Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

What makes a winning photo December 8, 2015

IT’S ALWAYS A THRILL, as a photographer, to be recognized for one’s work. It validates what I create with my camera and fuels my passion to continue pursuing photography.

A few cars, some vintage, managed to sneak into the drive-in among all the tractors.

My winning photo: “A Dinner Date at the Lakeview Drive Inn”, Winona, Minnesota.

For the third time, a photo I entered in the National Mutual Benefit annual photo contest has placed. This year I earned honorable mention in the people category for my image, “A Dinner Date at the Lakeview Drive Inn.” I shot the scene in August 2014 at this iconic drive-in in the Mississippi River town of Winona, Minnesota. My husband and I were returning from a vacation to Iowa and Galena, Illinois, when we visited the Lakeview on a mid-week Farm Tractor Night.

Lighting—the golden hour of photography—was perfect. And the scene and setting were so iconic Americana that I was giddy about the photo possibilities. You just know as a photographer when photo ops abound.

I was familiar with the Lakeview, having dined there a few times while our eldest daughter attended nearby Winona State University. I’d also written and taken photos for a magazine feature story about this long-time eatery noted for its homemade root beer.

When I saw an elderly couple dining in their convertible, I framed the scene and clicked the shutter button. The result was a winning photo that captures a sweet moment in time and memories of yesteryear. Nostalgia.

Click here to see all of the winning photos in the 2015 National Mutual Benefit contest.

The bingo callers. My first place winning photo.

The bingo callers. My first place winning photo taken on July 4, 2013.

Last year I also entered a photo of an elderly couple to win first place in the people division of National Mutual’s photo contest for my “Fourth of July BINGO callers.” That scene was shot in 2013 at North Morristown. Again, I managed to recognize and snapshot a moment that is grassroots connective.

My first photo win, though, in a National Mutual contest came back in 2003 when I won first place in the scenery division for an image of a butterfly settled upon a daisy in my backyard. That was taken with my 35 mm film camera, before I owned my Canon DSLR. I’d show you that photo, too, except I have no idea where the print may be.

My new camera.

A mirrored self-portrait when I was trying out a different Canon earlier this year. I shoot with a Canon EOS 20D.

I love photography. Along with writing, it’s a creative outlet for me. But it’s also a source of income. Numerous people have found my work via this blog and purchased rights to use my images—on websites, in books, on annual reports, in magazines, as framed prints, in an educational app and more. I am pleased and thankful when others recognize and value my work. No, I do not give away my photos for credit and/or a link. Many people apparently think I do based on the numbers of inquiries offering that type of “payment.”

Email me at audrey at mnprairieroots.com if you are interested in purchasing digital rights to my images.

I use photography to tell a story in the most creative way I can. I am not a stand in the corner and shoot person. I squat and kneel and even lie on the ground if necessary to get the proper perspective. Sometimes I hold my camera above my head, aim the lens down and shoot. Other times I place the camera on the ground, tilt it up and click.

One of my favorite close-up VBS photos shows the VBS leader clutching crosses to be used in a craft project.

One of my favorite close-up VBS photos shows the VBS leader clutching crosses to be used in a craft project.

I shoot from afar and I shoot up close. During a stint of volunteering to photograph my church’s Vacation Bible School this summer, I took more than 1,000 photos in eight hours of work. And if anyone was expecting me to simply photograph obscure groups of kids, they were wrong. Sure, I snapped images of groups. But I also told the VBS story in detailed photos of hands and faces and other close-ups.

Many think taking good photos is all about the equipment. Yes, good equipment is nice. But it’s ultimately lighting, creativity, composition and observation skills (and sometimes luck) that lead to quality memorable images.

This quote by noted advertising and documentary photographer Elliott Erwitt summarizes well my thoughts on photography:

“Photography is an art of observation…I’ve found that it has little to do with the things you see and everything to do with the way you see them.”

I’ve been shooting long enough, first as a photojournalist (a necessity back in my days working as a small town newspaper reporter), to feel confident in my work, in my style. Thank you for appreciating me and my photography.

© Copyright 2015 Audrey Kletscher Helbling


Minnesota Prairie Roots needs your “best of” vote August 5, 2015

TYPICALLY, I AM NOT ONE to promote myself. That is why, perhaps, I am not some famous worldwide blogger.

I have, though, made a name for myself in Southern Minnesota. Not because that’s highest on my priority list. Rather, I am passionate about writing and photography and my work seems to resonate with readers, Minnesotans or not. Minnesota Public Radio has noticed as has MinnPost.

