People in your neighborhood: Nanci Yermakoff

By Kathy Henderson

You could sit for hours and only hear the sound of
The trees keepin’ the lake and sky apart

When Canadian singer/songwriter William Prince wrote those lyrics for “Gospel First Nation,” he was inspired by the landscape of Lake Winnipeg and Fisher Bay, Manitoba.

Yet that expressive line comes easily to mind—The trees keepin’ the lake and sky apart—when looking at the watercolor landscapes created by St. Anthony Park award-winning artist Nanci Yermakoff.

Unlike Fisher Bay, which can be located on a map, Yermakoff’s landscapes are imaginary places.

Yermakoff’s work has an element of abstraction. From a distance, one sees a tree-lined horizon between the water and sky. Look closer. There are not any individual trees, leaves or branches painted.

Yermakoff creates her art out of a home studio that presents an efficient, well-organized, colorful and compact space in what was originally intended to be a front bedroom. She usually stands while making her art, with the paper placed on a flat surface in front of her, and will use a hairdryer to start the drying process.

Occasionally, Yermakoff abandons that technique, commandeers the dining room table, spreads out a multitude of watercolor papers, and “adds a big old fan to make sure they are completely dried before the next wash is applied.” Her other favorite place to paint is in her studio in the family’s Northwoods place.

Now, she has landed her own studio space in the historic Northrup King Building in northeast Minneapolis. Getting it was a multi-year journey for Yermakoff of selected event or festival displays, a partnership studio operation and, finally, her own solo studio in the art complex. Gallery #444 is open by appointment, and online viewing is available at nanciyermakoff.com.

It isn’t that Yermakoff came late to her art. It’s that career and home life separated her college art education enthusiasm and her decision in later years to take up art professionally.

In between those times, Yermakoff retained her love of watercolor art in the form of a weekend hobby or taking her paints and paper and brushes along on vacations.

“Watercolors travel well,” Yermakoff explained.

Locally, Yermakoff’s artwork may be familiar in the St. Anthony Park area, as she has been one of the monthly featured artists at the boréal Art Loft.

However, don’t look for Nanci’s art in the annual St. Anthony Park Arts Festival in early June. “Watercolor and weather don’t’ work,” she said with a smile.

Yermakoff has also been entering her art in the Minnesota State Fair’s Fine Art Center juried art exhibition competition since the days when artists had to bring their art work to the fairgrounds for initial consideration. These days, submissions arrive via digital images.

“We’d go to the Fair each year, “Yermakoff said, “and my husband would eagerly search the [Fine Arts building’s] walls to find my work and hurry back to me to report the results – ribbon or award.”

During the 2023 State Fair, Nanci’s husband stayed home, and ironically, “it was the year I received first prize” in the watercolor category.

“It was a real honor,” she reflected, “There were so many beautiful pieces of art.” Yermakoff numbers rather than titles her art, and “Series 15 #11” sold during the Fair.

Starting in February, Yermakoff returned to the classroom. This time, not as a student but as a teacher of the monthly Saturday afternoon watercolor art classes at the St. Anthony Park Library.

“We’re excited to host Nanci Yermakoff,” said St. Anthony Park Library Manager Tati Terfa, and have her “introduce attendees to the magic of watercolor.” And Yermakoff affirms, “It can be fun to be the teacher.”

Terfa explained that bringing in Yermakoff to teach art comes on the heels of the St. Anthony Park Library Association’s recent collaboration with the library to host a watercolor class for adults.

“It was wildly popular,” Terfa said. “Participants appreciated the opportunity to work with a community artist and get hands-on experience in practicing or building their artistic skills. St. Paul is home to many talented artists and as the library, we enjoy being able to create connections and lift up local art.”

Thus, when the library decided to offer watercolor classes again, “the library staff wanted to continue its connection with a local artist to teach the class,” Terfa said.

About 15 years ago, Yermakoff taught watercolor for the Como Park Botanical and Zoological Arts program. For those sessions, students brought their own paper, paints and brushes to the class.

This time as teacher, Yermakoff appreciates that the library, through the St. Anthony Park Library Association, not only provides the materials but followed her advice to furnish each new student with an 8-by-8-inch sample of quality art paper and dabs of six colors of professional-grade paint, reinforcing what Yermakoff strongly advocates: “Materials make the difference.”

 Nanci said that working with lower-grade materials is often why beginners become frustrated and abandon watercolor painting. She didn’t want that to happen with her library students.

For example, during a blending class in February, Yermakoff demonstrated how watercolor paint blobs, puddles and edges on lower-grade paper (wood pulp-based) versus the more workable interaction of pigment and paper that occurs when using 100% cotton-based paper.

“‘How one manages the ratio of pigment to water has a major effect on the results” is another of Yermakoff’s personal mantras.

Her students learn that while a tube of professional-grade paint which has more pigment, costs more than student-grade paint, they will use far less paint and get better results when using professional-quality. In the long run, it can be a more economical and aesthetically pleasing choice. 

Kathy Henderson is a regular freelance writer for the Bugle.

Editor’s note: Permission granted from the producers of William Prince’s “Gospel First Nation” to quote his lyrics in this story.

Photo cutline: Nanci Yermakoff in her home studio. Photo by Jan Geisen.

Leave a Reply