Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

St. Paul artist connects art to geocaching via her GeoNiche Project July 11, 2012

A ST. PAUL ARTIST and educator with roots in the southwestern Minnesota prairie is bringing her art to the public via a project that links art to geocaching.

Felice Amato, who grew up in Cottonwood and Marshall, has hidden about 15 original works of ceramic art in St. Paul and in southeastern Minnesota through her GeoNiche Project, funded by a Minnesota State Arts Board Artist Initiative Grant awarded in 2011. To date, she’s stashed her sculptures at Swede Hollow, a St. Paul Park, and in or near Faribault, Red Wing and Winona. She’s created pieces for the Red River Valley area, too, but has yet to install them. And she would also like to sculpt GeoNiche art for her native prairie.

Amato follows the geocaching model wherein geocachers use GPS devices or smart phones to find her art based on geographic coordinates and clues. Her caches are listed on Geocaching.com as felice.amato and on Opencaching.com as felice1.

The project evolved as Amato considered a unique way to get the ceramic niches and tableaus she’s made for years out to the public. “My sister, brother and aunt are avid geocachers and it just struck me that this could be an interesting way to make my work public,” she explains.

Finding no one out there doing exactly what she proposed, Amato moved forward with the GeoNiche Project and her unifying theme of women’s lives.

“I wanted to create secular niches that spoke to a sense of place, history and continuity—and that honored the important life moments that we all experience,” she says.

“Under the Arbor,” one of the GeoNiches placed in Swede Hollow. Photo courtesy of Felice Amato.

She placed her first GeoNiche close to home, a mile away in Swede Hollow, a St. Paul valley originally settled in the mid 1800s by Swedish immigrants and thereafter by Polish, Italians and Spanish Americans. “The rhythm of settlement in Swede Hollow made that especially rich,” Amato says. “Flooding, impermanence and the piecing together of community shanty by shanty—the thriving, the dispersal, the abandoning, the reclaiming—it all inspires my imagination.”

This photo, courtesy of Felice Amato, shows houses and quilters in progress for Swede Hollow.

Amato was inspired to shape pieces like “Mother and Child by the ‘Hobo’s Washroom’,” “Little Girl with birds,” “Bread house” and three other larger works for Swede Hollow. Those GeoNiches hint at folktales based on the experiences of the immigrants who once called this place home. A hand-drawn map to those artworks can be found inside a GeoNiche by Swede Hollow Cafe (coordinates N 44° 57.551’ W093° 04.330’) as Amato awaits approval of official Geocaching.com listings for Swede Hollow.

“Seamstresses” in place at the historic Faribault Woolen Mill along the Cannon River blends seamlessly into its environment. Photo by Audrey Kletscher Helbling.

In Faribault, she was naturally drawn to the Faribault Woolen Mill, she says, because of an art series initiated several years ago on women in factory settings. Amato created “Seamstresses” and tucked it into a niche along a retaining wall at the mill next to the Cannon River.

Amato’s sculptures tell a story as seen in this close-up of woolen mill factory workers. Her sculptures are made from paperclay with wire details. Photo by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

Explains Amato of her women in factory art:

The metaphorical potential of women and labor—especially manual and repetitive labor—is enormous with so many different layers it makes my mind explode. To what did/do women give their lives? What other inner lives (maybe as poets or artists, or dreamers) did they have especially at times where realizing those passions was even more difficult than it is today? I wanted to speak to a sense of honor and even sacredness in the making, the plodding, the rote quality of manual tasks—often just a part of an end product. Sewing and weaving itself is rich with metaphor as is the factory setting: the balance of isolation and comradery.

Amato secured “Prairie” onto a tree near a bike trail west of Faribault. Photo by Kevin Kreger.

Outside of Faribault, lashed onto a tree along a bike trail, Amato switches to a rural theme in “Prairie,” a definitive piece which connects to her prairie roots. The sculpture was partially-influenced, she says, by “the solitude and perseverance of the prairie woman in her battles with so many forces—the soil, the wind, the grasshoppers, the fires.”

Geocacher Kevin Kreger of Faribault, who sought out both Faribault area GeoNiche art pieces, says he was drawn in by “Prairie” and found the placement of “Seamstresses” at the Woolen Mill a fitting location.

The sweet surprise GeoNiche at the Faribault Woolen Mill. Wear solid walking shoes as you will need to walk over rocks (not the ones photographed here) to reach this art treasure. Amato encourages finders to sign the logbook tucked into a plastic bag behind “Seamstresses.” Photo by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

“The idea (GeoNiche) delights me,” says Kreger who has been geocaching for half a dozen years everywhere from New York City to the Oregon coast and as near as a local county and city parks. “Turning the corner, seeing another’s idea of beauty in an unexpected spot, it’s one of those unanticipated sweet spots in life.”

The first entry in the “Seamstresses” logbook. Photo by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

Amato hopes for that type of positive reaction from those who discover her public art hidden in niches. “Many people seem to really experience my work, seeing it as meaningful to them and that it is meaningful to me,” she says. “It evokes stories of memories or hooks people’s imagination and emotions.” She wants finders of her art to interact with her, to share their thoughts in her on-site logbooks and/or online.

Kreger appreciates the time and skill Amato has invested in creating her art, made from “paperclay,” a method of mixing paper pulp into recycled clay. He wonders, though, how long the GeoNiches will stay in place, comparing them to performance art and as a gift the artist must be willing to give up.

Another sculpture hidden in Swede Hollow Park. Photo courtesy of Felice Amato.

While one of her Swede Hollow GeoNiche sculptures was smashed, the rest have remained intact with one even moved to a more logical and visible location. Amato’s considered taking the pieces down for the winter or sealing them to protect the vulnerable clay from the elements. But she’s unsure. “When I installed “The Potter” in the pottery dump at Red Wing and looked at all the shards of broken ceramic work, I thought eventually she will be among that and it felt OK,” Amato says.

An overview of the location for “Seamstresses.” Look and you will find her sculpture in this image. The positive responses from the people of Faribault have been a huge incentive, Amato says, to explore the area more. Photo by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

Exact placement of her art is most successful, she adds, when the spot is discovered as though it was waiting.

Even though the grant period for her GeoNiche Project has ended, this St. Paul artist intends to seek additional funding to continue creating and hiding her art for geocachers and others who may happen upon it. She plans to work, also, with artist friends interested in GeoNiche. And she’s contemplating offering a GeoNiche workshop.

While she’ll seek out funding for her innovative project of connecting art and geocaching, Amato says she’s not a geocacher or a seeker.

“I would imagine,” she says, “most people are primarily either seekers or hiders. I am a hider.”

Artist Felice Amato. Photo courtesy of Felice Amato.

FYI: Felice Amato, the mother of two daughters, has been a public school teacher for nearly 20 years (teaching first Spanish and then art) and has also taught summer art classes and camps for children through the St. Paul non-profit, Art Start. She is an artist specializing in clay and tile making. Her artwork has been exhibited in numerous shows and in several galleries during the past 10 years with an upcoming show set for October 18 – November 17 at The Phipps Center for the Arts in Hudson, Wisconsin. For more information about Amato, click here to link to her Facebook page and here to link to her website.

Click here to link to Amato’s GeoNiche website.

And click here to check out her GeoNiche Project Facebook page.

© Copyright 2012 Audrey Kletscher Helbling
Photos by Audrey Kletscher Helbling, Felice Amato and Kevin Kreger