Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

From sunshine to storm on Labor Day September 4, 2017

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Looking to the north and the Minnesota River Valley just outside Delhi around 4 p.m. Monday.

 

TO THE NORTH, storm clouds bruised the sky late Labor Day afternoon.

 

To the east of Delhi heading toward Redwood Falls.

 

Brooding blue, then masses of grey before the rain gushed near New Ulm as we drove east from the southwestern Minnesota prairie toward home. The rainfall, while heavy at times, seemed nothing more than a September downpour.

 

Sky and corn define this area of Minnesota.

 

Well before we got to Mankato, the rain stopped.

 

The farther east we drove, the more ominous the clouds appeared.

 

Yet clouds continued to stack and I began to consider the possibility of severe weather as we entered Waseca, then Steele, counties. Randy switched on the radio to a local station but then turned it off when our son called from Boston. I ended the conversation as we reached Owatonna and exited U.S. Highway 14 onto Interstate 35.

Rounding the entrance ramp, Randy noticed a state highway patrol car and, then, a short distance later, another. By that time the rain had ramped. Wheels hydroplaned. And the wind blew so fierce the van rocked.

“I’m scared,” I said. “I want to get off the interstate.” Randy steered the van off the next exit, much to my relief. But I was still scared. I don’t like storms or strong winds like these of probably 50 mph. I’ve seen the damaging power of tornadoes and straight line winds and I respect them enough to fear them.

 

Just a few miles from Faribault on Rice County Road 45.

 

We drove through part of Owatonna, the wind still whipping trees. The short detour off I-35 proved enough to semi calm me before Randy directed the van out of town along a back county road. I wanted nothing more than to get home to Faribault. I’d had enough of the wind and the rain on an otherwise glorious September day in southern Minnesota.

 

TELL ME: Have you ever been caught on the roadway in a storm that scared you? I’d like to hear about your experiences.

© Copyright 2017 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

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Why I appreciate the arts in Minnesota May 11, 2017

A snippet of the colorful and whimsical mural created by Lynette Schmidt Yencho for the Owatonna Arts Center library. Art surrounds these children.

 

GROWING UP IN RURAL southwestern Minnesota many decades ago, my exposure to the arts was minimal. I don’t recall attending a single art show, concert or theatre production outside of a public school. If such opportunities existed, I was either unaware of them or my parents had no money for such extras.

 

During a one-day fundraiser, the Owatonna Arts Center sold original serigraphs (silkscreen prints) produced by Alice Ottinger and Jean Zamboni of OZ Press in Owatonna. The press no longer operates. If you are interested in a print, contact the art center.

 

Opportunities to develop my creative interests did not extend much beyond English, music, art and home economics classes, except for the two weeks of shop class in which I crafted a linoleum block print. I always wished I could play piano or an instrument. But there was no time or money for either. I still cannot read a single note of music.

 

Fruit bowl art in the Owatonna Arts Center library.

 

I don’t begrudge my parents for not exposing me to the arts. They had to keep the dairy and crop farm running and a family of eight fed. Finances were tight.

 

The 65th Annual Steele County Art Exhibition is currently showing at the Owatonna Arts Center. Here’s a sampling of art in that show.

 

Early on I learned that, if I wanted new clothes, I would have to sew them. This was back in the day when sewing clothing was far less expensive than buying ready-made. If I got store-bought clothes, they always came from the sales rack. I loved the sewing process—paging through thick volumes of Simplicity, Butterick and McCalls patterns; perusing bolts of fabric; and then cutting and sewing the fabric into wearable clothing.

In some small way, I created art. Not of my own design. But I could express myself through fabric selection and pattern choice.

 

Another section of the Owatonna Arts Center library mural by Lynette Schmidt Yencho. My love of reading as a child spurred my interest in writing.

 

I also created art in my writing. No teacher encouraged me, other than to praise my near-perfect penmanship, spelling and excellent English language usage skills. My writing was limited to class assignments and later writing for the high school newspaper, The Rabbit Tracks. I attended high school in Wabasso, which means “rabbit” in Ojibwe. Our mascot was a white rabbit.

 

A room of books and art…in the Owatonna Arts Center library.

 

Why do I tell you all of this? I share this because my background explains why I have such a deep appreciation for the arts. That cliché of “absence makes the heart grow fonder” can be applied to the near absence of art in my life early on.

