise fascination comes by way of train. 

“Having an art studio in Minneapolis has provided a lot of great ‘artistic fodder’ to work with in my locally-inspired paintings,” Frizzell says in her description of Elegant Ride, a 30″ by 48″ oil on canvas. The elegant, yet whimsical piece depicts a multi-car streamliner spiraling the Foshay Tower in the glow of the moonlight. 

“The Foshay was completed in 1929 and was a prime example of the Art Deco architecture movement,” Frizzell explained. “In the painting, I wanted to convey a kind of 1930s film noir mood. Setting the scene at night gives the piece a darker ambiance, and the moonlight and glow from the gaslights give the piece an intimate, vintage feel.”

Other pieces in that same track depict the rich railroad history of Fargo, Duluth, Minneapolis, and St. Paul; as well as a nod to the wild west and beyond. So, what powered the locomotive love? 

“I’ve been asked this quite a bit,” Frizzell laughs, “and I have to admit that I’m actually not quite sure. Trains have always fascinated me. I like the romance of riding the steel rail across the open country. I like the history and stories that surround them. I like the motion that they imply.”

Show and tell

While the work of famous artists stirred a love for depicting movement in her paintings, it’s memories and stories that continue to fuel Frizzell’s work. 

Sunlit Path Through Winwood paints a picture—both literally and figuratively—of the trees behind Frizzell’s family home in northern Minnesota, telling the story of how this growth of some of the largest white pines in the area were almost cut down by clear-cutting logging crews in the early 1900s. However, a band of brothers known as the Boysen boys set up a barricade and defended the trees in shifts with shotguns until crews retreated. Today, it remains a precious piece of history.

A trip with her parents to the Royal Yacht Club near Kenora, Ontario, set the scene for Sailboat Promenade, a 36″ by 72″ oil on canvas. Captured during Kenora’s Harborfest celebration and a regatta touting hundreds of sailboats, the accurate depiction of action in her painting is no exaggeration. In fact, Sailboat Promenade has been said to trigger seasickness with the uncanny impression that you’re actually at eye-level with the water’s surface and facing daunting, rolling waves between you and land. 

As for taking her part-time love for painting full-time, Frizzell said she’s too much of a people person to work alone.

“Being in the studio can be pretty isolating,” she said, “especially the last several months during COVID when the (furniture) store was shut down. I enjoy being out in public and being around other people.”

And trading the lake life for the big city? No way, Frizzell says.

“There’s no better place to be than in the north country.”

See more of Tracy’s work and the memories behind them at tracyfrizzell.com. 

Q: What is your process for beginning a piece?

A: I’ll have an idea and then get out my large newsprint pad and start with some quick drawings to work out the composition. Sometimes I like to do this at the coffee shop, a lot of times, I put on a movie and let my mind wander a bit, and it helps me relax and get some ideas flowing. I’ll make notes in the margin as ideas come to me. Many times, I’ve started with an idea and arrived at something quite different because there were problems with balance or flow or story line that only became apparent when I committed it to paper.

Q: On average, how long does it take you to complete a piece?

A: It all depends on the size, style, and intricacy. My most popular pieces have been in the 3’x6′ to 4’x6′ size range, and they can take anywhere from 50 to 300 hours.

Q: When someone walks into your studio, what will they find?

A: Cats, lots of cats… just kidding! Well, on a good day, I’ll be working away, the air is perfumed with the tang of oil paints, and the record player is playing something old and nostalgic. On a not-as-good day (because there aren’t any bad days when I get to be in the studio and do what I love!), I might be sitting on the couch staring at the latest painting in process and wondering when the tide will turn and the painting is going to go from looking awful to something great.

Q: Have you ever created a piece and decided you just couldn’t give it up?
What is the story behind that piece?

A: I do have a piece in my possession that I won’t ever sell… again, that is. When I first started trying to paint professionally, I had a small art show. After the opening night, I got a call from the gallery owner that one of my pieces had sold. This was very exciting news for me, and after much discussion, he finally revealed who the proud new owner of the piece was. It was my Grandma (also an artist). Flabbergasted, I immediately called up my Grandma and said, “Grandma! If I knew you wanted that painting, I would have just given it to you!” Her response was, “I know that Tracy, and that’s not what I wanted.” She wanted to support and encourage me with my budding art career. When she passed away, the painting came back to me. I’ve held on to it because I like to look at it and remember all her love and support, and it’s just never felt right to sell her painting to someone else.

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