Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

Photographing a choral festival: It’s in the details November 20, 2012

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MY VOLUNTEER ASSIGNMENT was to photograph the mass choir comprised of 250 singers from 11 churches.

Choir members from 11 churches sing four songs in closing the choral festival.

That shot came near the end of a 1 ½ hour Festival of Choirs event Sunday afternoon at my church, Trinity Lutheran in Faribault. Choir members from churches in Eagan, Faribault, Inver Grove Heights, Janesville, Morristown, Northfield, North Morristown, South St. Paul, Stewartville and Waseca performed separately before joining in singing four songs of praise, thanksgiving and hallelujahs.

Congregation and mass choir, a side view.

Now, when I cover an event like this, I do not simply stand at the back of the church aiming my camera lens forward. Oh, no. I rove, searching for photo ops and angles that will tell a story. That is the photojournalist, and artist, in me emerging.

A piano’s player’s hands.

That same piano player and the choir she accompanied.

And, of course, the piano player’s feet working the pedals.

My pastor promised that if anyone got upset about me ranging here and there taking photos, they could speak to him. With that pastoral blessing, I set to work, moving from side-to-side of the sanctuary, tucking myself behind pillars, crouching beside pews, scooting along pews, crawling, squatting and, finally, for that mega choir group shot, climbing onto a chair.

Proof that even kids need someone to lean on while standing on a pew. This is not technically a perfect image. But look at that little girl’s face. Pure joy as she and, I assume, grandma, clap to the music.

At one point, I even slipped off my shoes and stepped onto a back pew, leaning on a stranger’s shoulder for balance. A spongy pew cushion does not make for a stable perch.

Because I shoot without flash, I knew I had to hold my camera perfectly still with each shot. I also knew that would not happen. But that is the beauty of shooting digital. Overshoot and you’re bound to have enough “good” photos.

I watched this boy, a member of the Trinity Lutheran Church, North Morristown, choir, for awhile before capturing this moment.

I was also acutely aware that simply photographing choirs performing at the front of the church would not make for particularly interesting shots. So I watched for the personal moments, the snippets that comprise the whole.

My favorite photo of the day came quite unexpectedly as I was walking through the narthex. These brothers, brothers to the boy in the above image, were hanging out in the narthex with their mom, one watching the concert, the other not.

That takes patience and observation—consciously choosing to notice individuals and details—and often a bit of luck.

I wanted to show all perspectives of the concert, including that of the pianists.

I happened to be on the floor, saw the men from Peace Lutheran walking toward the steps and took one quick shot.

And then I raced to the opposite side of the sanctuary to get this photo of the Peace, Faribault, choir singing.

The director of the Trinity Lutheran Church, Northfield, choir exhibited such enthusiasm that I simply had to catch her in motion.

Remember that little girl from earlier? There she is again, watching. She makes me smile.

I set my camera on a front pew and aimed up for this perspective.

The mass choir can quickly become that, simply a mass, unless you focus. I chose to see the individuals, specifically the little boy in the front row who had lost his place in the music.

While noticing the details is vital to a photo essay, so is the broader view.

The light of late afternoon made the western stained glass window glow in golden tones. Here’s a snippet, Christ’s face.

I placed my camera on the floor and shot this mass choir and congregation image, the angle drawing your eye to the cross.

The mass choir disbands and the concert ends.

TO THE ORGANIZERS OF and participants in the choral festival, thank you for blessing us with your musical talents. I cannot read a single note and thus so appreciate those of you who do and who share your gifts.

© Copyright 2012 Audrey Kletscher Helbling


Connecting, conversing and celebrating cultural diversity at Faribault festival August 28, 2012

This woman represents El Salvador during the International Festival Faribault on a drizzly Saturday. Flags suspended from the Central Park band shell in the background show the countries participating in the event.

DESCRIBING AN EVENT like International Festival Faribault within the confines of a blog post or two seems daunting. How do I adequately convey the essence of this fest celebrating the cultural diversity of my community?

You can view my first effort by clicking here and reading “Yearning for respect & equality, ‘no matter what color you are.’”

