The show must go on; Despite weather, festival a hit; Ihlenfeld top artist

Published 8:38 am Monday, August 28, 2017

A veteran artist from Mason City, Iowa, was the Purchase Award winner at the sixth annual Austin ArtWorks Festival Saturday — and the changeable weather did nothing to dampen her enthusiasm.

“It’s a wonderful honor,” said Tonja Ihlenfeldt.

The 49-year-old artist, a mother of seven children, has been creating pieces in various media for many years, but the combination of photographs and oil painting proved to be a magic mix that she has been employing for the past six years.

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Her works feature all manner of subjects, but they are always ones “that speak to the heart,” she said.

Clouds once again began to gather over the Austin ArtWorks Festival, threatening more rain Saturday afternoon.

She is not always sure where one painting may take her, she said, “or where it will end. Sometimes I will just stare at a photo forever,” it seems, before the right idea comes.

“I really enjoy taking ugly things, or things that people don’t notice, and making them beautiful; or, something from the past and making it fresh again.” she said.

She and her husband have done just that in Mason City, when they purchased an abandoned church and are now renovating the structure. The former church now houses State Farm offices for her husband, Tim, and her studio. Her works are also on display at a Mason City gallery called Art on the Plaza.

Stilt walkers from Chicks on Sticks take a break from walking around at the Austin ArtWorks Festival Saturday.

The Purchase Award is the top honor of the festival, and is made possible each year by a sponsor who donates $5,000 and earns the right to name the winner. This year, Phillip and Gail Minerich of Austin were the generous supporters of the award. The funds allow the Austin Area Commission for the Arts to purchase the awarded work which is then displayed at a community location. To date, five others are on display.

Ihlenfeldt and fellow artists had nothing but praise for the festival, held on Saturday and Sunday, despite a raindrop or two.

“We know that you can’t control the weather,” said Sandra Haff, a mixed media artist from Minneapolis. “We’re used to this — and I don’t care, I love it here. Just love it. This is my third or fourth year here, and Austin does this very, very well.”

First-timer Chris Beebe, a painter from Zumbrota, agreed.

As rain clouds begin to move in, Zumbrota artist Christopher Beebe paints the Paramount Theatre from afar Saturday at the Austin ArtWorks Festival.

“They do a very, very good job — and the volunteers are incredible,” he said. Other artists echoed the thought, noting the friendliness and organization of the event.

“It is definitely one of the better run events,” said jewelry artist Quay Flom of Duluth, another first-timer.

“And the minute after 5 o’clock, I’m headed for the Spam Museum,” said Samantha Carlson, an artist from Moundsview.

Although it marked its sixth anniversary, this was the first time the majority of the festival displays were held on green space north of the courthouse. Other venues for music and demonstrations were held at the Paramount Theatre and Paramount annex; author presentations were held at Sweet Reads Books and Candy.

Sue Soenen, of New Hampton, Iowa, works on one of her baskets at her booth Saturday afternoon. Eric Johnson/

The wealth of support for the artist community is evident in Austin, said Chris Norbury, one of nine authors who spoke at Sweet Reads over the two-day festival. He said the Friday night reception demonstrated the care the festival organizers take.

“To sit in a room with all different types of artists, it was wonderful,” he said. “This can be a lonely profession” that can be isolating, he said. Having a chance to connect with other creative types “was really nice to see.”

“It is clear that Austin is an arts-loving community,” he said.

The weekend festival wrapped up a week of events, culminating with the exhibits and author talks, as well as a full slate of music performances, including “Artrageous” Saturday night at the Paramount.