WINONA — A century ago, a little-known artist/architect came to Winona to oversee the building of two mansions at Briarcombe, a farm on the outskirts of the city.
In the year Rockwell Kent was there, he directed the work, helped physically build it, did some painting, sold some vegetables and then left, never to return. In the town along the Mississippi River, the man who was to become world famous did few of his major works and left no impression on the city.
But Kent greatly impressed Taff Roberts, who came to Winona about 20 years ago and is a devotee of Kent. He was so happy to be where Kent once was that he began to organize a celebration of Kent, centering around the year he spent in Winona from the spring of 1912 to spring of 1913.
The celebration began with some talks during the weekend and goes through this week, with four exhibitions of his work or history; an ice sculpture outside the Minnesota Marine Art Museum with the theme of "Moby Dick," because Kent illustrated a famous version of the classic; and a symposium on Saturday. A new play was written about Kent's time in Winona.
The celebration is expected to attract "Kenties" from across the country, but it is also aimed at letting those who know little or nothing about Kent (1882-1971) understand who he was and his genius, said Roberts.
"It's so improbable that we are going to have this event here," said Roberts, who added that Kent is much better known in the Northeast. "But we pulled it off."
The last major Kent event was nearly 10 years ago.
Roberts said he was blown away by Kent when he saw his works.
"It's his paintings, it's his compilation of the forces of nature, it's the beauty of trees and oceans," he said.
"There's something of a spiritual quality to his prints," said Andy Maus, executive director of the Minnesota Marine Art Museum, which that has a major exhibition of many of Kent's works.
Kent's works have a lot of subtle symbolism.
"That's part of the fun," Maus said. "(There is) something you can think about over and over again and never draw any quick conclusions."
Maus said he knew little about Kent until Roberts came to him more than a year ago with the idea of the celebration.
Now, he's also impressed with the breadth of Kent's works, which span from realistic to abstract, and what a Renaissance man he was: artist, writer, world traveler, social activist and target for Joseph McCarthy's anti-Communist hunt (Kent was denied his passport for seven years because of McCarthy).
"He is a rare individual," Maus said.
Kent painted during the time of surrealism, symbolism, impressionism and other movements. "He sort of took what he could from all of them," he said.
Maus was happy to have the Kent exhibition because at museums, "we create meaning," he said. "You introduce something that is meaningful or creative."