Painter Finds Inspiration on the Shores of Tonka Bay

by | Nov 2023


Photos: Chris Emeott

Artist Kickliy creates a series of live paintings with Lake Minnetonka as his subject.

Hidden in plain sight, on the shore of a small marsh in Tonka Bay, a weeping willow sways in the lake breeze. It may be one of thousands of such willows, here and elsewhere, but to Minneapolis artist Kickliy, the sight of this tree transports him to a familiar scene outside of Paris.

Though he’s painted and sketched it many times before, the willow was Kickliy’s inspiration for a series of live oil paintings focused on the sights and surrounds of Lake Minnetonka, which he began early this summer. (Live painting includes an artist creating the piece “on the scene” rather than in a studio and is similar to plein air painting.)

Kickliy Willow Painting

Willow painting by Kickliy

“There’s beauty in things that people pass by,” Kickliy says. “That’s kind of the importance of doing paintings and things is to show people like, ‘Wait a minute, I always looked at that, but I never thought about it like that before.’ People stop and look.”

This project is a natural progression of the former comic book artist’s decade-long foray into painting. After a 2013 car accident left him injured and unable to draw, he spent a few months, and then years intermittently, in France healing. Painting provided the first pain-free way to create art.

Kickliy Paints

Kickliy, who at the time of the accident went by another name, was inspired by the work of French painter Claude Monet and spent the period of convalescence visiting Monet’s gardens outside Paris and various art museums while teaching himself how to paint with oils. When, after many months, Kickliy painted a piece he felt was worthy of signing, he realized he didn’t want to use his given name. So, he decided to take back a lost family name, Kickliy, to symbolize the end of his life as an award-winning illustrator and the start of a new era in his creative journey. “The life that I cut off and left behind, it’s done,” Kickliy says.

A decade on, Kickliy has found his way as an artist once more and pursues a diverse assortment of subjects and styles, from live painting sports and documenting scenes of the Minnesota State Fair (In 2021, he completed 80 live paintings in 12 days.) to a series of autumnal bird paintings inspired by time with his family Up North and even a stint painting goings-on at Lord Fletcher’s Old Lake Lodge.

While having his photograph taken for this article, Kickliy painted this scene at the Tonka Bay Marina. His appreciation for this area runs deep and inspires his work.

While having his photograph taken for this article, Kickliy painted this scene at the Tonka Bay Marina. His appreciation for this area runs deep and inspires his work.

Nowadays, Kickliy doesn’t take reference photos. He will either sketch a scene to be painted later or live paint then and there. Each genre he pursues is unique and insightful. To watch him paint is to be unaware of the subject until the very last stroke, when everything suddenly comes together. “If you look at my work, the piece that I do tomorrow is going to be different than the piece that I do today. And the piece that I did today is different from the piece that I did yesterday. You can see growth—then you know I’m on the right path. My fear is doing the same painting over and over again and me not growing,” Kickliy says.

The challenge of learning and creating is what encourages Kickliy’s work—to see further and do more. And also, to be just as inspired by his homeland as he was while living in France. Through his time in Minnetonka—pulling up to Fletcher’s via pontoon at twilight, establishing an art and book printing business A4MN with a friend in Crystal Bay and fishing the lake with his dad as a child—he’s found that. “It’s a beautiful place,” he says. “… my eyes have shifted from just looking at things [to] looking to see Minnesota as something worth painting.” He calls it “the pursuit of understanding.”

Monet’s Mouse

A visit to Monet’s gardens in Giverny, France, around 2014–15, led Kickliy to some unimaginable experiences. While enjoying lunch in the gardens with his French host, Maria, a little mouse made an appearance, running around as onlookers screeched.

“Maria was kind of getting nervous, and I was teasing, ‘Don’t worry. It’s just Monet’s mouse. He lives in his beard and watches how he paints,’” Kickliy says. Maria laughed, and Kickliy filed the story away.

He later pitched an idea for a book to some European editors, and Musnet: The Mouse of Monet was born. The children’s comic book was released to critical acclaim in France and nominated for the prestigious Angoulême International Comics Festival Award, according to Kickliy.

Musnet: The Mouse of Monet

In the process of writing and illustrating the story, The Fondation Claude Monet took Kickliy under its wing. “They let me in and gave me carte blanche to the whole grounds … They let me in places that no one had ever been in before, like Monet’s second studio. The only other artist they let in there was [French artist Pierre-Auguste] Renoir,” Kickliy says. “Then, I was invited to Monet’s first house and got to sleep in his bed. That was crazy stuff.”

Kickliy followed up Musnet with three sequels, with many scenes inspired by true stories from the grounds and the generational gardeners whose parents and grandparents worked for Monet.

Following the conclusion of this series, Kickliy hopes to showcase his art at a gallery. To see more of his recent work, visit his Instagram page @yilkcik.


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