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Paint what you see — water is everywhere in Minnesota

Minnesota Marine Art Museum, 800 Riverview Drive, Winona

We were heading south for our annual fall apple-buying trip when I said: “Let’s go a little farther to that marine art museum you like.” Both the Percolator and my father had been there and told me I had to go, but I hadn’t been near Winona lately, so 47 miles south of honeycrisp we turned off of legendary Highway 61.

The quaint, gray, cedar shake building clung to the edge of the river like a buoy. Numerous barges were moored out front like objects in a soon-to-be landscape painting. Overhead an eagle soared under directives of the tourism department. It seemed too idyllic to be true. Then we walked inside.

A lot of people like art. And a lot of people buy art. But when you own Fastenal, the nation’s largest nuts and bolts dealership, you can buy really great art. That’s what Bob Kierlin and his wife Mary Burrichter did in their spare time when they weren’t putting pieces together in Winona. Eventually their collection outgrew their home and they opened this museum in 2006. The Minnesota Marine Art Museum borrows pieces from other collections and museums and hosts traveling exhibits too (Ansel Adams photos through Jan. 11.) But their permanent collection is what really makes this the gem it is.

When we entered the lobby I saw several galleries stretching off into the distance. My father, a former advertising art director, taught me how to draw in perspective when I was about 12 years old. I remember being awestruck at how the converging lines indicated distance and scale. From the lobby I could see from one exhibition space into the next then into another and another. The building was much larger inside than it looked.

A couple ship models and a washstand belonging to England’s Admiral Nelson set the tone in the lobby, but the first painting I fell in love with was an 1884 scene of New York’s harbor in moonlight. The detail, lighting, clouds, workers, riggings, smokestacks, flags, cobblestones, the bridge in the distance, the composition with the urban buildings jammed up on one side and the open seaside represented on the other, and the carved gilt frame! I was drawn right in and it wasn’t even the type of painting I normally liked. The next room had several America’s Cup paintings and the way the wind filled the sails literally took my breath away.

The museum’s paintings are exhibited in several galleries. There are American and European artists from the 1600s through today featuring traditional marine art, modern and impressionist works, and an extensive collection of Hudson River School paintings. John Singer Sargent, Winslow Homer, Georgia O’Keefe, Marsden Hartley, Maurice Prendergast, Stuart Davis, Andrew Wyeth, Mondrian, Matisse, Picasso, Van Gogh . . . if you made a checklist of famous artists they’d all be there.

But what’s so cool about this museum is the vision behind it: to collect art that includes a body of water in it. I thought it was all going to be paintings of old ships, but they’re just paintings. Beautiful paintings. I looked at Perc in amazement and he said: “No visit to Minnesota is complete without visiting this place.”

Along the way:

• Red Wing: Red Wing Shoes — store and museum (315 Main St.)

• Lake City: Chickadee Cottage Cafe (317 N. Lakeshore Dr.), Pepin Heights — open through December (1753 S. Highway 61)

• Kellogg: Lark Toys

• Winona: J. R.  Watkins Museum & Store Watkins — (507) 457-3300 call for hours (150 Liberty St.)