Now, as I scroll again through the many photos I took during the fest (when rain wasn’t drizzling upon my camera), I ponder which images to share, what words to pen.

Cultures connecting on the band shell stage between musical acts.

And “c” words—like color, connecting, communicating, conversation, coloring, candy, culture, care, colorful clothing—pop out at me as I view my photos.

I should perhaps add “confusing” to that list because I felt overwhelmed when trying to photograph the wood carvings from Somalia and Kenya peddled by Bashir Omar and Asher Ali.

A woman, without prompting, took this mask from the table manned by Bashir Omar and Asher Ali and asked me to photograph her.

Suddenly, it seemed, everyone wanted to pose for a picture. And I much prefer candid to set up shots. I obliged, though, because it seemed the easiest thing to do.

Lul Abdi shows off beautiful wood crafts from Kenya and Somalia.

Then Lul Abdi, who had grabbed a wooden platter and giraffe, and held them up for me to photograph, asked me to write in my blog that an election is coming up in Somalia and I should tell everyone to vote for whomever it is she supports. Bashir Omar translated my answer—I don’t write about international political issues.

While this back-and-forth translation was occurring, I felt befuddled because, when too much noise (in this instance lots of conversation going on around me and music in the background), is coming my way, my brain doesn’t process anything. That issue is related to the 70 percent hearing loss in my right ear.

Despite the difficulties, this muddle served as an aha moment. Imagine if I was Lul, struggling on a daily basis to understand those around me. Life would be challenging.

Busy artists at the kids’ activity table.

But sometimes we all speak the same language. And I saw, rather than heard, that on Saturday, at the festival, especially among the children. They sat side-by-side painting at the kids’ activity table, bounced side-by-side in the bouncy tent, stood side-by-side in line to take turns swinging at pinatas.

A little girl stands on the opposite side of the group of children waiting to swing at the pinata.

Differences in color and culture and language mattered not to these children. They shouldn’t matter to any of us. Therein lies the message I most want to communicate to you today and which was communicated so well via International Festival Faribault.

Happy children all focused on the same goal: breaking the pinata.

All around me, children and adults of all colors mingled.

The boy on the right was biking past Central Park and stopped to watch the activities at a distance.

The scramble for candy once one of three pinatas is broken.


Masks displayed at the food vendor representing El Salvador.

Waiting at the bouncy tent.

A Mexican dish (help me out if you know, but I think tortillas) was wrapped in banana leaves. My husband and I tried this.

Conversation and connecting…, no other words necessary.

Necklaces and other jewelry from Kenya and/or Somalia and for sale at the festival.

Kids painted and colored, etc., elbow to elbow at the always busy kids’ activity table.

Some mischievous face painting was also part of the fun.

© Copyright 2012 Audrey Kletscher Helbling


Mixing art, music and BBQ at Faribault festival August 12, 2012

The banner and band scaffolding/set-up in the 300 block of Central Avenue during Saturday’s Blue Collar BBQ & Arts Fest in Faribault

FROM DEAFENING MUSIC that bounced between historic buildings along Faribault’s Central Avenue, to the savory taste and tantalizing, smokey smell of barbecued meat to the cheers of onlookers when a local celebrity plunged into the dunk tank to the clink of washers against asphalt in the washer tournament to human faces morphing, via paint, into animal faces, offerings at the fourth annual Blue Collar BBQ & Arts Fest in Faribault drew crowds, and smiles, on a picture perfect Saturday.

An overview of the crowd early into the event on Saturday, looking to the 300 block of historic downtown Farbault.

Coordinated by the Paradise Center for the Arts, the 13-hour free festival focused on bringing people into the historic downtown to enjoy/participate in the arts, music, food, a BBQ and homemade brew competition, and more.

The Black Widow BBQ team, one of about a dozen competing for top prizes of $500 in several categories.

BBQ teams set up along a side street to cook their meats and desserts.

A Texas native, now living in Faribault and a member of The Black Hat “BBQ” team, sprays apple juice onto his St. Louis style pork ribs during the BBQ contest.

Grill Cabin team members, from New Prague, prepare entries in the BBQ competition.

