Nan Onkka: inspired by Lake Superior and the Boundary Waters

Wilderness Voices Series:

Nan Onkka: inspired by Lake Superior
Nan Onkka: inspired by Lake Superior
Nan Onkka: inspired by Lake Superior
Nan Onkka: inspired by Lake Superior
Nan Onkka: inspired by Lake Superior
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Artist and educator Nan Onkka takes inspiration from Minnesota’s north shore and the Boundary Waters region. She shares her artwork and her passion for the northwoods with Quetico Superior Wilderness News:

QSWN: What is your personal history with northern MN?

NO: My love for the northwoods grew out of the six summers I spent working at Wilderness Canoe Base at the end of the Gunflint Trail. My family had been connected to the camp for over a decade before I started working there, with my first trip to Seagull Lake as an infant. I worked at Wilderness Canoe Base as a naturalist and a canoe guide. I fell in love with learning about the flora and fauna of the boreal forest and still hold a special fondness for the twinflowers, starflowers, bunchberries, and other early flowers as they are some of the first wildflowers I truly learned. 

Through Wilderness Canoe Base, I met my husband and, after living in Minneapolis for a handful of years, we decided to return north. We have now lived in Grand Marais for five years and feel incredibly lucky to call this place home. 

Nan Onkka: MN northwoods wildflowers
All images courtesy Nan Onkka.

QSWN: What inspires you? 

NO: I find endless inspiration in the woods and waters of the northwoods. From our house I can walk or bike to the shores of Lake Superior and happily throw rocks for hours on a summer day, or wonder at the shimmering ice covering the shoreline in the winter. A short drive takes me to any number of amazing places – the Gunflint Trail, the BWCA, the Superior Hiking Trail, state parks, etc. Nature is accessible in my daily life and it is also a shared value among the community here. 

I feel drawn to capture the northwoods in my artwork because it is where I feel most connected to nature. The subject matter feels both timeless and also full of constant change. I joke that my biggest issue as an artist is the abundance of inspiration! Whether I take a short walk or a longer adventure, there is so much to notice and enjoy and I wish I could capture it all. 

Nan Onkka: Northwoods MN BWCA Canoe art

QSWN: Are there any issues that concern you related to the wilderness? 

NO: When I was a canoe guide in my early 20s, I remember being told we had to start filtering the water for our groups in the BWCA and I was heartbroken. Drinking clean water directly from its source is a pleasure that is increasingly rare. I spent a lot of my childhood outside with farms and fields surrounding my childhood home. Though valuable in its own right, it was not the same experience as being in a wilderness setting where the landscape has relatively been untouched.

Nan Onkka printmaking

QSWN: Where can we learn more about your work?

NO: I am a printmaking artist who specializes in reductive woodcut printmaking. If you don’t know what that is, you can think of it like making a stamp out of wood. I carve a design into the wood and print it. Then I carve more of the wood away and print a second color on top. I continue this multiple times until the image is complete. It is a labor of love, but I love the process. 

I sell original woodcut prints on my website along with greeting cards, and other goods. I am represented by galleries Grand Marais and Duluth and participate in the Grand Marais Arts Festival in July and Art Along the Lake Fall Studio Tour each year.

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