Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

A powerful Northfield sculpture focuses on mental health July 30, 2019


PAUSE ON THE CORNER of Division Street by the Northfield Public Library in the heart of this historic southern Minnesota river town, and you will find yourself next to a massive rusting sculpture.




The public piece calls for more than a cursory glance at an abstract person reaching skyward. The art calls for passersby to stop, read the inscription at the base of the sculpture and then contemplate the deeper meaning of “Waist Deep.”

This temporary downtown art installation, created by 15 Northfield High School students and three professional artists through the Young Sculptors Project and funded with a $10,000 grant from the Southeastern Minnesota Arts Council, creates a community-wide public focus on mental health issues. After two years, the sculpture will be permanently placed in the high school courtyard sculpture garden.



Like any art, “Waist Deep” is open to personal interpretation. The signage notes, though, that the sculpture is meant to support those struggling with mental health in the community, of needing and receiving help from caring others.



As I looked at the layered and fractured pieces comprising the sculpted person, I saw beyond the arm reaching for help and the lowered arm with curved hand clawing the earth. Both represent, in my eyes, darkness and light, hopelessness and hope. Mental illness leaves a person feeling incomplete and broken. Fractured. Trying to hang on. Reaching.



I photographed the sculpture on a recent weekend morning under rainy, then partially cloudy and sunny skies, not unlike the ever-changing skies of mental illness. Sometimes pouring. Sometimes parting. Sometimes shining with hope.

As the sculpture name “Waist Deep” and art itself suggest, those dealing with mental health issues can feel waist deep in the water of the disease—flailing, perhaps unable to swim, battling the overpowering waves.

We have a responsibility to throw a life-line. How? First, start seeing mental illness like any other illness. Call it what it is—a brain disease. End the stigma. Someone suffering from depression, for example, can no more wish away or snap out of depression than a diabetic can cure his/her disease by thinking positive thoughts. Educate yourself.



Support those who are waist deep. Show compassion. They need care, love, encouragement, support just as much, for example, as cancer patients.

Be there, too, for the caregivers, who feel alone, who work behind the scenes to secure often elusive professional care for their loved ones. In Minnesota the shortage of mental health care professionals and treatment centers, especially outside the Twin Cities metro area, is documented in media report after media report. It’s a crisis situation. Telling someone in a mental health crisis they need to wait six weeks plus for an appointment with a psychiatrist or a psychologist is absurd and unacceptable. We wouldn’t say that to someone experiencing a heart attack. They would die without immediate care. Those waist deep do sometimes. Every day. And it shouldn’t be that way.

I applaud the 15 NHS students and the three artists who created the public art piece in Northfield. Projects like “Waist Deep” shine the spotlight on a disease which has too long been hidden, shoved in the dark corner of silence.


FYI: I’d encourage you to read the book Regular & Decaf by Minnesotan Andrew D. Gadtke and published by Risen Man Publishing, LLC. It features conversations between Gadtke and his friend, both of whom have brain diseases. It’s a powerful, insightful and unforgettable read.


17 Responses to “A powerful Northfield sculpture focuses on mental health”

  1. Kiandra Judge Says:

    I am so impressed by this! We are moving to Northfield this week and I drove past this sculpture yesterday wondering about it. What an incredible way to reach out to people about mental health. I’m so glad this subject is becoming less taboo and that young people are addressing it as well. I struggled for years with mental health issues and thankfully am doing better. I talk about with anyone and everyone who asks. The more we speak, the less we hurt!
    Well done Northfield

    • Kiandra, thank you for your openness about your mental health struggles. I am thankful you are doing better and hurting less.

      You’re going to love living in Northfield. It’s a lovely town with so much going on in the arts, especially. Love the downtown.

  2. What a great art project to open up the issue of mental health – it makes you pause and reflect. It is nice to see that mental health is being talked about openly and the need for the mind/body connection, especially from an overall health standpoint. Mental health and wellness is a key component in overall being and body health and wellness. The overall health of the caregivers needs to be addressed too. Thanks so much for sharing and opening up the dialogue regarding mental health and its importance.

    The organization I work for is part of a new initiative to address mental health in forming a coalition of leaders throughout the region.


    • Thanks for the link. I will check it out shortly.

      And also thank you for your comment and for your work with an organization that is part of a new initiative to address mental health. We are making progress for sure.

  3. What an amazing piece for the community and I love your interpretation of it. Hope and despair, light and dark. Wonderful!! Thank you for sharing this with us!

  4. valeriebollinger Says:

    Thanks for sharing this information on the sculpture by the Northfield Library. It’s very meaningful.
    I looked for the book Regular and Decaf in the library system but couldn’t find it. When I get a chance I’ll request it.

    • You are welcome, Valerie.

      You will have to go through the mnlink system to get the book. My daughter helped me figure that out. If you can’t, someone at the library should be able to get the book ordered for you.

  5. Marilyn Donnell Says:

    Reach out. RU OK? Just to be there helps.

  6. Sue Ready Says:

    What a thought provoking piece of art open to a myriad of interpretations.Your close up views from a variety of angles gave the piece more things to ponder for the viewer. I particularly liked how you offered ways one can can find support/help for those struggling with mental health issues.
    Thanks for sharing.

  7. pkpm519 Says:

    So wonderful to see this in my home town. And very relevant to me! As I struggled for many years. Thank you. I am sharing this on facebook, as several of my friends’ posts have been on this subject.

  8. Walter Says:

    Magnificent metal sculpture. It seems so difficult for the metal pieces welded together to convey a message, however it was achieved. Raised hands and crisp fingers scream: – Help, please!.
    It’s a beautiful post.

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