Redlin Art Center Celebrates "The Early Years"

Jul 14, 2014

The Redlin Art Center in Watertown is one of those rare museums where visitors can see not just a few of the painter’s works, but the evolution of the artist as well. The collection of 160 paintings now includes five works new to the center: a handful of Terry Redlin’s first paintings he sold as a wildlife artist. They’re part of a new exhibit called “The Early Years.”

Drive to Watertown from either direction on Interstate 29, and one of the first things you’ll see is the Redlin Art Center. The three story high brick building with its immense white granite columns is hard to miss. It’s estimated that about 140,000 visitors make their way through the gallery each year, from all over the country and the world.

So it’s hard to imagine that in 1977, when Terry Redlin first began selling his paintings, he didn’t know if anyone would like his work. Julie Ranum is the Executive Director of the Redlin Art Center. She says Redlin didn’t begin saving his original paintings until 1985. 
“He never dreamt there would be a Redlin Art Center,” Ranum says. “He never imagined he’d ever even want to know where those pieces of art were. So they were sold and he never looked back.”
Redlin had created a five year plan to quit his day job and paint full time. The Early Years exhibit at the Redlin Art Center celebrates that formative period in his career when Redlin first began selling paintings in 1977, to when he became a full time wildlife artist in 1979, a year ahead of his original goal.

The exhibit highlights five paintings from that time period new to the museum, recently purchased from a private collector. Ranum says it’s like taking a step back in time. The paintings are even housed in the original frames built by Terry Redlin himself. Ranum’s favorite piece in the collection is “Winter Snows.”

"Winter Snows" by Terry Redlin, 1977

“I see South Dakota,” Ranum says. “When I look at Winter Snows and the snow geese and the vast field and the barbed wire fence with the farm in the background and the dark sky, and the white of the birds contrasting against that dark sky, I see eastern South Dakota, that’s what we see here. And I know that is what he grew up with, and it was probably very natural for him to paint that.”
Ranum says part of what makes the Redlin Art Center, and the new exhibit, special is that visitors have a chance to see some of the artist’s very first works, and follow his journey all the way through his final painting. In later years, Redlin incorporated brighter colors, more light, and people in his work. The early paintings are more muted, and focus on wildlife in their natural setting. In one of Redlin’s first paintings sold as a professional artist, a flock of geese fly over choppy waters under a mostly grey sky. Ranum says as with many of Redlin’s paintings, she sees another South Dakota spot.

"Over the Blowdown" by Terry Redlin, 1977

“Over the Blowdown, I know was a piece that was inspired by Lake Kampeska, right here in Watertown,” Ranum says. “Of course Terry Redlin grew up in Watertown, South Dakota and spent many days fishing Lake Kampeska. And Terry Loved the challenge of painting water, especially rough water. And so again I think I see Lake Kampeska in this piece.”
Ranum says Redlin once told her that for him, painting was like breathing. But that doesn’t mean there wasn’t a bit of anxiety or uncertainty when he was about to step out on his own and paint full time. As part of the exhibit, visitors can hear about the experience from Redlin himself. A call on their cell phone connects visitors with an audio tour, with clips recorded in the late 1990’s for a radio promotion.
“Wildlife, to me, seemed like the right way to go because it was just in its infancy,” Redlin says. “Limited edition prints, you were just starting to hear about limited edition prints for instance. And I thought, I’ve got to get into that, I’ve got to check that all out, but I’ve got to do it very, very seriously. And I remember going back, like, middle of the morning, to the one friend and I said, well I know what I’m going to do. I’m going to be a wildlife artist. And I remember him looking at me and going, yeah, sure, you know. And that was it. He didn’t know how serious I was.”
Redlin Art Center Executive Director Julie Ranum says she hopes when people step into the exhibit, they feel the emotion of what it was like to share this art with the world for the first time. She says she also hopes it inspires others to pursue their dreams.
“Terry Redlin always said to everyone, if your work is all your own, never copied, and it’s as good as you can do at the time, it’s good enough,” Ranum says. “And that was his mantra. That’s what he shared with every student group that came into the art center. Often people would say, about these early paintings, don’t you wish you could go back and redo that now because you’re so much better or you’ve learned so much? And Terry would always say, no, because it was as good as I could do at the time.”
And Terry Redlin’s good enough at the time, was also good enough to launch a career, and good enough to still be admired by thousands of visitors at the center each year. Ranum says bringing the five original paintings to the museum was emotional. She says she never dreamt they’d ever come home as part of the permanent collection. And with more than 50 original paintings still in the hands of private collectors, there’s always hope for the art center to keep expanding, even all these years after Redlin’s retirement.

For more about Terry Redlin, or to learn more about the Redlin Art Center, visit