Best of Southern MN 2015 logo

That all said, I am once again among nominees for the “Best Local Blog/Blogger.” The regional arts and entertainment magazine, Southern Minnesota Scene, is sponsoring a competition to choose the “best ofs” in Southern Minnesota. And I happen to fall in to the miscellaneous category.

Now, if you think my Minnesota Prairie Roots blog worthy of this honor, please vote for me in the miscellaneous section of the ballot. There are lots of other categories to vote in, too, such as art, music, theater, restaurants and more.

You can vote once a day per email address.

I am competing against four other blogs/bloggers. So your vote is important. Please share this on social media, if you wish.

Minnesota Prairie Roots has been voted the best in southern Minnesota.

Minnesota Prairie Roots was voted the “Best Local Blog/Blogger” in Southern Minnesota in 2014.

Thank you for your support as I defend my title of “Best Local Blog/Blogger” in Southern Minnesota.

FYI: Click here to vote.

© Copyright 2015 Audrey Kletscher Helbling


A Minnesota Class Reunion in Poetry April 30, 2015

LAST SEPTEMBER THE WABASSO High School Class of 1974 gathered at the Wabasso Community Center for our 40-year reunion. That’s on the southwestern Minnesota prairie, in Redwood County.

I lived on a farm 15 miles to the north and west, just outside of Vesta, an hour’s bus ride away from Wabasso. It takes time to travel gravel roads, backtracking and weaving to farm sites to pick up all those country kids.

Forty years. I used to think people who’d been out of high school for four decades are really old. I don’t think that anymore.

The Wabasso High School Class of 1974 fortieth year reunion.

The Wabasso High School Class of 1974 fortieth year reunion. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo by Randy Helbling.

Still, that’s a lot of years and much has happened since 89 fresh-faced rural Minnesota kids walked across the gym stage in May 1974 and received their diplomas. As you would expect, the reunion mixed nostalgia and reconnecting, sharing of memories and sharing of lives.

And for me, the gathering inspired a poem, “Class Reunion,” recently published in Poetic Strokes & Word Flow, A Regional Anthology of Poetry from Southeastern Minnesota, Volume 9. My other entry, “Wednesday Night Bingo at the Legion,” was also published, among the 30 winning poems chosen from 157 submissions in the adult division.

I attended and read my poem, "Wednesday Night Bingo at the Legion," at an invitation only Poetry Bash at The Rochester Civic Theater on Tuesday evening.

I attended and read my poem, “Wednesday Night Bingo at the Legion,” at an invitation only Poetry Bash at The Rochester Civic Theater on Tuesday evening. The event was a delight with some poets reading their works and Minneapolis poet Todd Boss as the featured speaker.

I am grateful to Southeastern Libraries Cooperating for publishing this annual collection of poetry from writers in the 11-county SELCO region. I’ve entered the competition eight times with 10 poems published in seven volumes.

I took poetic license and photoshopped this image of the button I wore identifying me as a poet at the Poetry Bash.

I took poetic license and photoshopped this image of the button I wore identifying me as a poet at the Poetry Bash.

And because April is National Poetry Month, here is the poetic version of a rural southwestern Minnesota high school reunion:

How many classmates can cram into a photobooth, left, and four members of the reunion committee, right.

How many classmates can cram into a photobooth, left, and four members of the reunion committee, right. That’s me in the pink striped shirt, front right in image on the right.


Class Reunion

Bulbous red clown nose clamped onto face,
boa thrust around neck movie star style,
pirate hat tilted upon bald head,
skull patch positioned across left eye,
we cram into the photo booth, all smiles,
pretending to be someone we are not.

“How are you?” We pause, then hug,
hoping the response will be a lie
rather than the truth of the past forty years
chiseling our faces, greying our hair
(if we still have hair),
etching grief into our souls.

A classmate pulls the curtain tight,
shuts out reality for the lens.
Memories overtake us, filling the booth with laughter.
We remember when nothing seemed more important
than our anti-establishment defiance of choosing
“Dead Skunk in the Middle of the Road” as our class song.

The camera flashes again and we swap accessories—
Vikings horns for Peter Pan hat,
leather biker hat for Mickey Mouse ears—
the promise of never growing up
and living in a happily-ever-after fairytale world
almost Disney believable if we didn’t know the truth.

In this moment, all seems right with the world.
No husbands dead. No children buried. No cancer battled.
No eyes blackened. No marriages broken.
The future lies before us, full of promise and hope
and all that is good and wonderful and perfect.
Except it isn’t and wasn’t and never will be.