Retail stores like The Crafty Maven, 212 Central Avenue, at the heart of the arts and crafts fair and kids’ activities, expected an increase in business with an influx of an anticipated 5,000 people into the downtown for the festival. And that’s part of the plan, to celebrate downtown businesses, many of them event supporters. Other businesses in the community also sponsored parts of the festival.

Flower art and more, shaped and welded from old silverware, etc. is helping the DeWall brothers of DeWall Bros Metal Creations of Grand Meadow finance their college educations. Their art was for sale at the arts fest.

While the DeWall men were peddling their metal art, the women–mom/wife, Cindy, and girlfriend, Allison– were shopping and getting their faces painted by Jodi Gustafson of Big Shoe Entertainment.

Bob Maegerlein of Rochester, specializing in Raku ware, sold his pottery at the arts fair.

I arrived late morning and wandered for several hours past vendors—wishing I could sample the meat smoking in BBQ contestants’ grills; admiring the artistic creations of artists and a gifted face painter; ducking into the Paradise Center for the Arts to photograph the current art show, Car pARTS; steering mostly clear of the north end of the 300 block of Central because I couldn’t tolerate the volume of the live band music; trying a vendor’s delicious BBQed meat trio sampler that was way overpriced for the quantity (plus, no forks included); and, finally, stopping at Pawn Minnesota and then a Somali clothing shop on my way to the car.

Blues-rock guitarist/musician Trent Romens was among six featured musical acts.

Did the festival accomplish for me what I expected? Yes. I was entertained, although I would have appreciated a much lower volume on the music. Ditto for the price on the meat sampler. And I would have liked access to the home brew competition, which was tucked into the Paradise somewhere.

But all in all, the festival provided a fun way to while away part of a Saturday. And, for those downtown business owners who hoped the event would draw shoppers into stores, it worked for me. I’d never been into the pawn store and wasn’t even aware of the Somali shop or another ethnic business across the street (which wasn’t open).

If you’re from Faribault, I hope you took  time on Saturday to attend the Blue Collar BBQ & Arts Fest and appreciate what we have, right here in our own community.

With the weather about as good as it gets on a summer day, attendance was high at the Blue Collar BBQ & Arts Fest.

Dad and grandpa watched the pets while the kids played in the bouncy inflatables. These pom pom pets were a popular item sold at the arts fair.

Kids practiced for the washer tournament. I was not convinced by a tournament organizer to participate. “She would throw the washer through a store window,” my husband told him. He would be right. Either that or I would have struck a passerby. We walked away, for the safety of those in attendance.

Isabella, 7, of Faribault, one of the many kids who lined up for the free face painting. Check back for an additional post featuring the artwork of professional face painter Jodi Gustafson of Big Shoe Entertainment.

Taking a turn in the dunk tank…

© Copyright 2012 Audrey Kletscher Helbling


Come on over to Faribault for a BBQ & more May 17, 2012

An example of the barbecued meat prepared for the 2011 Minnesota in May BBQ Contest.

MINNESOTA BARBEQUE LOVERS, this is your weekend.

The season’s first of six Kansas City Barbeque Society sanctioned competitions in our state kicks off this Friday, May 18, with the Minnesota in May BBQ & Cheese Festival at the Rice County Fairgrounds in Faribault.

And, folks, it’s free—unless you purchase food and/or beverages from vendors. And you’ll want to, once you smell the tantalizing aroma of BBQed meats. Vendors open to the public at 11 a.m. Saturday.

For the first time ever, Faribault hosted the Minnesota in May BBQ Contest at the Rice County Fairgrounds in 2011. Contestants cooked under tents during a morning downpour. By afternoon, the rain stopped.

Bubba and Sabrina’s home on wheels and traveling BBQ central parked at the 2011 Minnesota in May BBQ Festival. The couple owns Bubba-Q’s, a restaurant in Ottumwa, Iowa.

Artfully displayed bacon-wrapped pheasant prepared by a BBQ team from Appleton, Wisconsin, during the 2011 competition at the Rice County Fairgrounds in Faribault.

