Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

Honoring the artist behind a cultural art phenomenon April 8, 2019

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DAN ROBBINS DIED, my husband texted.

Who’s that? I replied.

 

My Great Grandma Anna painted this paint-by-numbers, one of a pair. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

 

Robbins, it turns out, invented paint-by-numbers pictures. And Randy knows how much I love vintage paint-by-numbers art. Enough that I own several pieces. I am a bit of an art collector, securing my art primarily at garage sales and thrift shops. It’s the only way I can afford artwork.

Back to Robbins. He died a week ago at the age of 93. According to info I sourced online, he worked as a package designer for Detroit-based Palmer Paint Products when he came up with the paint-by-numbers idea. Leonardo da Vinci inspired him. That master Italian painter apparently used numbered backgrounds to teach his students.

 

I purchased this stunning 24-inch x 18-inch paint-by-numbers painting several years ago at a Wisconsin second-hand/collectible/antique shop. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

 

If it worked for da Vinci’s proteges, why not for the masses? I expect that was Robbins’ thinking when he crafted his first landscape paint-by-numbers art, soon expanding to subjects like horses, puppies and kitties.

 

I painted this paint-by-numbers ballerina some 50 years ago. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

 

This painting option evolved into a bit of a cultural phenomenon beginning in the 1950s. I was part of that, painting a pair of ballerinas from a paint-by-numbers kit gifted to me one Christmas in the 1960s. I still have those paintings, which I need to pull out now in honor of Robbins. I rotate my art to keep my home art-gallery interesting. And because I have such a wide collection of mostly original art. I have more paint-by-numbers than shown in this post.

 

The other ballerina in the pair I painted as a child. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

 

I realize not everyone appreciates paint-by-numbers. But I do. There’s something down-to-earth kitschy and appealing to me about an art form that allows anyone to paint art. Talented or not. Just brush inside the lines with the appropriate numbered colors and you’ve got art.

TELL ME: What’s your opinion of paint-by-numbers art? Have you crafted art this way and/or do you own any paint-by-numbers artwork?

© Copyright 2019 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

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Published in Oakwood: My latest rural-rooted poem honors my farm wife mom April 28, 2017

An abandoned farmhouse along Minnesota State Highway 19 east of Vesta, my hometown. The house is no longer standing. This image represents my rural heritage and looks similar to the house I called home for the first 11 years of my life. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

 

MORE THAN 40 YEARS removed from the farm, my creative voice remains decidedly rural, especially in the poetry I write.

My latest published poem, “Ode to My Farm Wife Mother,” honors the woman who raised me, alongside my father, on a southwestern Minnesota dairy and crop farm. My parents were of good German stock, a hardworking couple who believed in God, in family and in the land. I carry that heritage with me, ever grateful for my rural upbringing.

 

Dad farmed, in the early years with a John Deere and Farmall and IH tractors and later with a Ford. (Photo by Lanae Kletscher Feser)

A photo of my dad, Elvern, taken in 1980.

 

Life in rural Minnesota in the 1960s and 1970s was hard. I see that now from the perspective of an adult. My dad worked long hard hours in the barn milking cows and equally long hard hours in the fields. Farming was much more labor intensive then.

 

The only photo I have of my mom holding me. My dad is holding my brother, Doug.

 

Likewise, my mom’s job of caring for our family of eight required long hard hours of labor. She tended a large garden, preserved fruits and vegetables to stock the freezer and cellar shelves, baked bread from scratch, washed clothes with a wringer washer, did without a bathroom or telephone or television for many years, and much more.

 

My parents, Vern and Arlene, on their September 25, 1954, wedding day.

 

Sometimes I think how much easier my mother’s life would have been had she not married my dad and stayed at her town job in Marshall.

 

Our family Christmas tree always sat on the end of the kitchen table, as shown in this Christmas 1964 photo. That’s me in the red jumper with four of my five siblings. I write about this red-and-white checked floor in my poem.

 

But then I remind myself of how much family means to my mom and I could not imagine her life without any of her six children. She centered us, grounded us, taught us kindness and gratitude, instilled in us a loving and compassionate spirit.

