Down the River Day Trip: Winona's Minnesota Marine Art Museum

Down the River Day Trip: Winona's Minnesota Marine Art Museum

Published July 22nd, 2023 by Sananda McCall

Boasting six concurrent exhibitions of contemporary and historical work, this museum just down the Mississippi celebrates artwork about our relationship with water


If you’re googling the best places to visit on a weekend near the Twin Cities for a relaxing getaway, you may want to consider making a trip to the Minnesota Marine Art Museum (MMAM) in Winona. Now, if you’re reading this with keys in hand, prepare yourself for a soothing, aquatic experience in full bloom. 

The venue itself welcomes you into a resort-style space that overlooks the Mississippi River where Minnesota and Wisconsin meet. This is all a part of the experience to help visitors open their minds to the artwork on display.

However, before we view the exhibits let’s take a step back and look at the MMAM building. Jon Swanson, the museum’s Curator of Collections & Exhibitions, describes the building as the honorary seventh exhibit in addition to the six, one that captures a moment of its own. It emanates 18th century Old English Colonial architecture that may look familiar if you’ve visited areas of New England and Cape Cod. Gray shutters, accentuated with a panel of large windows. The whole structure is fenced in by shrubbery and trees native to Minnesota — which supports the riverside experience.


Photo by Bailey Tillman.


The museum’s name speaks for itself. Their mission is to showcase exhibitions of art dedicated to inspiring and educating people on our many relationships with water. This can be seen through artwork about oceans and rivers, but also about poverty, the human body, and emotions — because water is life, and each gallery shares an encounter with a different aspect of life.

Through the doors you can’t help but notice the ginormous stained glass piece that sustains the theme of the museum, picturing a trail that leads to a basin of water. This year’s highlighted exhibits emphasize the human relationship to flora and fauna, including two featuring the work of artists Courtney Mattison and Liz Sexton.


Courtney Mattison brings you into the ‘Undercurrent’

Courtney Mattison, Our Changing Seas III (detail), 2014. Glazed stoneware & porcelain, 108 x 156 x 22". Photo by Bailey Tillman.


Mattison shares a vision of climate change through large ceramic sculptures, exposing to viewers another layer of poverty that is unique to sea creatures. Through the piece Our Changing Seas III, Mattison introduces a coral reef installation that “celebrates its exotic beauty” while also showing the threat these reefs face. The reef display shows a flush of color from healthy to bleached coral resembling skeletal remains, as a result of human-caused pollution. The placement mimics the movement of matter tossing around a cyclone. The message? There’s still hope to save the reefs if the threats can be reduced. Here Mattison provides the  current condition of the world’s seas, but through their next showcase, answers what those threats are: fossil fuels. Specifically oil cans, gasoline, and carbon dioxide emissions.

Mattison creates bright red ceramic oil cans covered in bleached coral showing the connection between the two. These pollutants have almost taken the identity of the reefs — pulling away from its vibrant hue to becoming the main focus of the oceans’ current condition. 

Without giving too much away of Mattison’s take on life underwater there’s one piece, Malum Geminos, or "evil twin" in Latin, that truly brings the consequences of human-caused pollution to light. It’s a wall of bleached coral forms arranged symmetrically in a book-matched style. The most eye-catching contrast here is the blue wall. If you center yourself in front of the work, you’ll notice a small heart that serves as the bind but also reminds the viewer of the message — there’s still hope to save the oceans. 


Courtney MattisonMalum Geminos, 2019. Glazed stoneware & porcelain, 84 x 250 x 22". Photo by Bailey Tillman. 


Liz Sexton Presents ‘Out of Water’

Liz Sexton, Long-Spined Porcupinefish Mask, 2019. Paper mâché, cloth, wire, skewer sticks, and acrylic paint. Photo by Bailey Tillman.


This is fun. Liz Sexton compares human life to the animal kingdom…using paper mache. Sexton creates large mask heads of sea animals, reptiles, and mollusks that are meant to be worn. The exhibit showcases photos of these masks being worn in places such as an office break room, by the beach, going camping, and at the laundromat. Many of the animal heads here are on pedestals, and Sexton does not miss when it comes to the details. Creatures such as the sea lion and seal are made complete with broom bristles for whiskers. 

The remaining exhibits include: Waking Worlds: Wondrous Reads for Curious Minds as a part of the museum’s literary arts gallery, The Poetry of Nature featuring Hudson River School landscapes, Creating the Illusion of Light featuring two Minnesotan plein air painters, and Seascapes, showcasing works from the museum's permanent collection.

As for the honorary seventh exhibit, MMAM invites you to their gardens where you’ll also find a bunny hopping in between bushes, or butterflies and bees pollinating. MMAM recently arranged a tea garden not too far from their Mississippi Sippin’ venue. Speaking of — yes, every Thursday throughout the summer you can enjoy a spirited or non-spirited drink right on the museum’s riverwalk (small plates included). 


Top: Liz Sexton, Out of Water, installation view. Photo by Sananda McCall. Bottom: Installation view. Photo by Bailey Tillman.


Bring the family out for art exploration

There’s activities for the kiddos to enjoy too, like Toddler Tuesday, where the little ones can channel their inner artist with hands-on activities. 

If you’re an artist looking to come out for inspiration and networking opportunities, the MMAM and River Arts Alliance have partnered together to offer a program called ArtsXchange, a monthly networking event limited to 25 participants. MMAM has also set out to make sure everyone has access to art education. Their SPARK! initiative is designed for people with memory loss in the early to middle stages and their care partners. It’s a mentally stimulating and engaging opportunity to observe a few pieces of artwork and discuss them in an open environment.

Space at this museum seems to be limitless, as the facility also provides an education room and a rentable Atrium space. 

Overall, there’s something for everyone to relish at one of Winona’s main attractions. ◼︎


Photo by Bailey Tillman.


Liz Sexton: Out of Water and Courtney Mattison: Undercurrent are on view at the Minnesota Marine Art Museum through September 3. Hours of operation are Tuesday — Sunday, 10am to 5pm. You can find MMAM on Instagram @minnesotamarineartmuseum.

All photos by Bailey Tillman, including the banner image, are courtesy of the museum.

This activity is made possible by the voters of Minnesota through a grant from the Metropolitan Regional Arts Council, thanks to a legislative appropriation from the arts and cultural heritage fund. 


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