Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

Contrasts in art at the Owatonna Arts Center September 21, 2018

“It’s a Party!” yardage wall piece; both procion dyes and pigment paints all painted at the same time by Candy Kuehn.


I STOPPED AT THE OWATONNA ARTS CENTER specifically to view The Art of Friendship, an exhibit of Big Brothers/Big Sisters of Southern Minnesota. But I discovered also a second intriguing exhibit, Fabric Fascination by Minneapolis artist Candy Kuehn.


From the Big Brothers and Big Sisters exhibit, a simple drawing.


Kuehn’s “The Earth Winds,” nassen paste resist on silk charmeuse.


The two shows contrast—one a complex swirl of colors, the other much simpler in design.


Kuehn’s art extends into the OAC entry exhibit space.


One fills an entire gallery and down a hall to a second exhibit space.


The Big Brothers and Big Sisters artwork hangs in a hallway cove and around the corner along the hall.


The other tucks into and along a short hallway. Yet, whether the work of novices or a seasoned professional, whether many pieces or few, the art in each show deserves attention.


Garments and photo art created by Kuehn.


“Garden Plaid in Reds,” digitally-printed poly-chiffon by Kuehn drapes across a window, sunlight streaming through the print.


More of Kuehn’s art.


Kuehn, whose credentials include “a revered member and teacher at Minnesota’s Textile Center” and recipient of many awards in multiple art forms, impresses. As I meandered among the numerous pieces on display, I felt as if I was peering through a kaleidoscope of ever-shifting patterns and colors. The drape and seamless flow of fabric spoke poetry to me. I am not artistically knowledgeable enough to understand the processes of Kuehn’s work. But I see, enjoy and appreciate the creativity of an artist clearly passionate about creating art.


Yet more of Kuehn’s signature wearable art.


The public can learn more at a presentation and free (but must pre-register) Fascination workshop beginning at 2 p.m. on Sunday, September 23, at the Owatonna Arts Center. Attendees will transform plain headbands with decorative items.






Down the hall from Kuehn’s exhibit, the art of youth and their mentors highlights the Big Brothers/Big Sisters program. In the artwork, I see friendships forged, joy in bold colors, the authenticity of an artist in handprinted block letters. I especially like the featured quote: Art is everywhere—even in the simplest of friendships.


Fitting for the season, art from the Big Brothers/Big Sisters exhibit.


Art truly exists everywhere, if we choose to see it. And I, for one, see it—in simple lines drawn by a child, in complex patterns created by a professional artist and now, in this season of autumn, outdoors in the landscape of the land.

TELL ME: Where do you see art?

FYI: If you want to see these exhibits, stop at the OAC soon. They close on September 26 and 30.

© Copyright 2018 Audrey Kletscher Helbling


At the Faribault library: When a knock-knock joke is more than just a knock-knock joke February 7, 2017

What did one plate say to the other?
Lunch is on me.

What do you give a sick pig?

How do you count cows?
With a cowculator.

NOW YOU MIGHT EXPECT a third grader shared those knock-knock jokes with me or perhaps I read them in a joke book?




But you would be wrong. I read them on new furniture placed several days ago in Buckham Memorial Library in Faribault. You read that right. The jokes are printed on easy chairs and loveseats. But this isn’t just any furniture. Minnesota prisoners crafted this furniture.

So what’s the story with the construction and the upholstery design? For the answers, I turned to Library Director Delane James.




In the market for the first new furniture since a library remodeling project in 1996, James looked to the state vendor approved MINNCOR Industries, a Minnesota Department of Corrections prison industry. Inmate labor is utilized for manufacturing products and for services. She likes the idea, James says, of prisoners learning marketable skills that may prevent recidivism.




James also knew that the quality, durable furniture will last. For the past 21 years, MINNCOR furniture endured in her library that today sees 500-700 daily users.

With specific goals, the library director started poking around on the MINNCOR website for fabric options. “I wanted something that was attention-getting and to promote literacy,” she says. “I wanted the unexpected, to get them (library users) to read.”




She found that in the Funnybone Collection, in a print labeled KNOCK KNOCK in a color tagged Class Clown.