With $10,000 in prize money up for grabs, you can expect some top contenders vying on Saturday for awards in these divisions: turkey product, chicken, ribs, pork, beef brisket, anything butt and dessert. Contestants will be cooking all morning and into the early afternoon with judging from 11:30 a.m. – 2 p.m.

These delicious-looking apple dumplings were entered in the 2011 dessert division.

Ten cooks will also compete in a “grilling with blue cheese” contest featuring Caves of Faribault cheese. Yes, we have some savory blue cheese made right here in my community and aged in sandstone caves. That contest is set for 3 p.m. Saturday.

Award-winning Amablu Gorgonzola from Caves of Faribault.

The Cheese Cave is a gourmet destination along Central Avenue in historic downtown Faribault. Stop by on Friday or Saturday if you’re in town for the BBQ Festival.

The Friday events, running from 4:30 p.m. – 7 p.m. include a Kids BBQ Competition,  BBQ Cook-Off and live music.

Now I’m not promoting this BBQ fest simply because it’s the nice thing to do. I attended last year and thoroughly enjoyed the festival, including chatting with numerous contestants. You would not believe how far these people travel, how much money they spend and how passionate they are about barbecuing. Click here to link to a blog post about the 2011 Minnesota in May BBQ Festival, which did not include cheese. Click here to read a post about BBQers Bubba and Sabrina from Iowa. And click here to read a third story from the 2011 BBQ fest.

The logo for the Faribo Drag-On’s car club on a member’s vintage car.

This year a car show, hosted by the Faribo Drag-Ons from 9 a.m. – 3 p.m. Saturday, has been added to the festival.

Other draws include a Saturday pancake breakfast from 7 a.m. – 9 a.m. ($5 cost), live music, food and non-food vendors and more. Click here to read a promotional flier about the Minnesota in May BBQ & Cheese Festival.

Contest and festival proceeds will benefit IRIS (Infants Remembered in Silence) and The Faribo Drag-Ons. Two more good reasons to attend.

If you can’t make it to the Faribault BBQ festival, you’ll have more opportunities from June through September to attend Minnesota barbeque fests—in Owatonna, Rochester, Marshall, Albert Lea and/or Worthington. Click here to read details from the Minnesota Barbeque Society.

HAVE YOU EVER ATTENDED a barbeque festival? Please submit a comment and share your experience.


This file photo shows the Faribault Woolen Mill days after a flash flood in September 2010 and before the mill reopened a year later. The mill had closed in 2009 and was not in operation at the time of the flood.

P.S.  If you’re in town for the BBQ fest, take time also to check out the Faribault Woolen Mill retail store across the Cannon River just south of the fairgrounds. The store, in the recently reopened and revamped historic mill, opened Tuesday. Retail store hours are 10 a.m. – 4 p.m. Monday – Saturday.

© Copyright 2012 Audrey Kletscher Helbling


Exploring Minnesota at the MSAD Scarecrow Fest October 18, 2010



A sign welcomes visitors to the Scarecrow Fest at the Minnesota State Academy for the Deaf in Faribault.


EVERY YEAR IN FOREVER, my family has crossed the viaduct to Faribault’s east side to view the scarecrows at the Minnesota State Academy for the Deaf. Autumn would not be autumn without this annual tour.

Years ago we loaded up the kids. Today it’s just me and my husband. But we still get the same kick out of seeing exactly what MSAD students, Faribault High School American Sign Language students, families and others have created for the October Scarecrow Fest.

This year, undoubtedly, has been my favorite with scarecrow scenes themed around Minnesota’s great outdoors. The displays are completely family-friendly—nothing scary or macabre or remotely frightening.

I suppose, though, that the sizes of the mosquitoes could frighten non-Minnesotans. But, shhhhhh, we’ll just let them think that our “state bird” grows as big as a bird and that we really do need Paul Bunyan-sized cans of OFF mosquito repellent.



With mosquitoes this big...



...swarming and droning...



...you really do need a mega can of bug repellent.