The camera flashes for the third, and final, time.
A classmate draws back the curtain.
We drop props into a basket, revealing receding hairlines
and sagging necks and worry lines edging our eyes.
Then we chat about our children and our grandchildren
and our dreams, as if our entire lives lie before us.

© Copyright 2015 Audrey Kletscher Helbling
Poem reprinted with permission from SELCO (Southeastern Libraries Cooperating), Rochester, MN.


How I won at bingo without playing the game April 13, 2015

The bingo callers. My first place winning photo.

John and Lavonne call bingo at the North Morristown, MN., Fourth of July celebration. This photo won first place in the People Category of the National Mutual Benefit annual photo contest. This image also helped inspire my winning bingo poem. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo 2013.

BINGO! We have a winner!

Here’s my winning poem, “Wednesday Night Bingo at the Legion,” recently published in 2015 Poetic Strokes & Word Flow, A Regional Anthology of Poetry from Southeastern Minnesota, Volume 9:

Wednesday Night Bingo at The Legion

Wooden balls rattle in the cage,
orbs of numbers and letters tumbling
in the comforting rhythm of a rural rite
that transcends time and generations.

All eyes focus on the officiant, The Bingo Caller,
a slight elderly man with wisps of fly-away hair.
He grasps the selected ball between forefinger and thumb,
pulls mic to mouth and purses his chapped lips.

Silence presides in that sacred moment
when daubers poise above cards,
when hearts beat fast with anticipation,
when nothing seems as blessed as the hope of a win.

“O-62,” he pronounces with faithful clarity of conviction
to the congregants seated on worn folding chairs,
ice clinking against glass in the dim light of The Legion
where service to country rates reverent respect.

From the back corner her voice erupts. “Bingo!”
A collective sigh heaves disappointment
as The Bingo Caller pauses, confirms, then declares
The Blessed Benediction: “We have a winner!”


YOU, TOO, CAN BE A WINNER. Check back on Wednesday for a give-away.

© Copyright 2015 Audrey Kletscher Helbling
Poem reprinted with permission from SELCO (Southeastern Libraries Cooperating), Rochester, MN.


The process of penning publishable poetry February 19, 2015

“WE HAVE A WINNER!”—last sentence in the poem “Wednesday Night Bingo at The Legion.”

Two, to be accurate.

My most recent poem, "The Farmer's Wife, Circa 1960, has been published in Poetic Strokes, an anthology published by Southeastern Libraries Cooperating. My poem was one of 23 selected from 196 submissions. The anthology should soon be available for check-out by library patrons in the SELCO system.

My poem, “The Farmer’s Wife, Circa 1960,” was published in the 2014 Poetic Strokes. The “WORDFLOW” part of the anthology features selected poems by youth. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

The two poems I submitted to the 2015 Southeastern Libraries Cooperating poetry competition have been selected for publication in Poetic Strokes. It’s always an honor to have my work chosen in a competition that solicits entries from 11 southeastern Minnesota counties. In recent years, about 200 poems were submitted annually with 23 – 32 selected for publication. I don’t have stats yet for 2015.

This year I penned the winning “Wednesday Night Bingo at The Legion” and “Class Reunion.”

Three published poets considered mechanics, tone, accessibility, content and creativity in double-blind judging the entries.

So how did I come up with these poems?

The bingo callers. My first place winning photo.

My winning photo of bingo callers at the 2013 Trinity North Morristown Fourth of July celebration. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo 2013.

I’ve had bingo on the brain. Last summer I earned first place in a national photo contest with an image of two bingo callers. Within the past year, my mom moved into a long-term care facility where bingo seems to be the most common activity. I hear the latest bingo updates from her during our weekly Sunday evening phone conversations. My middle brother and his wife rave about bingo at The American Legion in Lamberton. And a month ago I purchased a bingo set so we can play the game at family gatherings.

Not quite Vegas, but bingo balls at a church festival.

Bingo balls at a Minnesota church festival. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

Tapping into all of those bingo-related references, I wrote “Wednesday Night Bingo at The Legion.” I focused on the setting, the bingo caller, the anticipation, the thrill of winning. It worked. I won.

My husband and I pose for a photo that I told him will be our Christmas card. In the photo to the right is Lindsey, right front, whom I have not seen in 40 years. He promised to return for the next reunion.

Photo booth images from my class reunion.