 

Doors open into the OAC gallery housed in an historic building.

 

Today, living 120 miles to the east of my hometown, I have many opportunities to enjoy the arts locally in Faribault and neighboring Owatonna and Northfield at arts centers, public schools, colleges and more. I am grateful that the visual, literary and performing arts hold such high value in Minnesota.

 

More art in the Steele County artists’ show.

 

Some would argue that the arts are not necessary. I contend that they are. We all have within us that innate need to connect with others. The arts offer that interconnection, that weaving together of creativity, of humanity, of a desire/need to express ourselves. I am grateful to be part of the community of artists through my writing of poetry, fiction, creative nonfiction and blog posts and through my photography. I am thankful, too, for the art opportunities available to me right here in my backyard and throughout Minnesota.

 

TELL ME: Do you embrace the arts either/and or by creating or enjoying them? Please share specifics.

© Copyright 2017 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

Artwork photographed with permission of the Owatonna Arts Center. Art is copyrighted by the artists and may not be copied and/or reproduced.

 

In Owatonna: Showcasing the work of fashion designer Spencer Versteeg May 9, 2017

Two of the dresses Spencer Versteeg designed, now on display at the Owatonna Arts Center.

 

HIS PASSION FOR FASHION is evident. It shows in his work, in his enthusiasm, in his energetic vibe.

 

Spencer answers questions about his fashions during his OAC gallery reception.

 

I observed all of that Sunday afternoon at an Owatonna Arts Center reception honoring Spencer Versteeg who returned to his hometown for his first ever gallery showing. He’s an apparel design student heading into his senior year at the University of Minnesota.

 

The exhibit features notebooks and pages of Spencer’s design sketches.

 

Spencer has known since age seven that he wanted to design clothing.

Spencer has known since age seven that he wanted to design clothing. He pursued that interest early on via local theatre and a high school internship at Kristi’s Clothing Boutique.

 

 

 

Already Spencer is making an imprint on the fashion scene. Last fall his work was showcased in the noted Envision Fashion Show at Orchestra Hall in Minneapolis. And this summer he’s interning at Target, working on a floor set that should land his women’s clothing designs in Target stores.

 

 

 

Front dress details drape.

 

Spencer’s clothing designs hang high on a gallery space wall.

 

Asked to describe his design style, Spencer paused, then responded with a single word: vibrant. That seems accurate when I consider his fashion designs beyond hue and pattern. His clothing possesses a vibrancy in a sense of motion, in the flow of fabric, in the impression it exudes.

 

Spencer talks with a gallery guest about his fashion designs. He invited visitors to page through his sketchbooks.

 

And then there’s Spencer himself, engaging family and friends with a notable appreciation for their support and with a deep love for the creative process of fashion design.

 

Rows of sketches by Spencer are taped to a gallery wall.

 

When I inquired about his future, he provided an honest answer. “That’s a good question,” Spencer said, offering no hint at the direction his life may take after graduation from the U of M.

 

The bodice of a particularly creative dress shown at the Envision Fashion Show.

 

“New York?” I asked.

 

 

He’s been to New York, Spencer said, enough to understand he needs space, open physical space. But I expect if opportunities present themselves in the New York fashion scene, this Owatonna native will embrace them.

 

 

 

Clothing patterns are tapped to gallery windows.

 

 

 

I know next to nothing about fashion, although I sewed my own clothing (from purchased patterns) while in high school. But I understand the need, the desire, the passion to create. Just like Spencer.

© Copyright 2017 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Documentary focuses on missionaries’ life-saving roles in Nigerian civil war of 1966 January 27, 2017

My father, Elvern Kletscher, on the left with two of his soldier buddies in Korea.

My father, Elvern Kletscher, on the left with two of his soldier buddies in Korea.

I’VE EXPERIENCED WAR. Not first hand, but through the words of my soldier father who fought on the front lines during the Korean War. And through photos he took. Through textbooks, too, and the stories of veterans and immigrants. And in memorials I’ve visited, poems I’ve read, songs I’ve heard.

"The Disturbances" is told in both book and film.

“The Disturbances” is told in both book and film.

Now I have an opportunity to learn more about a civil war—one in Nigeria in 1966—through “The Disturbances,” a feature-length documentary. The film is screening at 2 p.m. Sunday, January 29, at Redeemer Lutheran Church, 1054 Truman Avenue, Owatonna.

