Most people have bucket lists with items like “go skydiving,” “travel to Iceland” or “run a marathon.” For artist Kellie Rae Theiss, it’s “paint a brown pelican.”
For the St. Louis Park resident, nothing beats being in nature, and painting nature.
Theiss grew up in Nebraska, where her parents taught her respect for nature, and her grandmother, also an artist, taught her respect for art. “My formal education, I think, began in her lap,” Theiss says. After attending the University of Nebraska, she studied in Europe through a program organized by the University of Minnesota. In three months, the arts and architecture tour took her through 27 countries.
“That is where I learned some of the really Old World techniques and how to make things look three-dimensional,” she says. That technique is what makes her paintings come to life. With her nest paintings, “if you stare at it for just long enough, it looks like you can go in and pull that egg out of the nest,” she says.
One of the reasons her paintings appear so vivid is the process she applies. She uses boards as opposed to canvas, “because I think canvas can be temporary—or I don’t want to picture anyone’s foot going through a canvas of mine.” On the board, she layers a 500-year-old recipe of marble-dust gesso. “It’s egg as a binder and then very fine marble dust.” She then layers it down, sands it and repeats until she slides her fingers over the board and it’s like glass. Theiss then does a pencil drawing on the board before adding various shades of ink. “So before the painting is finished it looks like a black and white photograph,” she says. After that, she adds color.
The painting process makes the subject pop, but her studies beforehand make the subject seem real. “I know every species that I paint,” she says. “I have a very extensive library and I read everything I can read, and then I try to capture it.”
Her four areas of expertise are crows, owls, dragonflies and turtles, but her paintings cover the animal kingdom.
In addition to a St. Louis Park studio, Theiss also has a space located two and a half hours north of the Twin Cities, up on a hill in the woods where she can observe the wildlife, including wolves and bears.
“Going back and forth is just a perfect balance for me,” she says. She loves the Twin Cities culture, but getting away is needed for her to do her work—which her buyers appreciate.
One buyer, Beth Srauenshuh, discovered Theiss’ work at the Timberlake Lodge hotel in Grand Rapids. She and her family had just moved into a new house on Lake Minnetonka and she was looking for some art to go on one of the larger walls. “We were checking out of the hotel, and I looked up and there was this piece of artwork and I [thought], ‘That is it.’ It was stunning,” she recalls.
The piece was of a great white heron, which Srauenshuh says was perfect, because their Minnetonka home has a heron that visits their dock regularly. While nature painting might not be a new topic in Minnesota, Srauenshuh says, “what is unique is her talent to make it pop off the print, to get it perfect to every last feather.”
Plus, it’s fun to support a local artist, she says. “I think she is such an extraordinary artist with so much talent and love. You can tell how much she cares through how she presents her work.”
“Sometimes I will just be hit with something that feels almost like the impression isn’t in my mind, but in my heart and my mind at the same time,” Theiss says. It’s then that she heads north. “And then I don’t want to think about anything else. I unplug. I shut the phones down and I just stay with that piece as much as I can.”
But she always comes home to St. Louis Park. “I love this place,” she says.