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Happy, headlong rush into art

In the half decade since retiring as an elementary school teacher, Alexandria artist Jana Tonsfeldt has surrounded herself with art. (Karen Tolkkinen / Echo Press) 1 / 3
Tonsfeldt's watercolor was accepted into the Red River Watercolor Society's National Show in Moorhead in June. The show attracts well-known artists from around the country. (Contributed)2 / 3
Tonsfeldt's mixed-media painting, "Tuxedo Bird," hangs at the Hawley Art Show in Clay County. (Contributed)3 / 3

The challenge going through Jana Tonsfeldt's house is figuring out what to look at first.

A 6-foot-tall giraffe sporting two spunky bowties?

The life-sized figure of a somewhat bemused-looking frizzy-haired woman sitting in a chair?

Rhinestones sparkling on painted purple flowers?

"It's hard to have conversations with people because they're looking all over," joked Tonsfeldt, an Alexandria mixed-media artist. "My whole house is like an art gallery."

It sounds trite to say Tonsfeldt pursues her passion for art when really, she flings her whole being after it in a happy, headlong rush, studying, improving, trying anything and everything. After retiring as a Barrett elementary teacher a half decade ago, she realized her work was not ready for the professional art world. She began signing up for classes, workshops and retreats with artists she admires, learning techniques, filling boxes full of notebooks with ideas and tips.

And her work is paying off.

Two of her mixed-media pieces are hanging in Fergus Falls as part of the Minnesota State Community and Technical College's 46th Invitational Art Show. And she just got word that her watercolor of a pair of goats was accepted into the Red River Watercolor Society's National Show in Moorhead, a competitive show that attracts entries nationwide plus several from other countries. Pieces are selected blind, meaning that the juror choosing pieces doesn't know artist names or even where they are from.

Lisa Burns, assistant chair of the National Show, said she hadn't yet spoken with the juror who selected Tonsfeldt's painting, but that she wasn't surprised it was chosen.

"It was quirky and bright and I just loved it," Burns said. "It was very well composed and just a fun piece."

Fun and joy are two of Tonsfeldt's operative words. She calls her gallery, located in the downstairs of her home, the "Happy Times Gallery."

"The way the world is nowadays, we need to wake up in the morning and see something bright and vibrant with a smile on it," she said. "You'll never see my paintings full of doom and gloom. That's not me."

She also tries things she hasn't heard anyone else doing, like table art. You might expect paintings to hang on walls, but she has created "table art," a painting of lily pads with a frog figure glued on top. It's just how it sounds, designed to lie flat instead of hanging.

"I hadn't heard of it either," she says breezingly, whisking a visitor along on a tour. "But I decided to do it."

Another thing she does is whip up gourmet meals for groups, then take them downstairs to the gallery for an art lesson. These meals, she says, are a great way to melt stress and promote creativity.

Tonsfeldt has been creating art as long as she can remember. She was 5 years old when she got her first art kit. Even as a young kid, she hauled her dad, a mechanic, and her mom, a house painter, to art galleries.

She has visited galleries in Europe and spent time at an artist's retreat on an island. She loves horses, dogs and music. The mind of an artist fascinates her, and she is drawn to surrealism and pop art. Picasso is one of her favorites. She belongs to a pinochle club and plays the flute.

"I'm pretty much up for anything," she said.

Two years ago, a car wreck injured her back, so a lift helps her up and down her stairs. As she descends past an array of mythical characters, she is greeted with the surreal scene of a flood bearing an ocean liner toward the front door of a beach shack. To the left is jewelry she has made from polymer clay. There are her mixed-media creations featuring horses and underground worlds. And then there's her gallery, with its custom-made shelves holding dozens of her paintings.

"As you can see," she said, "my life is pretty well art. And I love it."