 

Arlene’s 1951 graduation portrait.

 

She has always been mom to me, a mother now nearing age 85. But there was a time when she was Arlene, not somebody’s wife, somebody’s mother. There was a time when she and my dad danced away a Saturday night in a southwestern Minnesota dance hall. They met at a dance.

 

The promo for Oakwood 2017 features “Dancing with Fire,” the art of Samuel T. Krueger. Promo image courtesy of Oakwood.

 

Those thoughts inspired me to write “Ode to My Farm Wife Mother,” published last week in South Dakota State University’s literary journal, Oakwood. I am honored to have my poem selected for inclusion with the work of other writers and artists from the Northern Great Plains. It’s a quality publication that represents well those of us who call this middle-of-the country, often overlooked place, home.

 

Ode to My Farm Wife Mother

Before my brother,
you were Saturday nights at the Blue Moon Ballroom—
a bottle of Jim Beam whiskey in a brown paper bag,
Old Spice scenting your dampened curls,
Perry Como crooning love in your ear.

Then motherhood quelled your dancing duet.
Interludes passed between births
until the sixth, and final, baby slipped into your world
in 1967. Thirteen years after you married.
Not at all unlucky.

Life shifted to the thrum of the Maytag,
sing-song nursery rhymes,
sway of Naugahyde rocker on red-and-white checked linoleum.
Your skin smelled of baby and yeasty homemade bread
and your kisses tasted of sweet apple jelly.

In the rhythm of your days, you still danced,
but to the beat of farm life—
laundry tangled on the clothesline,
charred burgers jazzed with ketch-up,
finances rocked by falling corn and soybean prices.

Yet, you showed gratitude in bowed head,
hard work in a sun-baked garden,
sweetness in peanut butter oatmeal bars,
endurance in endless summer days of canning,
goodness in the kindness of silence.

All of this I remember now
as you shove your walker down the halls of Parkview.
in the final set of your life, in a place far removed
from Blue Moon Ballroom memories
and the young woman you once were.

                                         #

Four generations: Great Grandma Arlene, Grandma Audrey, mother Amber and baby Isabelle, all together for the first time in July 2016 in rural southwestern Minnesota. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo 2016.

 

I took some liberties with my poem. I doubt my mom ever drank whiskey. But back in the day, folks brought booze bottles in brown paper bags to dances for set-ups. She didn’t dance in the Blue Moon Ballroom, although one once stood in Marshall. Arlene went to dances in Ghent, in a dance hall whose name eludes me. Blue Moon sounds more poetic. But the rest of the poem is factual right down to the Naugahyde rocker and my mom shoving her walker down the hallways of Parkview.

FYI: You can view my poem on page 78 of Oakwood, found online by clicking here. My bio is published on page 89, listed among the other 40 contributors’ bios. I am grateful to SDSU in Brookings for the opportunity to be part of this magazine which showcases the creative voices of Plains writers and artists. I shall always feel proud of my rural upbringing, the single greatest influence on me as a poet, a writer, a photographer.

Copyright 2017 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Faribault’s newest mural depicts timeless 1950s street scene October 9, 2016

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LATE SATURDAY MORNING, I stood in the parking lot next to Faribault Vacuum & Sewing Center, eyes and camera fixed upward.

 

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On the side of the brick building in the heart of historic downtown Faribault, artist Dave Correll rolled a clear top coat across this community’s newest mural depicting a late 1950s streetscape. The large-scale painting replicates art commissioned for a Northern Natural Gas Company ad campaign decades ago. The artist is unknown, but permission was secured to reproduce the work.

 

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It’s a stunning and vibrant piece highly visible to motorists driving westbound on Minnesota State Highway 60/Fourth Street. And it’s the eighth historic-themed mural to grace downtown Faribault.

 

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Dave, who owns Brushwork Signs along with his wife, Ann Meillier, teamed up with Adam Scholljegerdes to design and paint the sign. Daughter Madeline Correll also assisted, traveling back from Milwaukee upon her parents’ request.