In writing “Class Reunion,” I remembered my 40th high school class reunion held last September. That reunion proved particularly memorable given a photo booth was rented for the evening. I used that as the focal point in my poem.

My poetry is sometimes personally introspective, as in “Class Reunion.”

Sometimes, though, I write more like a creative historian or journalist. I feature a snippet of time, perhaps a glimpse of a place, a shadow of a tradition. I condense a moment, pack it with a punch of words.

Perhaps you write poetry. Perhaps you read poetry. Perhaps you would rather avoid poetry all together.

As a seasoned poet, I embrace this form of writing with a passion. To craft a poem is to dance with words. Sometimes my writing glides like a waltz. Other times I dip and twist in a tango of ideas. There are moments when I swing into a square dance rhythm, words linking together in perfect step. Occasionally I slump into a funk, unable to move, simply listening to jazzy blues.

But when it all comes together, oh, my, the dance is flawless, or as near flawless as I can perfect.


IF YOU WRITE POETRY or simply read it, share your thoughts on the genre. What ignites your creativity? How do you view poetry? Add anything you wish to share on the topic.

P.S. I hope to share my winning poems at a later date. The anthology publishes at the end of March.

For now, if you wish to read one of my published poems, click here. This post will also give you more insight into my poetry writing.

© Copyright 2015 Audrey Kletscher Helbling


Minnesota Faces: A Minnesota blogger January 9, 2015

Portrait #2:  Audrey, unfashionably dressed Minnesota blogger


Bundled up to ring Salvation Army bells 2013


Baby, it’s cold out there.

I’d intended to run a different portrait today. But when weather intervened, I pulled out this selfie, which isn’t really a selfie. My husband, Randy, took this photo of me on December 7, 2013, after ringing bells, outdoors, for the Salvation Army. The temperature hovered around zero degrees Fahrenheit.

I bundled into Randy’s insulated Dickies coveralls, topped those with a heavy fleece-lined sweatshirt, wrapped two scarves around my neck, pulled on a Mrs. Claus hat and snugged into warm mittens and felt-lined snow boots for our two-hour shift. My goals were minimal skin exposure and warmth. Not fashion.

This past week in Minnesota, you would have spotted many folks bundled up, aiming to stay warm. When I shoveled snow on Tuesday and Thursday, I was dressed nearly exactly as you see in this year-old photo.

With temps plunging well below zero, wind creating “feels like” temps in the minus 30s and 40s and blizzard/white-out conditions in portions of our state, practicality and survival trump fashion.


This portrait is part of a new series, Minnesota Faces, featured every Friday on Minnesota Prairie Roots.

© Copyright 2015 Audrey Kletscher Helbling, photo by Randy Helbling


My winning Americana photo December 8, 2014

AS A PHOTOGRAPHER, you know when you’ve snapped a photo that tells a story, that freezes a moment, that captures an emotion. Light and composition and focus also factor into the equation of a memorable image.

The bingo callers. My first place winning photo.

The BINGO callers. My first place winning photo.

Such was my reaction to photographing John and Lavonne, BINGO callers at the 2013 July Fourth celebration in North Morristown. Many of my images from that day make me proud of my work as a photographer.

Through my photography, I strive to show the everyday and celebratory moments of life—the people, places and happenings that define my world in Southern Minnesota.

And North Morristown on the Fourth of July is about as rural and down-to-earth as you get in these parts. So when I saw this couple calling BINGO, I determined to photograph the scene. They appeared to not even notice me and my camera, so focused were they on their job.

That’s precisely how I like it, to go unnoticed, to click the shutter button and document.

Professional photographers John Hart and Amber Arnold from the Wisconsin State Journal saw, too, what I see in that “Fourth of July BINGO Callers” image. They selected it as the first place winner in the People category of the 2014 photo contest sponsored by National Mutual Benefit.

The judges commented:

This photo has a timeless quality and is a candid, natural moment. It’s a slice of Americana.

I couldn’t have said it better.

My trusty fifth eye, my Canon EOS 20D.

Me and my Canon EOS 20D. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

As a photographer, I am delighted to receive this professional validation of my work with a monetary prize and publication.

This is the second time I’ve won in the National Mutual Benefit Photo Contest. My last win came in 2003 when I photographed a butterfly on a daisy, garnering first place in the scenery division. That was back in the day when I was still shooting with film. I’ve only entered the competition a few times.

What do you think makes a winning or really good photo?

FYI: To view all of the winning photos and judges’ comments, click here. None of the contest images could be digitally altered.

© Copyright 2014 Audrey Kletscher Helbling