By Emily Bialkowski
People who live in or are from Caledonia do cool things. Some of those things are obvious, such as Karl Klug’s involvement with the National Football League. Some of those things are not so obvious but none-the-less cool.
Sui Conrad, for example, lives in Caledonia and has exhibited her artwork worldwide. She happily goes about her days under the radar pursuing her art, which includes photogravure and photography.
Conrad is originally from Brownsville and spent most of her childhood in La Crescent. She is one of five children and reaped the benefits of having a much older sister in ways that later influenced her love of art.
During kindergarten Conrad’s older sister – thirteen and half years her senior – took her to college classes.
“I like to say I got my college degree before I got my kindergarten degree,” Conrad said.
“I just did what the class was doing, and the teacher kept supplies for me. They never minded me being there,” Conrad recalled.
Upon completing high school Conrad first attended UW-La Crosse and transferred to Western Wisconsin Technical College where she completed her associate’s degree in graphic commercial art. “That was before computers,” Conrad said.
Four years later, with the ever present need to hone her computer skills, Conrad went back and earned a degree in printing and publishing.
And finally, she pursued her bachelor of fine arts in printmaking and drawing from the Minneapolis College of Art & Design. It is there that her future pursuits unfolded.
A college professor of Conrad’s enjoyed photogravure and held a demonstration in class one day.
“Everyone else in class wandered away, and I was fascinated,” Conrad said.
The professor agreed to teach Conrad the art one-on-one, and it eventually became a focus for her.
Photogravure is a photo-mechanical process where a copper plate is coated with a light-sensitive gelatin tissue, which had been exposed to a film positive, and then etched, resulting in a high quality print that can reproduce the detail and continuous tones of a photograph.
“My basic explanation is I take a black and white photograph and turn it into an etching in copper, which becomes the negative, and then you print from that,” Conrad said.
The process is quite expensive, especially since copper prices have soared.
One of the most famous photogravure artists, Edward Sheriff Curtis, haled from Cordova Township, Minn. and focused on Native American images in the late 1800s.
In 1906 J. P. Morgan provided Curtis with funds to produce a series on the North American natives. It was to be in 20 volumes with 1,500 photographs. Curtis’ goal was not just to photograph, but to document, as much American Indian (Native American) traditional life as possible before that way of life disappeared.
Interestingly, Conrad’s master thesis, currently in the making, is to be a series of photographs documenting rural farms, farmyards and barns of the area.
“I kind of combine documentation and fine art,” Conrad said.
As Conrad pursues her master of fine arts in photography, a project she estimates will take two years to complete, she already has many exhibitions to glean confidence from.
She has exhibited at both juried and non-juried events in Canada, Northern Ireland, Scotland, England, Germany, Poland, the Czech Republic and China.
“I’ve been doing this steady since 1996,” Conrad said.
Although she doesn’t have the means to go to, say, China every time someone wants to exhibit her work, she has been able to see the fruits of her labor a few times overseas, including in the Czech Republic and Scotland.
“Even if you can’t speak their language you can understand the accolades by how people look at it and how they see it,” Conrad said.
Her focus has always been nature, animals and farmscapes.
“It’s something I love. It’s a part of me; it’s who I am,” she said.
“Having grown up between the river and the farms, these two elements have heavily influenced my work in both my subject matter and how I approach that subject to show my viewers a different aspect of what nature is, be it natural or man made.”
Conrad is currently connecting with farmers in the area as part of her thesis work. She said everyone she talked to has been very enthusiastic.
Her father owned a small engine repair business years ago, so many farmers know the family. “We’ve been here for awhile – since the 1850s,” she said.
While continuing on this path that began so long ago, Conrad does hold a regular job to help fund her pursuit and was open to sharing the idea that even the most talented artists have to work a “real job.”
She said it’s hard to sell her art in this area and that she’s even been told, “Your work is too sophisticated.”
Perhaps her too sophisticated work will one day be as well known as Curtis’ as she sets out to document disappearing barns and farms.
To learn more, visit Conrad’s website at zhibit.org/wolfyrepress.