Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

Linoleum block print art stories from the prairie February 15, 2023

“Main Street,” watercolored block print by Nan Karr Kaufenberg. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo September 2022)

MANY DECADES AGO, in a time when gender roles factored strongly into classes a student could and couldn’t take in high school, I learned to carve a design into a linoleum block for printing. Girls and boys traded classes for two weeks with female students allowed into the male-dominated world of shop class. The guys headed to the home economics kitchens to acquire basic cooking and baking skills.

Nan Karr Kaufenberg’s depiction of a farm site. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo September 2022)

Oh, how things have changed since I was an early 1970s high school student briefly surrounded by saws and tools and other equipment and carving art into a linoleum block. I don’t recall the design I crafted. But I do remember feeling empowered inside that industrial arts shop, my eyes opened to possibilities that stretched beyond societal limitations.

The Arts Center in downtown Marshall. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo September 2022)

Maybe that experience is partially why I am drawn to linoleum block prints. On a return trip to my native southwestern Minnesota prairie in September, I visited the Marshall Area Fine Arts Council Arts Center which was hosting an exhibit, appropriately named “Block Party,” by watercolor block print artist Nan Karr Kaufenberg of Redwood Falls. I’d previously seen, and admired, her work.

Nan Karr Kaufenberg’s “Coneflowers.” (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted file photo September 2022)
Feeding cattle focus this print by Nan Karr Kaufenberg. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo September 2022)
“Clothesline” by Nan Karr Kaufenberg. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo September 2022)

That admiration remains for this artist who observes the prairie world around her and then creates. I feel comfortably at home with her interpretations of rural southwestern Minnesota. Her depictions of prairie flowers, farm scenes, small towns, even laundry on a clothesline, touch me with that sense of familiarity, that feeling of connection to a place I called home and forever hold dear.

A block print by Nan Karr Kaufenberg of The Old Corner Store. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo September 2022)

For more than 30 years, Kaufenberg, who has art degrees (from the University of Minnesota and Southwest Minnesota State University), who once worked at a tourism center in extreme southwestern Minnesota (she moved following the 2001 high profile murder of her daughter Carrie Nelson), and who is also a realtor, has specialized in tinted linoleum block prints. She colors her printed designs with watercolors. The results are simply stunning. Bold black stamped ink softened by watercolor.

“Laying Hens” by Bradley D. Hall. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo September 2022)

Granite Falls artist Bradley D. Hall does the same, hand-carving linoleum blocks, then hand-printing the inked block design before hand-coloring with watercolors. I also saw his work inside the Marshall Arts Center. While similar to that of Kaufenberg in its rural themes, Hall’s art features finer black lines. Each artist has developed a certain identifiable style with the same basic art form.

A view of the Marshall Arts Center gift shop. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo September 2022)

Hall, who left southwestern Minnesota for Chicago and worked there for 20 years in factories, returned to his native Granite Falls in 2002 to open a studio. By then he’d already taken numerous art classes, including at the American Academy of Art in downtown Chicago. Upon his return to Minnesota, Hall connected with letterpress artist Andy Kahmann of A to Z Letterpress in Montevideo and learned the arts of linoleum block carving and printmaking. I love that these creatives shared with, and learned from, one another.

“Windmill” by Bradley D. Hall. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo September 2022)

More than 50 years ago, industrial arts teacher Ralph Brown shared his linoleum block print skills with me and a shop full of other teenage girls at Wabasso High School. Those two weeks of hands-on learning inside a place typically reserved for male students proved pivotal. I could see the world beginning to crack open to young women, emerging women who would ink life with their designs, their styles, their strong bold lines.

© Copyright 2023 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

Artwork photographed with permission of the Marshall Area Fine Arts Council Arts Center. Individual art is copyrighted by the artists.


12 Responses to “Linoleum block print art stories from the prairie”

  1. Rei Clearly Says:

    This is so cool! I completely forgot about block printing. I love these images, especially the chicken.

  2. beth Says:

    very beautiful work. like you, shop and home ec were clearly separated by gender when I went to school

  3. Amazing art! I’ve never heard of linoleum block printing. 🙂

  4. Laura Hansen Says:

    Thank you for sharing this artist’s work and I love how you bring your own experience to the introduction. “Block Party” is such a great name for the exhibit. Very welcoming.

    • Good to hear from you, Laura. I’m happy to share this art with you and other readers. I agree on the name choice of “Block Party” for Nan’s exhibit. Thank you for your kind words regarding the way I personalized this post.

  5. I’m not sure high schools even have shop (or home economics) classes anymore, much less gender segregated ones(?). Well, that was some 50 years ago. Anyway, the few block prints you shared are wonderful – “Coneflowers” is my favorite. I’ve been a fan of block prints ever since I saw the work of Gustave Baumann at the National Gallery in DC years ago. His are wood blocks but the evocative feeling is the same. We have plans to visit Blue Mounds SP next summer and will be adding Marshall to our travel itinerary. 🙂

    • Yes, high schools still offer shop and home ec, although they likely go by different names.

      So happy to hear you will be exploring sw Minnesota this summer and are adding Marshall to your itinerary. I’ll have some more posts coming from that community. Make sure you stop at the Lyon County museum to see my poems in the “Making Lyon County Home” exhibit. Btw, Nan’s art is no longer on exhibit at the arts center. If you like craft beer, stop at Brau Brothers Brewing.

      Be sure to visit photographer Jim Brandenburg’s gallery when you’re in the Luverne area. Type “Luverne” into my blog search engine to see posts from there. There’s so much to see in sw Minnesota. If you want more tips, feel free to email me.

  6. Valerie Says:

    The pictures you’ve posted of the linoleum prints are wonderful. It looks like a great exhibit. Is it a permanent one?

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