Already, James has seen the positive results of her fabric choice. She observed two high school students reading knock-knock jokes to one another during a library Homework Help session.




Among jokes printed on the fabric is this one:

How do prisoners make phone calls?
With cell phones.

That joke is the favorite of prisoners and is the talk of the prison, James learned when $40,000 in lounge chairs, loveseats, computer chairs and 90 stackable chairs were delivered to the library late last week. Only the loveseats and three of the easy chairs are imprinted with jokes.




The KNOCK KNOCK design chosen by James is also putting Buckham Library in the spotlight. A MINNCOR marketing staffer photographed the furniture in the Faribault library on Friday to promote usage in other libraries. Perhaps more Minnesota library directors will take a cue from James and select prison-built Funnybone furniture that grabs attentions, promotes literacy and prompts conversation.

TELL ME: Have you seen this or similar inspiring furniture in a public place? I’d like to hear.

© Copyright 2017 Audrey Kletscher Helbling


Once upon a time I was a seamstress February 1, 2012

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spools of thread

Spools of thread in the sewing box I haven't opened in years.

I ALWAYS THOUGHT I’d sew clothes for my family. That was before children, in the days when I was young and had no realistic concept of the time demands of parenting.

I grew up sewing—clothes for myself, dresses for my Grandma who quilted like a mad woman but couldn’t follow a pattern. She quilted while I stitched shapeless dresses for her from polyester and cotton.

Nearly all of the clothing I wore as a teen in the 1970s, I made. Hot pants. Smocks. Dresses. Elephant leg pants, which never fit right around the waist because I was way too skinny. Pajamas. Even underwear, a rather challenging task presented by a home economics teacher who thought we should sew underwear from some slinky, slippery impractical fabric. The project was a failure.

But I digress. I loved to sew—to choose crisp, cotton fabric, and, yes, sometimes even stretchy polyester, from bolts packed onto shelves in the fabric store or in the basement of J.C. Penney in Redwood Falls or in the grocery store/general store in Lucan. The prints were psychedelic pieces of art—bold and crazy and colorful.

I can't state with certainty that this is cotton fabric from the 1970s. I picked it up several years ago at a thrift store because it reminds me of psychedelic 70s prints.

I loved paging through thick catalogs of patterns, choosing just the right trendy design to match manufactured clothes.

While I didn’t particularly enjoy the pinning of tissue paper patterns to fabric or the measuring and cutting process, I loved sliding the fabric across the sewing machine, stitching straight, even lines or easy curves until I’d created something I could wear.

There's a certain satisfaction in guiding fabric under a pressure foot, the needle pumping through fabric.

The ability to sew truly rated as a necessity more than an indulgence in a creative outlet. Our poor farm family couldn’t afford closets full of store-bought clothes. If I wanted clothing, I would need to sew them.

So, with that background, I expected to continue sewing as an adult. When I graduated from high school, my parents gave me a Sears Kenmore sewing machine as my graduation gift. My oldest brother got a car. Yeah, well…

My 1974 sewing machine, a graduation gift from my parents.

Fast forward through college—definitely no time for sewing then, except during breaks back home on the farm. Launched into the working world 3 ½ years later as a newspaper reporter, I had precious little time for sewing.

And so the years passed, until I became a mother in 1986 with grandiose plans of stitching cute little dresses for my first-born daughter. That never happened and I had even less time when my second daughter arrived 21 months later. On a tight time and money budget, I mostly relied on rummage sale clothes to dress my daughters and later, my son.

It’s been years now since I used my sewing machine. Somewhere in the busyness of raising three children and in the economic reality that I could purchase store-bought or recycled for less than the cost of fabric and a pattern, I lost interest in sewing.

I haven’t lost, though, the thrill of walking into the fabric section of a store, perusing the bolts of cloth and running my hands across the woven threads.

And it seems to me that the prints today are bold and crazy and colorful, quite like the psychedelic prints of the 70s.

HOW ABOUT YOU? Did you, like me, sew at one time? Or are you a creative seamstress,  stitching away today?

Copyright 2012 Audrey Kletscher Helbling