Canoe exhibit in Winona shines — without aluminum

WINONA, Minn. — There are no aluminum boats among the displays at the Art of the Canoe exhibit, which opened last week at the Minnesota Marine Art Museum here on the banks of the Mississippi River.

And why should there be? It would be like looking at an exhibit of aircraft wings, only less interesting.

Instead, the visitor gets a hands-on experience amid 14 canoes, ranging from the historically significant to the modern, as well as paddles, videos, historic postcards, Betsy Bowen prints, photographs and posters. Curator Jon Swanson said his aim was to celebrate Minnesota builders; to a canoe lover, it’s a success.

But it’s not without a sense of nostalgia that you look, and touch, these boats. With recent word of the end-of-the-season closing of Ketter Canoeing in Brooklyn Park after 45 years, an era is concluding.

Kenn Ketter loaned a canoe to the exhibit; most all the historic names in Minnesota canoeing are also here: Jensen, Seliga, Cichanowski, Hafeman. Nostalgia is held in check by Alex Comb, Jeanne Bourquin, and paddle-maker Danny Brown, all represented in the show. Hey, there are artists still hard at work on these designs.

Deborah Sussex

Three highlights stood out for me. One is a big white cedar birch-bark canoe from the late Bill Hafeman’s shop near Bigfork. The white cedar, native to Minnesota, is a particular Hafeman touch, as well as the spruce bindings on the gunwales. His use of local materials honored the traditions of the native Americans that lived in the north woods; legend has it he also built his canoes in native fashion of right-side up and outside-in, rather than the modern upside-down and inside-out. The only non-traditional touch on the Hafeman are the seams, which look like spruce gum but are actually asphalt. In a nice juxtaposition, a 13-foot Bob Duncanson birch-bark from 2006 sits above the Hafeman.

The second highlight is possibly the world’s first fiberglass canoe. The boat Ketter loaned, it’s from the late Gene Jensen, circa 1939. Jensen, a racer, boat designer and innovator of the first order, bought wooden parts for this boat from Canada and applied the fiberglass himself. His first bent-shaft paddle is also on display.

Another boat I enjoyed seeing was from Mike Cichanowski. He’s the owner of We-no-nah Canoes (and a sponsor of the exhibit), and the first boat he ever built — in high school, in the mid-60s — is here. It was oddly satisfying for me to try and lift it and figure out that the man whose company builds 18-foot boats that are less than 40 pounds started with one that weighs a ton.

Perhaps there’s hope for the rest of us shade-tree builders. The exhibit is up through Aug. 22.

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Comments (2)

  1. Submitted by Michael Norman on 04/13/2009 - 12:37 pm.

    Readers may be interested in checking out the Wisconsin Canoe Heritage Museum being established in Spooner, Wis., about 100 miles northeast of the Twin Cities. According to their brochure, the non-profit group is “dedicated to the preservation and restoration of historic canoes and to the education of our visitors on the influence of canoe craft on the art and history of North America.” Their website is:

    Michael Norman

  2. Submitted by Nancy Gertner on 04/13/2009 - 02:38 pm.

    If you drive to Winona to see canoes, make sure to allow enough time to look at the marine art in the museum. The collection is world-class.

    “The Minnesota Marine Art Museum currently features four major art collections, making it a regional and national attraction. The Burrichter-Kierlin Marine Art Collection, on loan to the museum, features oil paintings, watercolors and three-dimensional marine art objects from a variety of countries and periods created by many of the world’s most important marine artists. The Leo and Marilyn Smith Folk Art Collection consists of distinctive wood carved and hand painted sculptures that capture the spirit of small town river life. A collection of photographs and maps by Henry Peter Bosse reflect 19th century Mississippi River life and landscapes. The museum is expanding with the addition of a large gallery and multi-purpose room scheduled to open May 2009. The new gallery will feature more than 70 Hudson River School and Impressionism paintings.”

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