Missionary children at ELM House (Evangelical Lutheran Mission House) in Nigeria. Missionary children lived in the hostel so they could attend boarding school in Jos, Nigeria. The Rev. Paul and Margaret Griebel served as houseparents. Three of their children, including Kirk, are pictured in this group photo.

Missionary children at ELM House (Evangelical Lutheran Mission House). Missionary children lived in the hostel so they could attend boarding school in Jos, Nigeria. The Rev. Paul and Margaret Griebel served as houseparents. Three of their sons, including Kirk, are pictured in this group photo. He is in the front row, third in from the right. Carl Eisman (tall man in the back) is featured prominently in the film. He taught at the boarding school.

What brings a film like this to southern Minnesota? The answer, in short, is the pastor of Redeemer, the Rev. Kirk Griebel. He moved, as a second grader, from Minnesota to Nigeria with his missionary father and family in February 1966. They stayed until June 1969, took a furlough and then returned for two more years, leaving in 1972. The Griebels and other Christian missionaries found themselves caught in the middle of violent tribal atrocities. “The Disturbances” is their story—the story of how missionaries and Nigerian pastors saved lives.

Back then, missionaries did not openly discuss the situation. Now they are, in this documentary produced by the Baptist Center for Ethics. The stories of missionaries from various denominations, including those of the Rev. Paul and Margaret Griebel of the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod, are included.

I look forward to learning more about these brave souls who stretched their missionary skills beyond preaching, teaching, training and serving to acts of heroism that saved lives.

Kirk Griebel with his parents, the Rev. Paul and Margaret Griebel, on his Confirmation Day in 1972. The family left Nigeria shortly thereafter.

Kirk Griebel with his parents, the Rev. Paul and Margaret Griebel, on his Confirmation Day in 1972. The family left Nigeria shortly thereafter.

The Rev. Kirk Griebel plans to share memories of his experiences from that time in Nigeria. He was only eight years old when war erupted, but remembers a mob of men with clubs and machetes as the violence unfolded, according to a January 15 interview with “Faith of Steele.” I expect I will learn more about my pastor-friend who holds a strong interest in social issues. I surmise his experiences and observations in Nigeria helped shape his willingness to publicly tackle and participate in issues beyond simply preaching from the pulpit. War changes people.

Redeemer Lutheran Church, Owatonna. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo 2016.

Sunday’s screening is at Redeemer Lutheran Church, Owatonna. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo 2016.

FYI: Please consider attending this free screening of “The Disturbances.” I always appreciate opportunities like this to learn and then relate what I learn to my life.

© Copyright 2017 Audrey Kletscher Helbling
Photos from Nigeria are courtesy of the Rev. Kirk Griebel.

 

My appreciation for small town hardware stores January 13, 2017

Hardware Hank, photographed in Pine Island in October.

Hardware Hank, photographed in Pine Island in October.

IF YOU GREW UP in rural Minnesota like I did, you likely hold fond memories of the local hardware store.

Two hardware stores once served my hometown of Vesta, a farming community on the southwestern Minnesota prairie. While I remember Joe Engel’s Hardware store as the place to buy rolls of perforated caps for my cap gun, my father shopped there, or a few doors down at Marquardt’s Hardware, for all his hardware needs. Like bulk nails and screws stashed in cubbies, the merchandise weighed and parceled into brown paper bags.

I remember, too, the worn wood floors, the narrow aisles, the old fashioned screen doors that banged shut.

To this day, I find myself drawn to the hardware stores that still exist in many small towns. They represent a connection to my past, to simpler days, to outstanding customer service, to a Main Street necessity. So I photograph them, usually the exteriors.

Nothing says "small town" like a hardware store, including this Hardware Hank in downtown Wabasha.

Nothing says “small town” like a hardware store, including Hill’s Hardware Hank in downtown Wabasha. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

One of my hardware store images—that of Hill’s Hardware Hank in Wabasha—will soon become part of a renovated “Our World” gallery at the Minnesota Children’s Museum in St. Paul. The photo will grace signage for a mini town that includes a hardware store. Hill’s inspired the facade of the replica hardware store in which children can play. The updated exhibit opens this spring.

I am honored to have my photo displayed at the Minnesota Children’s Museum. I hope it inspires others to appreciate the value of hardware stores in rural Minnesota. They are as important today as they were when I was growing up in the 1960s. In Owatonna, Arrow Ace Hardware plans to relocate into a new and much larger space by next Christmas, more than doubling its size to some 11,000 square feet. That’s encouraging. There’s still great value in local hardware stores.

