Painter sees N.E. Iowa through an artistic lens

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Plein air artist Rabecca Hennessey has cultivated her outdoors painting skills throughout the years. (Photo submitted)

By Caroline Rosacker

"When I am in conversation with someone – I am engaged in what they are saying, but I am looking at the way the sun's light or the moon's glow accentuates the world around me, and more than likely thinking about my next painting," commented local artist Rabecca Jayne Hennessey of Guttenberg.  

Many area residents may be familiar with Hennessey as she moves about our community with her easel, canvas, brushes, and palette of paints capturing the beauty of Northeast Iowa. An encounter with her easy style, bright smile and willingness to put down her brushes for a short chat, can be a treasured experience. 

Hennessey grew up in Fremont, Neb., and enrolled in a commercial and graphic arts program at a commercial arts college in Omaha  following high school gradation. "I studied graphic arts back in the dinosaur days when all the graphics were done by hand," she told The Press. "Current digital graphics are much more creative and visually appealing, and so much easier than the old cut and paste process." 

Recognizing her gift

Hennessey's artistic talent was put on hold for several years. "I had put painting away for about 15 years. About ten years ago my sister asked me to paint a picture of her dog," she shared. "My husband, Kevin, saw the piece and commented, 'You should do this for a living!'  I was hesitant and wondered when I would have time. Cindy Olsen, Creativity Center owner, also prompted me to teach painting classes at her gallery and I did, and from there the classes grew over a period of years." 

The talented artist has remained diligent to her craft and carved out a name for herself throughout Northeast Iowa. "I enjoy an impressionistic style, even though it can be a struggle to paint loosely," she noted.  "The viewer already knows what a flower looks like. Impressionistic art lets them realize what they think it is."

Hennessey's studio portraits lean towards realism.  "The contrast of sharp and soft edges is very important in painting, especially in my commissioned pet portraits." 

The local artist shared her thoughts on owning a for-profit studio. "I miss Bent Willow studio. Anytime you teach you learn from the experience. It was exciting and a lot of fun," she recalled. 

Plein air

Hennessey's interest shifted toward plein air painting, a French expression meaning “in the open air,” which refers to the act of painting outdoors with the artist's subject in full view. "I was more focused on painting outdoors and improving my skills with that," shared Hennessey. "When you paint outside you're chasing light. It's a challenge because you are trying to put a huge environment onto a small canvas. You have to figure out how the shadows and light work together – not all of them do. You have to feel what is going on. You start with a broader area bring it in and learn what to keep and what to leave out. If there is a tree in the way that blocks your focal point, you may have to leave it out." 

Plein air painting requires patience and preparation. "It is necessary to study the landscape before you start," she commented. "You have to study the trees, for instance, and how the light affects them throughout the day. Taking a photograph distorts color, light and space. It is important to see for yourself, and take notes of the colors and subtleties that you see."

A worldwide pandemic put Hennessey's artistic pursuits on temporary hold. "I was supposed to travel to several different places but COVID-19 put an end to that," she sadly reported. "I spent a lot of time in my home studio studying and painting on my own. Most of the competitions were cancelled."

National recognition

One of Hennessey's renderings was recognized nationally. "This year one of my pieces was accepted into the American Impressionist Society (AIS) – a national organization," said Hennessey. "The piece is titled Froggin and was accepted for the AIS spring show. It is an online juried show. Getting juried into a national show is a big step for an artist!" 

Additional awards were received at the "Burlington Paint Out" where she earned first place. "A paint out is a competition where artists paint for a certain number of days in a certain area and then turn in their paintings to be judged and then sold," she explained. "I have entered the 'Bluff Strokes' competition in Dubuque four times. It is a great place to sell paintings and be surrounded by exceptional artists." 

Hennessey is currently partnering with The Collective, an artist co-op located in downtown Elkader. She hopes to have a pop-up painting class in the future. 

Inspiration in a river town

"This is the first year I have ever had a solo show!" she proudly shared. "It is titled Inspiration in a River Town. It was shown at the Sanford Museum in Cherokee and is currently at the Belmond Art Center until the end of October. From there it will move to the Smokestack Art Gallery in Dubuque until the end of December." 

It has been a long, challenging journey for the successful artist. "Never in a million years did I think I would be experiencing any kind of success," she humbly shared. "At one point I even thought I would never buy another tube of paint. I have experienced blessings upon blessings. Sometimes it's challenging when it's just me and I'm painting alone. We are so vulnerable to other people's opinions. You have to get to a certain point where you make yourself happy. That is where you grow."

Hennessy ended the interview with a few words of artistic wisdom. "We all bloom where we are planted. It doesn't matter what it is. Whatever your gifts are it is important to use them.”

Hennessey’s art currently hangs in three galleries in  Northeast Iowa: Guttenberg, Elkader and McGregor.  Follow Hennessey on her artistic journey and subscribe to her quarterly newsletter at

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