 

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Saturday Dave worked to finish the project before a 1 p.m. dedication while Ann kept a watchful eye from below…until she climbed into a lift for a close-up view and photo opps.

 

This restored 1915 clock was installed on the Security State Bank Building, 302 Central Avenue, on Saturday.

This restored 1915 clock was installed on the Security State Bank Building in September 2015. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

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The Faribault Rotary Club led efforts to bring this newest mural to downtown, and fittingly so. The subject matter ties to a previous Rotary project—raising $25,000 for restoration of the Security Bank Building clock. Just a year ago, that refurbished historic clock was installed at 302 Central Avenue, 1 ½ blocks away. The clock is a focal point in the mural.

 

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Credit for the mural subject goes to Faribault Area Chamber of Commerce and Tourism President Kymn Anderson who discovered and purchased the original fifties streetscape painting. Once the Rotary mural planning team saw the art, they knew it would be perfect. And it is.

 

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I love how this latest mural honors the 1950s history of Faribault. I appreciate the vintage street scene and its connection with the 2015 restoration of the Security Bank clock. Faribault is a community which values its past. That’s evident in projects like the clock restoration, well-kept historic buildings and historic murals. Public art expresses visible community pride. And every community needs such pride to thrive in to the future.

© Copyright 2016 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

More than just an aged pick-up truck January 29, 2016

A GMC 150 parked in historic downtown Faribault.

A GMC 150 parked in a city lot in historic downtown Faribault. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo July 2015.

GROWING UP ON A FARM, I never truly appreciated pick-up trucks. They were simply a part of farm life—the workhorse of the farmer.

The truck needs a lot of work, but it has potential.

The truck needs a lot of work, but it has potential. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo July 2015.

In the bed of his red and white Chevy pick-up, my dad tossed fence posts, seedcorn bags, chains, shovels, and a myriad of other agricultural essentials. He may even have transported an animal or two.

I recall flying along gravel roads in the front seat of the pick-up, and sometimes in the bed, dust trailing a cloud across the prairie. Other times Dad would bump his truck across the stubbled alfalfa field.

Every time I spot an aged pick-up truck, I covet it. Not because I necessarily desire ownership. Rather, it’s about reliving, and holding onto, those rural memories.

© Copyright 2015 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Toy stories at the Minnesota History Center December 11, 2014

TOY: Object for a child to play with.

 

Toys, sign and Twister

 

If you’re a Baby Boomer, that object may have been Tinker Toys or Lincoln Logs, anything space or Western related, a baby doll or Barbie or perhaps a troll. How about a Tonka truck? Twister or Cootie or Candy Land, anyone?

 

Toys, promo on wall

 

The Minnesota History Center’s “TOYS of the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s” is a skip down memory lane for my generation. A recent tour of the exhibit, which runs through January 4, 2015, skipped joy into my heart as I spotted toys I hadn’t thought about in years. Sometimes it’s fun simply to forget about today and remember the carefree days of youth. The days of hopscotch and jacks and stick horses and…

Outdoor toys and a play area are part of the exhibit.

Outdoor toys and a play area are part of the exhibit.

I didn’t see a jump rope, though, but perhaps missed it.

Oh, the hours sitting cross-legged with Tinker Toys scattered across the floor, attempting to construct a Ferris Wheel.

 

Toys, Cootie

 

Oh, the anticipation of rolling a six on the die to insert the last of six legs into a Cootie’s body.

Oh, the tears that raged when I discovered my oldest brother had punched in the boobs of my new bridal doll.

Oh, the gratitude to my friend Robin for gifting me with a mini pink-haired troll at my ninth birthday party. It was the only troll or childhood birthday party I would ever have.

Toys, Spirograph

Some artsy favorites like Spirograph, Lite Brite and making bugs from goop.

 

Oh, the delight in creating kaleidoscopic designs with Spirograph’s pens and plastic shapes.

A museum visitor checks out the 1960s exhibit.

A museum visitor checks out the 1960s exhibit.

