A group of Woodbury artists pulls together to create a more vibrant arts scene in the city.
About a year ago, when Michelle Witte rounded up a group of Woodbury artists to bring more visual arts to the Merrill Community Arts Center, she didn’t plan on handing over the reins and walking away. Witte, the operations director at Merrill, brought several multi-media artists together; after a few meetings, everyone realized that the artists themselves functioned best as a self-sustaining group, with support from Witte and the arts center.
A few months after that initial meeting, Artists of Woodbury was born, and now the group of 23 members meets regularly to further the arts community in the city. The group’s purpose is to provide opportunities for artists to network, exhibit and sell art. The artists work in a variety of mediums including oils, photography, jewelry, pottery, sculpture, glass, pastel, stained glass, mosaic/tile, acrylic, watercolor, fibers and beadwork. We got to know a few of the artists and learned more about their work and background.
Painting, ceramics and mosaics
John Acosta knew he was an artist when he was five years old. His uncle was drawing bronco horses, and Acosta took one look at those pictures and decided he would be an artist. He’s spent his entire life grinding out his dream. “I didn’t choose to be an artist; it chose me,” he says.
When Acosta finished his time in the Navy in the ‘70s, he became involved in the Compass program out of St. Paul. The group hired 50 artists off the street to work in various communities throughout the summer. He began by painting murals in neighborhoods and has been an active part of the art community ever since, with his mural work being displayed at various museums including the Science Museum of Minnesota and the Minneapolis Institute of Arts.
Ever since those days in the ‘70s, Acosta has been an artist. He hasn’t always made a living off his passion, having picked up part-time jobs along the way to supplement his income, but art has always been his true work.
In 1997 Acosta received the Leadership Initiative in Neighborhood (LIN) grant. He received $35,000 and used the money to travel the world, getting inspiration for his art. Acosta was particularly moved by the work of Antoni Gaudi, a famous designer from Spain who specialized in benches. Acosta brought this idea back with him and now creates his own benches, which are some of his most popular pieces.
Beyond a multitude of life experiences and travels, what Acosta has really acquired over the years is a constantly growing love and appreciation for art. He is active in the Lowertown art community in St. Paul and passes his passion on to a new generation by teaching art classes to youth and adults. For all the work he has done throughout his art career, Acosta was inducted into the Johnson High School Hall of Fame, his alma mater, in 1998. He says it was the greatest honor of his career, but most of all he just feels blessed with the life he’s had.
“I’m just having fun,” Acosta says. “That is the one thing I learned from my experience from LIN: to enjoy yourself and just have fun and be creative.”
Acrylic and oil painting
Char Neely didn’t get serious about art until the latter part of her life. Her kids had grown, gone to college and moved out of the house, and she found that you’re never too old to pursue your passions.
Neely retired from 3M in 1993 after working for 25 years, toiling away like so many people do. She always had a love for art and began sketching. She wanted to take her work to the next level so she sought out teachers to help her fine-tune her craft and began taking classes in acrylic and oil painting. She eventually found Sharon Weiser in St. Paul, whom Neely credits with taking her art to the next level.
“After working for 25 or 30 years and raising a family, this is like being reborn,” Neely says of her work. She never imagined that life could begin again after retirement, but that is exactly what Artists of Woodbury and painting have done for her. “When I allow myself to let go of expectations at the very start, it allows me to be very loose and free and I get in the zone,” Neely says of painting. “Everything becomes automatic.”
Neely’s art has basically become an extension of herself. She’ll go on walks with her husband and take photos to help inspire her work, and the couple has hundreds of photos sitting around their home. Neely creates her paintings out of love for the craft. “I could talk art all day,” she says. With Artists of Woodbury, as her work finds a wider audience, she loves seeing people get excited and ask questions about her work. It’s a validation that she doesn’t need or crave, but creates a connection with people she cherishes.
“I think what’s happening with our technology-driven world is that people crave stillness,” Neely says. “Everyone is looking down at their computer, and when I can still make a connection even in light of the distraction, I feel that it’s really a success for me. It’s validating my time and my energy, but it is more the joy I feel when people stop and put those things down and look and ask me questions.”
Watercolor, jewelry, painting, photography and glass
It’s pretty rare to find someone who can make a living off of his or her art. So many artists are like Becky Amble, a marketing strategist at Future Focus, who uses her free time to create paintings, jewelry and fused glass.
Amble’s work began in 1982 when she took a drawing class, a skill that she considers one of the hardest art forms. About 20 years ago, she took one of the sketches she made in that class to an art show at Woodbury High School, and from there, she began getting more involved in the local arts scene.
Amble was familiar with the Merrill Community Arts Center, and when Artists of Woodbury came about she jumped at the opportunity to join. “People can be like me who work and do art for fun, as a distraction or relaxation,” Amble says. “I just think a lot of artists who do things for fun still want to know how to share ideas—anything to connect with people interested in arts.”
Most of the work Amble does now is watercolor, and her sons Alex, 18, and Pasha, 13, motivate her. She says, “I like to be curious and I try to get [Alex and Pasha] curious [by] looking at nature, scenery and architecture. It is easy to miss the subtleties that really enrich life.” Her passion has clearly rubbed off on the kids. When Pasha was 4 years old, he painted a rainbow that ended up being sold in a gallery, a sign that you never know what can happen if you just put something down on paper.
Amble, who has won awards for her work at art crawls and a variety of county fairs, focuses on her paintings, fused glass, jewelry and photos. Although she doesn’t create her work for the money, she says it’s an added bonus that she is able to make a little extra income.
To learn more about Artists of Woodbury and their work, membership and upcoming events, go to artistsofwoodburymn.org.