Life along the North Shore is never dull. From long, quiet winters to vibrant summers teeming with life, the dramatic contrasts found on this northern shore provide a wealth of inspiration for artists. One such artist is Sandi Pillsbury of Castle Danger, whose paintings capture the majestic beauty of the North Shore found throughout all seasons, from encounters with wildlife and spring flowers to Lake Superior seascapes. Each piece is a snapshot of a life lived in close connection with the Lake and its surrounding areas.
Pillsbury’s interest in art began when she was in 4th grade and her parents gave her a paint by number set. She describes being fascinated with how the different colors made the painting look real, and began in her a lifelong love for drawing and painting. She went on to study fashion illustration and design before moving to California and completing her BFA. It was while she was in California that she developed an interest in teaching and started to do postgraduate work at San Jose State. The death of her grandmother brought her back to Minnesota, where she finished her teaching degree through the College of St. Catherine, and it was while Pillsbury was student teaching at the St. Paul Academy that she met the head of the art department, artist Hazel Belvo.
“I met Hazel and it was life changing for me,” Pillsbury said. “I jumped in with both feet and started to help her with classes. Over lunch one day she asked, ‘What do you do with your art?’ At the time I wasn’t doing a lot of my own art because I had been teaching, and she suggested that I come up to the Grand Marais Art Colony. That began a 33-year mentorship with Hazel, which was life-changing. I found my voice as an artist, and Hazel’s classes were what honed me as an artist.”
Pillsbury taught art for many years in the Anoka-Hennepin School District and later in the Lake Superior School district. She also continued to pursue her own art, taking classes from George Morrison, Elizabeth Erickson, and Mary Pettis. Despite living in the Twin Cities, the pull to Lake Superior and the North Shore remained strong. Pillsbury’s family had a cabin at the Encampment Forest Association, which had been in the family for three generations.
“I would teach during the school year but then I’d spend a lot of the summer up here at the cabin, so I’ve been coming to the Two Harbors area since I was a baby,” she said.
Eventually she and her husband decided to find their own “cabin” on the North Shore, and they ended up finding a year-round home in Castle Danger. But after spending just one night in their home, they decided they didn’t want it to merely be a vacation place: they wanted to move there permanently, and would find a way to make it work. Pillsbury then found a teaching position in the area, and her husband was able to move to the area a few years later.
“Lake Superior and its watershed has always been a part of me and my art,” Pillsbury said. “I love living up here, I love the lake and how it’s ever-changing.”
In 2004 Pillsbury started participating in the Plein Air event through the Grand Marais Art Colony. At the time, painting outdoors was a fairly new experience, but she said that in many ways it came naturally for her. Her process has come to involve a combination of outdoor and studio work. Pillsbury typically starts a new project by doing a thumbnail sketch, which helps her zero in on the composition. After that she does a small study, usually 8×10 or 9×12 inches, and then brings those elements into the studio to paint the larger scene. The largest piece she has painted is 30×90 inches, a triptych which is hanging at Lakeview Hospital in Two Harbors.
Pillsbury’s paintings capture the ever-changing beauty found throughout the different seasons on the North Shore, from Superior sunrises to evocative clouds to encounters with wildlife right outside her front door. In some of her paintings, Pillsbury paints an underpainting in acrylic, painting areas in the opposite color of what will be painted over it. After the underpainting is done, she uses oil paint over the acrylic and adds in the details to create the finished piece. One example of this technique can be found in her painting of trillium, where beneath the different shades of green are reds and oranges, and the creamy white of the flower petals are underlaid with lavender acrylic.
Though her work is rooted in Minnesota’s North Shore, Pillsbury’s art has attracted interest from around the country. A videographer from New York discovered her paintings and flew to Minnesota to create a video about her work and the relationship between her art and her surroundings on the North Shore. She then had the opportunity to send some of her paintings to a private showing in New York City. All four of the paintings she sent sold in January 2020.
Throughout her career as an artist on the North Shore, Pillsbury has been active in the local arts community. She has been one of the curators for the 20/20 Lake Superior Studio and Art Tour since its inception, and this year will be one of the jurors at Plein Air in Grand Marais. Looking ahead, Pillsbury says that she hopes to teach once again at the Grand Marais Art Colony.
“I really love the Grand Marais Art Colony, and I don’t know where I would be as an artist without that experience,” she said.
Pillsbury’s work can be found on her Facebook page, or at: sandipillsbury.com.