Memories rolled in waves as I perused the showcased toys. Some I had as a child; many I did not.

In the '50s section of the exhibit, a Christmas tree with coveted toys of the decade.

In the ’50s section of the exhibit, a Christmas tree with coveted toys of the decade.

I remember each December paging through the Sears Christmas catalog (AKA “Wish Book”) that arrived in our rural southwestern Minnesota mailbox, wishing for so much, knowing in my deepest desires that I would never get the Pogo stick I coveted nor the doll that cried with the pull of a string or a new bicycle (mine came from the junkyard).

Space toys were big in the 1960s and my oldest brother had a rocket.

Space toys were big in the 1960s and my oldest brother had a rocket.

I would receive what my parents could afford and I expect they sacrificed much even for that.

Toys strewn across the floor in a play area of the 1970s part of the exhibit.

Toys strewn across the floor in a play area of the 1970s part of the exhibit.

Looking back, that inability to give me and my siblings a pile of toys was a gift in itself. Sure, I wanted the hottest new toy. That’s normal thinking for a kid who doesn’t understand family finances or a parent’s thoughts on curbing greed.

I remember life without TV and our first television, in black and white. And Mr. Potato Head, a popular toy back in the day.

I remember life without TV and our first television, black and white. And Mr. Potato Head, a popular toy back in the day.

Because of my upbringing, I have never focused on material things.

Anything Western related was especially popular in the 1950s and 1960s. Here you see the Western influence in furniture.

Anything Western related was especially popular in the 1950s and 1960s. Here you see the Western influence in furniture. My siblings and I spent countless hours riding our stick horses through the grove and, in the winter, around the house.

Yes, toys are fun to get and give, especially those that encourage creativity and imaginative play and don’t require batteries.

I cherish the blessings of family and home more than anything. I spotted this needlework in the 1970s portion of the exhibit.

I cherish the blessings of family and home more than anything. I spotted this needlework in the 1970s portion of the exhibit.

But it is family that I cherish most. And when I toured the History Center’s toy and other exhibits, I did so with my husband, eldest daughter and son-in-law. Nothing skips joy into my heart like being with those I love.

As we left the museum, we voted for our favorite Minnesota made toy. My daughter and I voted for Cootie. Our husbands chose Tonka.

As we left the museum, we voted for our favorite Minnesota made toy. My daughter and I voted for Cootie. Our husbands chose the Tonka truck.

FYI: For information on “TOYS of the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s,” click here. Just a little heads up: This exhibit was packed on a Saturday afternoon. I’d advise visiting this St. Paul museum on a weekday, especially if you want an opportunity to participate in the interactive parts of exhibits.

BONUS PHOTOS:

My son-in-law noted, as we toured the 1970s part of the exhibit, that toys began to reflect social issues such as being environmentally conscious.

My son-in-law noted, as we toured the 1970s part of the exhibit, that toys began to reflect social issues such as being environmentally conscious.

A 1960s living room.

A 1960s living room.

Never saw this cartoon and I'm glad I did. Audrey carrying a gun? Really.

I didn’t grow up on the Little Audrey cartoon and I’m glad I didn’t. Really, a little girl carrying a gun?

© Copyright 2014 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Fifties flashback in a Wisconsin cornfield November 14, 2013

Back in the day, picking corn

IF NOT FOR THE TRAFFIC that surrounds me on this four-lane on a Saturday afternoon, I might be traveling directly into a rural scene from the fifties or sixties.

For there, over to the right along this Appleton, Wisconsin, area roadway, a farmer works the field with his Case tractor towing a pull-behind corn picker that drops ears of corn into a wagon.

I get one chance to photograph the scene, but plenty of time to ponder why this farmer chose to harvest his crop with vintage farm machinery.

Is he simply trying to reclaim an era when farmers worked with the wind at their backs, the sun upon their faces, the scent of plant and earth in the air, embracing harvest from the seat of an open air tractor?

(NOTE: This photo was taken in mid-October.)

© Copyright 2013 Audrey Kletscher Helbling