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CHAMPAIGN — Don Lake retired from Parkland College just over a decade ago, but his students and fans have kept in touch with him.

If you don't know Lake's work — mainly watercolors and drawings — you should.

His life's work is on display at "Don Lake: A Watercolor Retrospective" in Parkland's Giertz Gallery. It runs through Aug. 8.

Lake and wife Miriam have traveled as far as Costa Rica and the Isle of Wight, and spent a lot of time in the American Southwest.

"We haunt Utah quite a bit," in his Airstream travel trailer, he said.

But the Kansas native also captures the Midwest. One of his most dramatic early prairie landscapes is looking west from Parkland toward what was then unending farmland.

"There was one house," he said. "Now, it's a Dollar Store."

For years, the Lakes owned land in Kansas, where they intended to build a home along the Fall River. That never happened.

Maybe it was a good thing.

"If we'd built the house, we'd never have traveled the Southwest in our Airstream," he said.

Lake, who joined Parkland in 1970 when it was still spread over downtown Champaign offices and churches, worked there his entire career, retiring in 2008.

He taught all kinds of drawing and painting classes, but eventually settled in on watercolor as his own medium.

"Watercolor was not my first choice," he said. "I never thought I'd make my entire career in watercolor. I thought eventually this was going to run its course, and I'd return to oil painting."

In one class, Lake was originally interested in having students explore windows, their surfaces and what was behind them.

That led to his visiting Champaign's White Street fire station to photograph the glass doors.

"But in the process, I got more interested in the fire trucks inside."

Lake began doing watercolors about that time, in the early '70s.

At mid-career, in the '80s and '90s, he focused on industrial images.

As a onetime factory worker, "I have a feel for factories and industrial settings."

In some of his industrial watercolors, he uses imaginative colors as an added element and interest for both painter and viewer.

Faithful to their complicated lines but with coloring from his own mind, he achieves a fierce beauty, like the vivid orange, purple and green of one of his blast furnace works.

Among the factories he's explored is the Radio Flyer factory, which survived the war years by making jerry cans during World War II and has long made the little red wagons children love.

Besides industrial work, he did detailed representations of Parkland College in the process of being built.

Given his eye for machinery, there are trucks in there. In another "classic Midwestern" painting, there's a freshly polished John Deere tractor in its green glory.

That drew on his gleaming impressions of vehicles, not just their chrome glories but what was reflected in them — even the white areas are part of the effect.

"In watercolor, the white of the paper functions as light, so white spots on those shiny trailers read as light reflections," Lake said. "Most people see the shine, rather than the details that make up that shine. Painting is looking at the whole form," he said.

Some advice: Don't name the object you're painting.

"It leads to predetermined stereotypes. As a painter, you look at the shapes that are actually there in front of you," he said.

His students never forget him.

"Lake brought many of his students, particularly the more mature and high-achieving ones, up to professional rather than Sunday-painter standards," longtime News-Gazette arts writer Melissa Merli wrote in 2008.

"I am proud to be an artist, and I loved being a teacher," Lake said.

Judy Jones said Lake taught her a lot about the watercolor medium and about herself in the process."I discovered that with gentle scrubbing and 'lifting,' one could completely re-paint an entire page," she said.

"This was a wonderful revelation because, up until then, I had entirely avoided using that medium. It opened up a whole new world for me. I also learned in Don's classes that I had the ability to make things look realistic, something that I greatly envied and very much wanted to be able to do."

His work is on a grand scale; he has often worked with the largest paper available at the time.

An exception to much of his work: a series of scenes from his home pool.

"We bought a pool with a house that came with it," Lake said. "My family have been cooperative models."

Obviously a man of enthusiasms, his love for Airstreams is obvious.

"People with vintage Airstreams spend no limit of time, energy and money to restore the old classics," he said. "We have had three Airstreams. Our current one is a 28-foot 2018 Flying Cloud."

And gleaming aluminum, ready to show up in Texas or Utah, where he has moved on to dramatic landscapes, like the imaginative views of Palo Duro, the "Grand Canyon of Texas," and the second largest canyon in the nation.


Paul Wood is a reporter at The News-Gazette. His email is, and you can follow him on Twitter (@pvawood).