In her iconic woodcuts of Minnesota life and wildlife, Betsy Bowen conveys a sense of who we are here in the chilly north. Her quiet images show gliding loons, shaggy wolves, changing seasons, sculpted piles of blue-edged snow, ski tracks, warm cabins and canoes perched on rocky shores. Wildlife and the ways we enjoy the wilderness go hand in hand in her work, and Bowen helps perpetuate a regional lore: We are hardy people who thrive in this climate because we are outdoorsy, ingenious and appreciative of its rugged beauty. Wimps we are not.
Although she does a variety of fine-art projects, the Grand Marais-based artist is most accessible through her 12 books for adults and children. Her first, the northwoods alphabet book “Antler, Bear, Canoe,” continues to be her most popular.
“People tell me all the time that it’s the gift they give all the new babies in their life,” she said in a Tuesday interview. Her more recent illustrations have been for adults. The latest can be found in “Hawk Ridge: Minnesota’s Birds of Prey,” written by bird expert Laura Erickson.
“Laura is such an incredible expert on birds. She knows just a stunning amount. I learned so much through consulting with her, and reading the anecdotes that appear in the book,” says Bowen, who also visited Hawk Ridge, a distinctive hill above Lake Superior in Duluth where, every fall, people can view thousands of raptors as they pass overhead on their fall migration route. Twenty species have been observed here, and Erickson and Bowen’s book spends some time with each.
Erickson has written four other books, and her daily radio program and podcast “For the Birds” explores the birds that pass through her home in Duluth as well as birds around the world. Her lively prose gives insight into the mysteries of migration and the distinctive behaviors of each featured species. For instance, Cooper’s hawks and their prey are uniquely prone to hitting windows. American kestrals might snatch a dragonfly out of the sky and continue flying with it in talon, “every now and then drawing its legs forward and thrusting its head down to grab a bite.”
A departure from woodcuts
Bowen captures these birds in expressive oil paintings – a departure from her more familiar woodcuts, largely because of time constraints (wood cuts are a much more painstaking process). The illustrations capture both the individual movements of the birds and the remarkable composition of groups in migration.
“That freedom of flight is such a metaphor for people’s wanting to be free,” Bowen said. “It’s a very emotional thing to see a bird set free. It’s like dance or bike riding or cross-country skiing, that movement is so catchy. With the owls, I tried to capture their expression – we have a sort of mystical connection with them, perhaps because their eyes are forward, like ours. But with the hawks it is about the movement and the freedom, the joy of it.”
The hawk migration is on right now. In the book, Erickson notes the earliest sighting date and the latest for each species. Although the peak migration is mid-September, there are still several weeks left to watch this incredibly journey. But if you plan to visit Hawk Ridge yet this fall, don’t tarry.
“Snowflakes have been in the air, and the other day there were tracks in the snow on the ground for a few hours,” Bowen said. “Winter is coming.”
- Nov. 3, 3 p.m, Laura Erickson. Valley Bookseller, Stillwater.
- Nov. 4, 2 p.m. Bookcase of Wayzata.
- Nov. 4, 1 p.m. Reading Frenzy, Zimmerman.
Betsy Bowen’s studio in Grand Marais is open seasonally and for special events throughout the year.