TELL ME: Do you shop in hardware stores? If yes, why? Are they still of value in today’s marketplace?  Or what are your hardware store memories? Let’s talk hardware stores.

© Copyright 2016 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

The power of water, in images & words November 11, 2016

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Lake Kohlmier in Owatonna.

Lake Kohlmier in Owatonna.

WATER. What is it about this compound of hydrogen and oxygen that fascinates us? Or at least me.

The Straight River churns at the Morehouse Park dam in Owatonna.

The Straight River churns at the Morehouse Park dam in Owatonna.

The sound of rushing water, like rushing wind, soothes. It comforts me in the sort of way a lullaby can quiet a crying baby. It’s as if that rushing sound is locked away in our subconscious, there before birth. Undeniable, connecting us to the water womb comfort of our mothers.

Wind-churned water bobbed this mud hen along the surface of Lake Kohlmier.

Wind-churned water bobbed this mud hen along the surface of Lake Kohlmier.

Water’s powerful pull extends well beyond the audible. Water sustains us. Physically. Yet more. Visually, water draws us near to watch its movement—flowing, tumbling, rushing, rocking.

The Straight River flows toward the historic Owatonna Public Utilities building.

The Straight River flows toward the historic Owatonna Public Utilities building.

I am captivated by the musical, rhythmic movement of water.

Still, clear creek water in Kaplan's Woods.

Still, clear creek water in Owatonna’s Kaplan’s Woods.

Sometimes a ballad.

Water rushes over the Morehouse Park dam.

The turbulent waters at the Morehouse Park dam.

Other times rock-n-roll.

A close-up of the churning Straight River as photographed from the Morehouse Park recreational trail bridge.

A close-up of the churning Straight River as photographed from the Morehouse Park recreational trail bridge.

Maybe a turbulent county western song of love lost, love found, too much booze and too many late nights. Bluesy. Sad. Hopeful.

I can rest beside a waterfall, a dam, a creek, a river for considerable time, almost hypnotized by the sights and sounds. It’s as if water washes away my worries, sending them downstream, far, far away. I find peace in water.

A creek in Kaplan's Woods.

A creek in Kaplan’s Woods.

Water holds such power.

TELL ME: What power does it hold for you?

© Copyright 2016 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Into the woods on an autumn afternoon in southern Minnesota November 10, 2016

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autumn-day-35-walking-in-leaves

 

I DOUBT I’VE EVER SEEN so many oak leaves layering the ground. Thick. Brown. Rustling underfoot.

As my husband and I hiked into Kaplan’s Woods in Owatonna on Sunday afternoon, I noticed the abundance of oaks that distinguishes this city park from other parks/nature centers I’ve visited.

There’s something about an oak that denotes history and strength.

Yet, the distraction of all those oak leaves crackling underfoot doesn’t detract from my ability to notice nature’s details.

 

kaplans-woods-25-close-up-of-leaves

 

Flash of yellow among mostly brown and grey.

 

kaplans-woods-26-bare-trees

 

Bare (or mostly bare) branches set against a signature cobalt blue November sky.

 

kaplans-woods-29-fungi-on-tree

 

Fungi laddering up a tree trunk. Beautiful in an artistic, natural way. Like Nature’s sculpture.

 

kaplans-woods-32-barrier-in-woods

 

And then an unnatural road block at the end of a muddied path. “A gated community,” Randy jokes. And we laugh. Together. In the woods, under the oaks.

 

kaplans-woods-33-initials-in-dirt

 

In the dirt, initials carved with a stick, an “A” and maybe a “U.” Another Audrey? Probably not.

We turn around, our path blocked. I suggest we return to the main trail into the woods. We’re unfamiliar with this place and I have no intention of getting lost. Neither does Randy.

 

kaplans-woods-34-moss-on-trees

 

Leaves crunch beneath our shoes. But then I stop abruptly, swing my camera left toward a moss covered log, the golden light falling just right.

I fail to hear or notice the runner closing in behind us. I’m in the zone, focused on photographing a selected scene. Randy, however, is watchful. He warns me. We step aside and continue on, a biker now barreling toward us on his mountain bike.

© Copyright 2016 Audrey Kletscher Helbling