Looking North

By Dennis Walikainen

The teacher in Mary Ann Beckwith emerges as she works in her sun-lit studio on a sunny, chilly December day. The award-winning watercolor artist discusses technique and Tech students.

"The students are bright, motivated, and willing to try most of the things I teach," she says. "Once they learn that failure is sometimes the result in a creative project and that they can make the next results better, they soar."

The professor of art has won the Distinguished Teaching Award at Michigan Tech, and her paintings have garnered acclaim across the nation.

Her latest accolades include election to the Watercolor USA Honor Society (one of only two hundred members), winning the Jack Richeson Award from Watercolor USA, and exhibiting at the National Watercolor Society in California and the Rocky Mountain National Watermedia Fortieth Annual Exhibit, where only 10 percent of entries were accepted.

Her latest series, Looking North, recreates the archetypal Keweenaw Peninsula scenes, continuing in the tradition of her other work: Pilgrim River and Boston Creek.

"There are those three or four days, when the sun is shining, the snow is on the ground, and the water is just beginning to freeze or thaw," says Beckwith. "That's when I gather material for my paintings: early winter or early spring."

She captures the essence.

Sometimes, she says, it is the contrast of the light and dark patterns. Other times, perhaps snowshoeing to an ideal location, the silhouette of the rock's edge on the water leaps out.

"In this latest painting (on the cover), I am looking north and the peninsula funnels away ahead, and the soft colors in the distance fascinate me."

Beckwith espouses the need for sincerity: the need to paint what you truly love.

Thus, she can't paint a palm tree, and desert scenes are out. "It doesn't work for me," she says. "I can paint a dog but not a camel."

She believes in the wonder of how art happens.

"Quietly, you begin on a blank piece of paper, and you think, ‘That magic will never happen.' But something is taking shape, and lines, shapes, colors, and marks become an image. It is an amazing happening."

She equates painting to science. When the first solution is not the best one, you must try another. Creation requires thoughtful time and, often, many efforts to get the desired result.

To check a painting, she'll use a mirror to gain another view, and, since it truly reverses the image, "It is a good test of a painting. I can often detect problems in the detail or design. I've even run into a bathroom to find a mirror."

An example exists on Looking North. A line between tree and rock is "too thick, too white, too line-y." With three strokes of a brush, it is split, color-corrected, natural.

"The paintings can take weeks to complete, but, as in the current series, I work on six at a time," Beckwith says. "After looking at a painting for hours, I'll move on to another and maybe come back to it with a fresh eye."

Her thoughts return to her students.

"I love watching them take my challenges and trying projects out of their comfort zone," she says. "I teach them that taking the safe road and getting predictable results is not as fulfilling as taking some risks and finding their own voice in the results. I challenge them to take that lesson to other parts of their life.

Michigan Technological University is a public research university, home to more than 7,000 students from 54 countries. Founded in 1885, the University offers more than 120 undergraduate and graduate degree programs in science and technology, engineering, forestry, business and economics, health professions, humanities, mathematics, and social sciences. Our campus in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula overlooks the Keweenaw Waterway and is just a few miles from Lake Superior.