Ra'Chel Alexander has always been inspired to express herself through painting and art. As someone very organized, logical, and practical, art provided an outlet to break from all that—a total escape. “I enjoy the freedom that comes from it,” shares Alexander, who as a child, found comfort drawing butterflies. In elementary school she discovered a way to process the events of 9/11 when her art teacher had her class create memorial drawings.
Early on her aim was to strive for realism. “I put myself in a box and felt like my work needed to be realistic to be good,” says Alexander. “I treated it like most other subjects in school, as if there were right and wrong answers.” If she painted a deer it needed to look exactly like a deer to be correct. That is what made sense to her. She always struggled with abstract work or the concept that art was more about your expression than about the literal subject you were painting.
Marcel Proust wrote “The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes.” In Alexander’s case when she relocated from North Carolina to the city of Grand Forks, she found new eyes. Especially with her art. “I really began exploring and understanding what it means to put your heart and soul in your work,” she says.
Alexander credits the local artists in Grand Forks for inspiring her to find her artistic voice. “Grand Forks as a city loves and appreciates the arts more than many cities our size,” says Alexander of this city on the Minnesota border along the Red River. When she heard about their passion when they spoke about the meaning behind their pieces she realized there was something missing in her work. “There was just a little spark, a nameless thing that I felt my pieces were lacking,” she adds.
Grand Forks is also a hotbed of arts organizations. There’s the Public Arts Commission, Arts for Vets, Empire Arts Center, Firehall Theater, the Summer Performing Arts Company, African Arts Arena, North Valley Youth Orchestra and more. “Each serves a unique purpose and strive to bring artists and the community together,” says Alexander. “We also have many non-arts related organizations that work to include artists in their mission and events, like the Downtown Development Association and Greater Grand Forks Young Professionals.”
Slowly Alexander began to change how she created art.“I always came back to animals because that is what I was drawn to the most,” she says. Experimenting with her artistic identity she slowly added more and more color to her pieces. “At first it was just small pops of color added in, like a little bit of orange to highlight brown fur in the animals I painted,” says Alexander.
One day while painting a grizzly bear she had difficulty distinguishing the highlights and shadows on the bear. She used a technique called underpainting. Essentially it is the first layer of paint on the canvas that helps artists visualize the final piece, like a sketch before a finished drawing. “Most underpaintings are monochromatic, usually shades of browns, but because the grizzly was already brown, I wanted to use bolder colors,” she explains.
Alexander used yellow for the brightest parts of the painting, blue for the darkest shades and red for everything in-between. “I ended up with a rainbow grizzly bear, and loved it,” she says. Alexander also created a purple, blue, green, and yellow sea turtle and ultimately switched to exclusively painting multi-color animals.“Now my pieces are a range of bright and vibrant colors like rainbow rhinos and blue otters.”
Alexander also finds that her work has given her a deeper connection to accessing her emotions. “I’ve found it’s much easier to put my feelings in my work and let it speak for me,” she shares. Also, her devotion to Grand Forks is so strong Alexander became the Executive Director for the Public Arts Commission (PAC). She held the position from 2019 until this past March. The role gave her the opportunity to nurture emerging artists as she organized and facilitated art events in Grand Forks and promoted artists through galleries and exhibits.
“Trying to get your foot in the door when you’re a new artist in the city can be a bit confusing and intimidating. There are many opportunities, but it can be overwhelming when you’re new and have no idea where to start,” explains Alexander who planned Art on the Red, a twenty year outdoor festival filled with artists, crafters and local musicians.
She even got artwork from local artists featured in public spaces like the bus station. “The sad truth is often times people tend to take advantage of artists. Frequently they are asked to do work for free or for “exposure.” Or the time and effort they put in simply isn’t valued. My goal was to do as much as I could to elevate other artists so the value of their work could be seen.”
The opportunity to help emerging artists was as valuable for Alexander as it was for the artists. “I’m always learning something new and now after being so involved, I feel more empowered to share those opportunities with new artists as I meet them,” she says. “I don’t think I had that confidence before.”