Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

Why a community should care about its alleys January 25, 2018

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This alley of art in Clear Lake, Iowa, impresses me. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo 2015.

 

I NOTICE DETAILS, always have. This heightened awareness weaves into my work. I write and photograph with a strong sense of place, a quality instilled in me long ago by growing up on the prairie. In that vast space of sky and land, every nuance of the environment imprints upon the soul.

My reactions to a place evolve from first impressions, most often viewed through my camera lens. I see the world in details of color, balance and perspective, of light and mood and texture and more.

 

An alley in Milaca, photographed in September 2017.

 

With that background, you can perhaps better understand why, when photographing a community, I notice more than the slick fronts of buildings, the parks and other attractions tourism offices promote. I look beyond those to the alleys, the roof lines and even the sidewalks. The details.

 

The scene along a balcony on the back side of a building along Third Street N.E. in downtown Faribault, just across the alley from the post office is one of my favorite alley photos for the story it tells. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo July 2015.

 

It is the alleys in particular that draw my visual interest and show me the side of a community often overlooked. And too often neglected. There’s much to learn in those alleyways about people and places and cultures and even socioeconomic status.

 

I love the sweet surprise of these floral paintings brightening an alley in downtown Clear Lake. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo May 2015.

 

Hanging baskets line the alley behind Larson’s Mercantile in Clear Lake, adding a splash of color to the downtown. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo May 2015.

 

The Contented Cow opens onto a riverside space between buildings in historic downtown Northfield. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo October 2014.

 

Looking further down that narrow space, I photographed a wedding party gathering near the Cannon River. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

 

A mural on The Key (youth center) building in downtown Northfield. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo April 2017.

 

Through the years, I’ve documented many behind and between businesses scenes with my camera. I’ve seen how a community can convert an alley into a lovely and inviting space. Clear Lake, Iowa, and Northfield, Minnesota, especially, have succeeded with this attention to detail beyond storefronts.

 

Michelle’s Garden, right next to the alley behind buildings along Faribault’s Second Street and Central Avenue. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo September 2015.

 

The back of The Crafty Maven (now closed) sat right across the alley from the garden. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo September 2015.

 

This mural of an iconic scene from downtown Faribault was installed along an alleyway visible from busy Minnesota State Highway 60/Fourth Street in the heart of downtown. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

 

My community of Faribault, too, boasts an alley-side mini park and an alleyway mural creating a more inviting downtown. But dumpsters overflowing with garbage in other sections of the downtown counterbalance the positive efforts.

 

The behind buildings parking lot scene in downtown Faribault highlights the area’s ag base. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo August 2014.

 

In my opinion, every community should pay closer attention to the details. They are part of the whole, of the impression visitors gather of a place beyond the side we’re supposed to see.

THOUGHTS? I’m interested, especially, in hearing how your community or other communities have beautified alleys and/or backs of businesses.

© Copyright 2017 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Biancabella, books & bliss at Becky’s bookshop October 30, 2017

 

PRINCESS BIANCABELLA first drew me to the business along Milaca’s main drag. Stretched out atop carpet next to stacks of books in the front window display area, the calico cat appeared blissfully content. Not even my photographic efforts disturbed her.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The scene delighted me—this bookstore cat in one window, a vintage typewriter in another and a creative OPEN sign crafted from a book and propped outside Bexter Book & Copy.

 

 

It’s not often anymore that you find an independent bookstore, especially in a town the size of Milaca with not quite 3,000 residents. This shop, which opened about a year ago, anchors a corner of the downtown business district in an historic building. And it appears the owner, Rebecca Rittenour, is working hard to make her business a success. She not only sells new and used books, but also offers hometown copy services and engages her patrons via a Mystery Book Club, creative in-store displays and more.

 

 

 

 

 

 

I especially like her artistic vignettes that encourage folks to shop local. I didn’t speak much with Becky other than to greet her, ask for permission to photograph and praise her store. But I got the sense, both from wandering the bookshop and from reading the Bexter website and Facebook page, that she truly holds a passion for books and for sharing her love and knowledge with others. That’s always the benefit of shopping local—excellent customer service from a passionate shopkeeper.

 

 

 

 

Milaca is fortunate to have an independent bookstore with books tucked into open drawers, filed onto shelves and showcased in artful ways.

 

 

On my quick stop in town, this bookshop charmed me with its vivid chartreuse walls, homey character and resident princess cat.

 

TELL ME: Do you have a favorite independent bookstore? If yes, what delights you and draws you to this bookshop?

© Copyright 2017 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

The masks of Milaca October 6, 2017

 

IF I SPOT A THRIFT STORE, you can bet I will stop. I value a bargain and the repurposing of stuff. That comes from someone who, to this day, finds it difficult to shop anything other than a sales rack for clothing. I grew up without much and still watch my spending.

 

Right outside the thrift store, this artsy fire hydrant reinforces the idea of being there for each other.

 

With that background, you can understand why Randy and I recently stopped at The Community Closet Thrift Store in Milaca on our way to the Brainerd Lakes area and other parts Up North. We’d never been to Milaca and had just enough time to duck into the thrift store and a bookstore down the street.

 

 

Our drop-in at The Community Closet proved untimely with the seasonal changing out of stock. Despite that disappointment in minimal merchandise, I left with a positive feeling. You see, this is not just any thrift store. This place is an extension of Pearl Crisis Center, a non-profit which provides support and resources for victims of domestic violence and sexual assault in Mille Lacs County. Sales proceeds support efforts of the crisis center.

 

Photographer Erica Isaacson, also an advocate at Pearl, took the photo, right, of the young woman with a theatre mask.

 

Among the center’s advocacy outreach is a window display that grabs the attention of shoppers and those passing by The Community Closet. “Masked” certainly garnered my interest. As a strong proponent of the visual and literary arts, I found myself drawn to the masks surrounding a photo of a young woman unmasked.

 

 

The art reveals, in a strong visual, how victims of domestic abuse often hide behind a mask, pretending that everything is alright/normal/OK. I noted in those masks the tears, the scars, the black eye, the messages, sometimes hidden, sometimes bold.

 

If you look closely, you will see this message written on this mask: I am lost. It is dark here.

 

An accompanying poem by Steven Sjoberg offers further insight and reads in part:

 

To most people looking
she is just one simple face
Then again her mask is ripped off
and it’s back to the dark place.

 

I see conflict here between the word happy and the dark eye. Promise, yet darkness, in that rainbow.

 

Abuse victims and those in Pearl’s Teens Against Dating Abuse program created the masks featured in the thrift store window and also at the crisis center.

 

A Halloween mask for sale at a southern Minnesota antique shop and used here for illustration purposes only. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

 

In this month of October, when masks are so prevalent, perhaps it’s time to view masks beyond Halloween. Consider, too, the masks worn by victims of domestic abuse.

 

FYI:  October marks National Domestic Violence Awareness Month. If you are in an abusive relationship and in immediate danger, please call 911. Otherwise reach out to a trusted family member, friend or local support and advocacy center/shelter for help. You need a safe plan to leave your abuser. You are so worth it. There is no need to hide behind a mask, pretending all is alright while you endure abuse, whether psychological, emotional, mental, financial, spiritual, technological and/or physical. You deserve to be unmasked, to live free of abuse.

If you are the friend or family member of someone in an abusive relationship, educate yourself and seek professional help on how to best help the one you love.

 

© Copyright 2017 Audrey Kletscher Helbling