And, yes, Paul Bunyan was depicted in two of the creations. Unfortunately, in one case, Babe the Blue Ox, Paul’s side-kick, had toppled in the wind. But my husband set him upright for a photo op before Babe tumbled back to earth—at the mercy of Paul’s axe, noted a little girl who was touring the fest grounds.

Then I had to add, in a garish Halloween comment, that Paul was making Babe into steak. So much for keeping this family-friendly…



This Babe the Blue Ox had toppled in the wind, but he stood briefly for this photo.



This second Babe the Blue Ox sculpture stood his ground in the elements.


Honestly, I had to admire the ingenuity of the contestants with gourds transformed into fish and mosquitoes, a loon with a sock head and a pumpkin painted red to represent the cherry on Spoonbridge and Cherry at the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden.



MSAD's version of the cherry and spoon sculpture.



One of my favorite entries, this sockhead loon.


Unfortunately Split Rock Lighthouse had fallen by the time we arrived for our tour. Typically the weather takes a toll on this wind-swept campus.

But, for the most part, these exhibits need to be durable, durability being one of the criteria considered by judges evaluating the vignettes. They also look at use of materials, overall appearance and creativity.

I bet the judges had a tough time this year deciding who should win. The entries were that good. Of course, why wouldn’t they be? With an “Explore Minnesota” theme, competitors had a whole wide state of 10,000 lakes and loons and land to create a scarecrow scene of this place we Minnesotans love, despite our over-sized “state bird.”



Pumpkins were painted to resemble animals in the Como Zoo entry.



Detail. Detail. Even the name on this mock tombstone reflects Minnesota.



As you might expect, with an "Explore Minnesota" theme, many of the 17 Scarecrow Fest scenes included boats.


FYI: You have only a few hours to view the scarecrows, if any remain on the MSAD campus. They will be gone by 3 p.m. today.

© Copyright 2010 Audrey Kletscher Helbling


Celebrating words and art in Paul Bunyan land August 19, 2010

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Paul Bunyan's sweetheart, Lucette Diana Kensack

I’VE BEEN INVITED to Hackensack, home of Paul Bunyan’s sweetheart. Lucette Diana Kensack lives (or technically, stands) along the shores of Birch Lake next to a quaint 1930s log cabin that is the Hackensack Lending Library.

The lakeside of the Hackensack Lending Library. To the left stands Lucette.

Just down the road along First Street sits a sweet, pink fairy tale cottage.

Unfortunately, I’m not traveling to Hackensack, which lies midway between Brainerd and Bemidji and marks the half-way point on The Paul Bunyan Trail. I was just in Hackensack last summer and another trip that far north is not on the schedule. But if it was, I tell you, I would want to stay at that Hansel and Gretel cottage. (I don’t care that it’s a private home.)

I discovered the fairy tale cottage while visiting Hackensack last summer.

Instead, I’ll be back here in southern Minnesota awaiting results of a poetry competition. You see, some time ago I submitted two poems for possible display at The Northwoods Art Festival and Book Fair in Hackensack from 10 a.m. – 4 p.m. on Saturday, August 28.

Recently I learned that both my poems were selected for display and are vying, like all the chosen poems, for “Works of Merit” designation by long-time Brainerd poet Doris Stengel. The visiting public will also vote for their six favorites as “Popular Choice” award winners. As far as I know, no cash prizes are made. Rather the prize lies in peer and/or public recognition.

I would love to tell you which of the untagged poems are mine. But since I don’t want to be accused of voter fraud, illegal lobbying or some other such poetic “crime,” I have sworn myself to secrecy. I’m quite certain that revelation of my poems’ titles could lead to disqualification.

That disclaimer aside, if you’re in the Hackensack area on August 28, check out the arts festival and specifically the poetry display at the Union Congregational Church. Minnesota writers and illustrators will be at the church signing and selling their books. At 1:30 p.m., the award winners will be announced and display poets can read their poems.

But there’s more to this fest than the written word. You also will find artists who work in paint, clay, metal, wood, fiber and photography. Throw in food and music and you have a genuine Paul Bunyan-worthy Minnesota festival.

Come to think of it, perhaps I should have penned a poem about Paul Bunyan.

© Copyright 2010 Audrey Kletscher Helbling