Humans of Parkland: Don Lake

Photo provided by Don Lake

Photo provided by Don Lake

Emma Gray


Don Lake, originally from Wichita, Kan., is a retired professor and program director of Parkland’s art and design program. He is also a professional watercolor painter.

Lake received his Bachelor of Fine Arts and his Master of Fine Arts from Wichita State University before coming to Parkland to start his career in teaching.

“Parkland was in its infancy in 1970 when I arrived,” he said. “We had no campus yet, and our offices and classrooms were scattered around downtown Champaign.”

Lake says he had the opportunity to build a program from the ground up, allowing him to create a well-respected organization.

“I had the opportunity to start something virtually from scratch and to kind of build it to my own image, along with my colleagues who all shared that vision,” he said. “Together we made something very substantial and those who followed us have continued that commitment to a serious and respected program.”

He says his biggest contribution to Parkland though was the three decades he spent as a dedicated teacher to his students. 

Lake says he became seriously interested in art in high school when a few teachers encouraged him.

“I was always interested in art and drawing, but not in any serious way until I got into high school and was encourage[d] in that direction by a couple of influential teachers.”

His chosen medium is watercolor, which he uses to paint landscapes and industrial scenes.

“I paint landscapes as a person who has always lived on the plains and prairies, and in that flat world, the big sky is always the dominant part of our field of view. The [glorious] and dramatic skies of this part of the world were my first interest in landscape painting. Later I became captivated by a particular place in the Flint Hills of Kansas where I owned some property and my love for that land became my focus for several years, and it is still much on my mind today,” he said.

Lake’s industrial scenes are inspired by time he spent working in a press shop while in graduate school.

“Nobody else was seriously painting that subject area and I became known largely for that part of my work,” he said. “It led to a number of commissions that provided access to those places, which are notoriously hard to get inside.”

Companies were initially wary of Lake being inside their factories, often having someone accompany him to make sure he did not photograph things they did not want to be seen, but he says the companies warmed up to him once it became clear that his only purpose was to celebrate their factories in the form of paintings.

“I find places like steel mills, [foundries], forging plants to be nearly overpoweringly loud, dark but with flashes of light and fire, full of complicated and textured forms all around, filled with distinctive smells, and visually chaotic in terms of constant motion. Sometimes one sees humans and operators, but these places are dark and often cold in winter, broiling hot in summer and sometimes considerable time passes between seeing a human being in there,” he said.

“These big smokestack factories were the backbone of American industry for many decades and they provided jobs and wealth to our cities and civic institutions. Most are now quiet relics of a past that is long gone and they are a kind of latter day ‘ruins’ of that time.”

After retiring from Parkland, Lake has remained active as a painter, showing his art regularly and occasionally teaching workshops. He is also an adjunct faculty member at Eastern Illinois University’s graduate college.

In his free time Lake and his wife enjoy traveling around the country in their travel trailer, which is featured in several of his paintings.

“My wife and I go on extended camping trips in our Airstream travel trailer to interesting places around the country, and we have traveled to Italy and the Canadian Maritimes recently. Time moves by more and more quickly as you get older. There is never enough of it to do all the things you would like to do,” he says.

Lake also has a fine arts scholarship named after him, called the Don Lake Art Scholarship, and recently won the 2017 lifetime achievement Art Culture Education award from 40 North for his devotion to his students and his mastery of watercolors.

Lake’s work can be seen in Parkland’s D-wing all along the long hallway by D120 and on his website at