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Twenty years ago, a group of friends met at Hardee’s in Winona to plan an exhibit of artist Rockwell Kent’s works at the Winona Public Library.

It never happened.

But today, the idea to honor Kent has evolved into a five-day festival celebrating the artist and his time in Winona.

“Rockwell Kent in Winona: A Centennial Celebration” starts today with ceremonies at Winona State University, Saint Mary’s University, the Winona County History Center and the Minnesota Marine Art Museum.

“It’s going to be a lot of fun, a lot of sharing history together,” said festival organizer Taff Roberts.

The festival will include three exhibits of Kent’s prints, a bus tour of places around town that Kent frequented, documentary film screenings, speakers and discussions, and an original play, “Angels in the Trees: Rockwell Kent in Winona,” written by Lynn Nankivil of Winona and presented by Theatre du Mississippi.

Kent briefly lived in Winona a century ago, and held his first art exhibit at the Winona Public Library. During his stay, he assisted with the construction of two houses at Briarcombe Farms. Originally from New York, Kent spent his career as an artist, writer, and political activist, and is best-known for illustrating Herman Melville’s novel “Moby Dick.”

Roberts said the celebration will likely attract Kent enthusiasts both locally and from across the country — and beyond. Roberts said he’s expecting visitors from Arizona, New Mexico, Massachusetts, and Washington state. He’s even hosting a woman from Newfoundland, Canada, who is planning a Kent celebration there in 2014.

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Roberts said the festival is indicative of Winona’s growing arts community.

“Rockwell Kent walked up the street to the public library, he turned around to somebody and said, ‘Winona is culturally a no-man’s land,” Roberts said.

“If he came back today, he might say something different.”

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