Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

Oh, the joy of the unexpected in a Minnesota arts center March 24, 2021

Jimmy Reagan’s art splashes across a tote and backpack for sale in a New Ulm arts center gift shop.

IT WAS THE VIVID COLORS which first caught my eye inside The Grand Artisan Gift Shop in downtown New Ulm. Bold hues flashed, accented by strong lines of color, as if the artist had pulled every crayon from a box of crayons and dashed them across the canvas.

Backpacks feature Jimmy Reagan’s colorful art.

This is the work of Jimmy Reagan, a 27-year-old St. Paul artist influenced by the likes of Picasso and van Gogh. His art graces backpacks, totes, sweatshirts in this gift shop on the first floor of The Grand Center for Arts & Culture. You’ll find a wide selection of art from other creatives here also.

Reagan’s work “offers him a means to illustrate his perspective of the world,” according to a promotional bio I picked up in the gift shop. This young man views life through the lens of autism. He was diagnosed with complex autism as a toddler.

These sweatshirts, with Jimmy’s signature “tick marks” (left), hang in the entrance to The Grand Kabaret, an entertainment space in The Grand.

Since 2009, he has created art and is internationally-recognized. I admire Reagan, who rose to the challenges of his autism to express himself and to communicate. Strong colors, simple images and signature “tick marks” (those short dashes of color) define his art. I, for one, am a fan.

The colorful bathroom with the canvas for chalk art above.

I’m also a fan of the public restroom on the second floor of The Grand. It’s not often I write about or photograph restrooms, although two photos I took of “The View from Our Window: Grant Wood in Iowa” rest area along I-380 northbound near Cedar Rapids published in the book, Midwest Architecture Journeys, edited by Zach Mortice and printed by Belt Publishing.

A sampling of the temporary art.

The Grand restroom in New Ulm is not artist-themed, but rather an artistic canvas for anyone who steps inside. The lime green walls first caught my eye as I walked past the bathroom. (As a teen, my bedroom was painted a similar lime green.) And then I noticed the chalk art above the tile and thought, what a great idea. Maybe it’s nothing novel for a public bathroom. But it was to me. And, although I didn’t pick up chalk and add to the black canvas, I photographed it. And that, too, is art.

Check back for more photos from downtown New Ulm.

© Copyright 2021 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Beyond simply chalk art August 27, 2020

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Chalk art by Jane.

 

SIMPLY PASSING BY without acknowledgment of something we appreciate is so easy. We all do it, right? Admire something from afar, and then continue on our way. And Randy and I did just that, even though he asked if we should stop. “Maybe on the way home,” I said.

“She’ll be gone by then,” Randy surmised.

At that point, I was more interested in getting to North Alexander Park for a short evening walk than in photographing a chalk art artist. I appreciated her efforts from the comfort of our passing van and figured if I remembered the art on our return trip, fine. If not, fine, too.

And so we enjoyed our evening trail walk, which included geese and squirrel watching, and a pass through the Rice County Fairgrounds as we headed back toward home along Second Avenue. Nearing the intersection with Seventh Street, Randy repeated his “Do you want to stop?” question.

This time I agreed.

 

Jane, at work, with her angel heart wings in the foreground.

 

And I’m glad I did. Or I never would have met Jane, a lovely young woman who looks about 10 years younger than her mid-twenties age. She sat on a sidewalk step at a house along Seventh Street, chalk in hand, creating art.

 

 

 

As I admired the flowers, turtle, angel heart wings, peace symbol and smiley face, and took photos, Jane and I chatted for a bit. She shared a glimpse into her life story. There have been struggles.

 

 

But here she was, exuding joy in our conversation, in the sweet smile gracing her face. I saw grit and determination there, too, as she focused on creating art. Her fingers, dusted with chalk, worked art onto the sidewalk. She was creating this public art to bring joy to others. I thanked her for that effort. That gift.

 

Chalk, Jane’s tool of choice on this summer evening.

 

Art, Jane says, is her passion. She’s also painted with acrylics, had some art training. Nothing formal.

 

Jane’s art stretches along the sidewalk in front of her Seventh Street residence.

 

I felt compelled to encourage this young woman as I asked about her plans. She’s uncertain about her future. I advised her to follow her passions in life, that life is too short to not do what you love. And that money isn’t everything. Things aren’t everything. But happiness is. I sensed she already knows this.

 

 

I complimented her, too, on her smile and Jane confirmed others have told her the same, how beautiful her smile. It was genuine, coming from deep within. From a place that has experienced challenges and overcome them. To create art. Bright and bold and beautiful.

 

© Copyright 2020 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

From Bridge Square in Northfield: Black Lives Matter August 4, 2020

Messages related to the Black Lives Matter movement are chalked in Northfield’s Bridge Square.

 

BRIDGE SQUARE in Northfield. It’s a gathering spot for the community. A place to relax and enjoy music and conversation and even popcorn from the popcorn wagon. Water flows from a fountain. Benches beckon visitors to linger. Colorful flowers spill from large, lush planters. Nearby, the Cannon River roars over a dam. People fish and picnic and walk along and over the river. It’s a beautiful setting of trees and sky and water.

 

This is a common phrased used in the current Black Lives Matter movement. Chalked names fill the sidewalks at Bridge Square.

 

The downtown park also provides a place to express public opinion, most recently related to the Black Lives Matter movement. On a recent walk through Bridge Square and several blocks along the River Walk and Division Street, I read the concerns expressed about lives lost, about racial injustice…

 

A broader view of the names and messages leading to and surrounding the fountain.

 

Written in chalk were names of the dead. And messages. Powerful. Heartfelt. Even as rain and sun have faded the chalk writings, the meaning remains that Black Lives Matter.

 

Next to the fountain, this fading portrait of James Baldwin.

 

Next to Baldwin’s portrait, one of Paul O’Neal.

 

Chalk portraits of James Baldwin and Paul O’Neal give faces to names that we should all remember. Like Baldwin, an author and Civil Rights activist. Like O’Neal, shot in the back by Chicago police in 2016. And, more recently, the death of George Floyd while in police custody in Minneapolis, sparking nationwide protests, unrest, destruction, and calls for police reform and justice.

 

Barricades have been set up along this street next to Bridge Square to separate traffic and pedestrians/protesters on a bridge spanning the Cannon River.

 

The poem I found particularly meaningful in relation to Black Lives Matter and the death of George Floyd.

 

After crossing a partially barricaded street to follow the River Walk, I paused to read a poem imprinted in the sidewalk as part of Northfield’s Sidewalk Poetry Project. Reading the seven-line poem, the final line—Just breathe—struck me. George Floyd, when he lay dying on a Minneapolis street, said, “I can’t breathe.”

 

I followed the River Walk, eventually turning onto this footbridge across the Cannon River.

 

And so I walked, down steps, along the pedestrian river path hugging the banks of the Cannon River. I thought of that poetry and of those names and messages in Bridge Square.

 

One of many Black Lives Matter signs I spotted in downtown Northfield, this one in the upper story window of an historic Division Street building.

 

I considered how, no matter our skin color, our background, our education, our whatever in life, that we are all just people. We see beauty. We feel sunshine. And sometimes we share the silence that forms in our minds.

 

© Copyright 2020 Audrey Kletscher Helbling