Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

A powerful Northfield sculpture focuses on mental health July 30, 2019

 

PAUSE ON THE CORNER of Division Street by the Northfield Public Library in the heart of this historic southern Minnesota river town, and you will find yourself next to a massive rusting sculpture.

 

 

 

The public piece calls for more than a cursory glance at an abstract person reaching skyward. The art calls for passersby to stop, read the inscription at the base of the sculpture and then contemplate the deeper meaning of “Waist Deep.”

This temporary downtown art installation, created by 15 Northfield High School students and three professional artists through the Young Sculptors Project and funded with a $10,000 grant from the Southeastern Minnesota Arts Council, creates a community-wide public focus on mental health issues. After two years, the sculpture will be permanently placed in the high school courtyard sculpture garden.

 

 

Like any art, “Waist Deep” is open to personal interpretation. The signage notes, though, that the sculpture is meant to support those struggling with mental health in the community, of needing and receiving help from caring others.

 

 

As I looked at the layered and fractured pieces comprising the sculpted person, I saw beyond the arm reaching for help and the lowered arm with curved hand clawing the earth. Both represent, in my eyes, darkness and light, hopelessness and hope. Mental illness leaves a person feeling incomplete and broken. Fractured. Trying to hang on. Reaching.

 

 

I photographed the sculpture on a recent weekend morning under rainy, then partially cloudy and sunny skies, not unlike the ever-changing skies of mental illness. Sometimes pouring. Sometimes parting. Sometimes shining with hope.

As the sculpture name “Waist Deep” and art itself suggest, those dealing with mental health issues can feel waist deep in the water of the disease—flailing, perhaps unable to swim, battling the overpowering waves.

We have a responsibility to throw a life-line. How? First, start seeing mental illness like any other illness. Call it what it is—a brain disease. End the stigma. Someone suffering from depression, for example, can no more wish away or snap out of depression than a diabetic can cure his/her disease by thinking positive thoughts. Educate yourself.

 

 

Support those who are waist deep. Show compassion. They need care, love, encouragement, support just as much, for example, as cancer patients.

Be there, too, for the caregivers, who feel alone, who work behind the scenes to secure often elusive professional care for their loved ones. In Minnesota the shortage of mental health care professionals and treatment centers, especially outside the Twin Cities metro area, is documented in media report after media report. It’s a crisis situation. Telling someone in a mental health crisis they need to wait six weeks plus for an appointment with a psychiatrist or a psychologist is absurd and unacceptable. We wouldn’t say that to someone experiencing a heart attack. They would die without immediate care. Those waist deep do sometimes. Every day. And it shouldn’t be that way.

I applaud the 15 NHS students and the three artists who created the public art piece in Northfield. Projects like “Waist Deep” shine the spotlight on a disease which has too long been hidden, shoved in the dark corner of silence.

THOUGHTS?

FYI: I’d encourage you to read the book Regular & Decaf by Minnesotan Andrew D. Gadtke and published by Risen Man Publishing, LLC. It features conversations between Gadtke and his friend, both of whom have brain diseases. It’s a powerful, insightful and unforgettable read.

 

Embracing everyday & public art, plus a new sculpture in Northfield June 28, 2012

GROWING UP, I DIDN’T have all that much formal exposure to the arts. Not at home. Not in school. Not outside of either.

Life was different back then, in the 1960s and early 1970s, with families in my southwestern Minnesota farming community simply working long, hard hours to survive. We didn’t, for the most part, have art galleries and live theatre, concerts or art shows or any of those cultural centers and events that today are an assumed aspect of life, even in the most rural of areas.

Despite that absence of organized art opportunities, I was not deprived of art. Rather, its presence was subtle—found in the flower gardens of Great Aunt Dora, in the dance of corn tassels on a breezy summer afternoon, in the patchwork symphony of quilts my Grandma Ida stitched, in the blazing orange of a prairie sunset painted across the wide sky, in the distinguishable cadence of a John Deere tractor, in the stones my great uncle rockhounds collected, sculpted and polished to shiny perfection.

Those exposures to art were so much a natural part of my life that I never realized their significance as artful influences.

Today I can find organized art anywhere, including right here in my community of Faribault. I embrace (most of) it with exuberance.

And to the north, in neighboring Northfield, the arts scene is even more vibrant.

The recently-installed “Tree of Knowledge and Delight” at the Northfield Public Library.

At 4:30 p.m. this Friday, June 29, Northfield celebrates its latest addition to downtown art at the official unveiling of the “Tree of Knowledge and Delight,” a sculpture created by 10 Northfield High School students and installed in the Northfield Public Library plaza.

A St. Olaf College emeritus professor of art and a St. Olaf art apprentice guided the students in their non-credit, extra-curricular public art course which resulted in the sculpture. Funding for the Northfield Young Sculptors Project came via a $4,150 Legacy grant approved by the Southeastern Minnesota Arts Council.

I viewed the sculpture for the first time Sunday evening. I’ll admit that I didn’t study the sculpture like I should have. But oftentimes it takes me awhile to warm up to abstract art.

Eight branches comprise the tree sculpture.

But if you take the time to examine the tree, you will see the visual themes related to learning and individual artistic expressions—the book, the faces, the snake, the harmony of colors and more.

That students would have this opportunity to create such a sizable piece of public art seems exceptional. What an encouragement to them as young artists.

The “Tree of Knowledge and Delight” will remain at the library plaza for a year before relocating to a permanent home at Northfield High School. Plans call for a public sculpture to become an annual project for NHS students and their professional mentors. And that is good.

Yet, aside from this organized project, I hope students will not overlook the art in their everyday lives. For that is the art which, as I see it, defines the artistic world in its simplest, purest, most grassroots form.

FYI: This project was also supported by the Northfield Arts and Culture Commission, the Northfield Public Library, Northfield High School and the City of Northfield.

Right next to the Northfield Young Sculptors Project you’ll see this knit art wrapped around a “Do not enter” sign post. An attached tag, which includes a photo of a young woman, reads: “It’s immortality, my darlings.– Alison.” This is apparently a memorable line by character Alison DiLaurentis from the teen drama television series, “Pretty Little Liars.” Never heard of it. Any idea who placed this quote and knit art on the Northfield street sign? And what does that message mean anyway?

© Copyright 2012 Audrey Kletscher Helbling