Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

From Faribault: Closing cultural gaps through public art August 29, 2018


One of 10 mirrored virtues signs along a trail that runs next to train tracks and the Straight River in Faribault’s Heritage Bluff Park. The trail is east of Heritage Bluff Apartments and south of The Depot Bar & Grill.


FINALLY, I’M SENSING A SHIFT in attitudes toward immigrants in Faribault. It’s been a long time coming, but certainly not for a lack of trying. There are good people in this community who have been, for years, working to welcome Somalians, Hispanics and others into this once mostly all-white southern Minnesota city. People like Dee and her sister Ann. And Lisa, Peter, Virginia, Suzanne, Carolyn, Cindy, Delane and many more. They’ve been there, reaching out, educating, welcoming, connecting, making a difference.



There are tangible, visible signs of those efforts, the latest in the installation of the Virtues Trail Project at Heritage Bluff Park near our historic downtown and along the banks of the Straight River.






As a creative, I appreciate this public art project featuring 10 mirrored signs highlighting 20 virtues like honesty, patience, kindness and, yes, tolerance. The signs edge a recreational trail, an unassuming natural setting where people can pause, view their reflections and consider words of positivity written in three languages—English, Spanish and Somali.



Here’s how it works…



Two simple words—I am—jumpstart the thought process.



An Artists on Main Street grant from the Preservation Alliance of Minnesota in partnership with Springboard for the Arts and with support from the Bush Foundation funded the project developed by Wanda Holmgren, a Faribault elementary school teacher. Faribault is among three Minnesota cities receiving grant monies to address community challenges. Twelve more arts-based endeavors are planned, or are already in place, in my city.


Colorful posts support, and reflect in, the signs. Even the chosen art reflects the virtues.


Across the tracks is a foot bridge over the Straight River, a peaceful setting unless a train is roaring through.


You’ve heard the phrase “other side of the tracks.” While tracks run parallel to the Virtues Trail, they (to me) symbolize connection, not division.


The Virtues Trail is a simple concept really, one that makes sense. Language often serves as the first hurdle in connecting cultures. If we can’t communicate, an instant divide exists. Yet a smile is universal. As are virtues.



As I walked from sign to sign with camera in hand, I intentionally avoided photographing my reflection. That wasn’t particularly easy. In a way, my evasiveness mirrors the challenges Faribault has faced in a failure to accept differences in skin color, religion, language and culture. Now I see that we are beginning to look at each other in a new way—with understanding, kindness and, yes, perhaps, finally, acceptance.




As I photographed the Virtues Trail, a bridal couple and their photographers walked the trail. I thought they were going to stop at the sign that reads “I am loved.” But they kept right on going, never pausing.


They were headed to the Straight River foot bridge, which offers a scenic view of the river and Faribault’s historic viaduct.


What an opportunity they missed to use this sign as a wedding portrait backdrop.


FYI: Please check back as I show you more ways in which my community is striving to be more welcoming of many cultures.

© Copyright 2018 Audrey Kletscher Helbling


From Farmington, Part II: Building community through art August 8, 2018

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I’M A MEGA FAN of accessible outdoor public art. Like murals.



Earlier this year, I came across a lengthy mural on the side of the Farmington Steak House in the heart of this south metro Minnesota downtown. It is the project of many—adults and youth—and funded by many.



“Reflections and Visions” embraces the idea of community, past, present and future. I like the concept of people coming together to create, to celebrate history and cultures and more in a work of public art.





In this age of so much conflict, so much hatred and anger and disagreement, I appreciate the efforts of these artists to focus on the positive, to see that each of us, though different, define community.





I am not so naïve as to think any singular mural will solve the issues that divide us. But we must start somewhere. And art seems a good place to begin.

TELL ME: Have you come across a similar outdoor public art installation that builds community and bridges differences? I’d like to hear.

© Copyright 2018 Audrey Kletscher Helbling


Bringing poetry to the people in Mankato & I’m in January 19, 2018


NEARLY SIX MONTHS have passed since I stopped at Spring Lake Park in North Mankato to view my poem posted there as part of the Mankato Poetry Walk & Ride.


The post just to the front left of the car holds a sign with my poem printed thereon.



Looking back across the lake toward the willows and my nearby poetry sign.


Located at the edge of a parking lot next to a trail and within a stone’s throw of drooping weeping willows, my award-winning poem about detasseling corn contrasts with the tranquil setting of lake and lawn separated by bullrushes flagged by cattails.


The Sibley Farm playground inside Sibley Park features these cornstalk climbing apparatus. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.


The poem may have been more appropriately placed next to cornstalk climbing apparatus at the Sibley Farm playground in Mankato’s Sibley Park.


A beautiful setting for poetry.




Still, I am grateful for this opportunity to get my poetry out there in a public place. This placement of selected poems along recreational trails and in parks in Mankato and North Mankato brings poetry to people in an approachable and everyday way. That is the beauty of this project—the accessibility, the exposure in outdoor spaces, the flawless weaving of words into the landscape.


Inside a southern Minnesota cornfield. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.


My poem, as with much of my writing, reflects a strong sense of place. In Cornfield Memories, I take the reader into a southwestern Minnesota cornfield to experience detasseling corn, a job I worked several summers as a teenager. It’s hard work yanking tassels from corn stalks in the dew of the morning and then in the scorching sun of a July afternoon. All for $1.25/ hour back in the day.


My poem, Bandwagon, previously posted at Lion’s Park in Mankato as part of a previous Mankato Poetry Walk & Ride. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo 2014.


My poem shares rural history, a story, an experience. Just as my past poems—The Thrill of Vertical, Off to Mankato to “get an education” and Bandwagon—selected as part of previous Mankato Poetry Walk & Ride contests did.



I value public art projects like the Mankato Poetry Walk & Ride. Not only as a poet, but as an appreciator of the literary arts. Poetry doesn’t need to be stuffy and mysterious. And this project proves that.

I’D LIKE TO HEAR your thoughts on bringing poetry to the public in creative ways like this. Have you seen a similar project? Would you stop to read poems posted in public spots?

NOTE: All photos were taken in early September, within weeks of the 2017 Poetry Walk & Ride poems being posted.

© Copyright 2018 Audrey Kletscher Helbling


Park art August 8, 2017

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THE POSTCARD STYLE MURAL pops color in to the mini shelterhouse at Lions Park in Waterville.

But it’s more than that. The painting by Kimberly Baerg also provides a snapshot glimpse of this southeastern Minnesota resort and farming community.




Examine the details and you will see a tractor, a canoe, a buggy, a train. All important in the history of this town.




This mini mural is an example of how a little artistic ingenuity, effort and paint can transform an otherwise plain cement block wall in to a canvas that promotes a place, shares history and pops with community pride.

Well done, Waterville.

© Copyright 2016 Audrey Kletscher Helbling


Faribault’s newest mural depicts timeless 1950s street scene October 9, 2016



LATE SATURDAY MORNING, I stood in the parking lot next to Faribault Vacuum & Sewing Center, eyes and camera fixed upward.








On the side of the brick building in the heart of historic downtown Faribault, artist Dave Correll rolled a clear top coat across this community’s newest mural depicting a late 1950s streetscape. The large-scale painting replicates art commissioned for a Northern Natural Gas Company ad campaign decades ago. The artist is unknown, but permission was secured to reproduce the work.




It’s a stunning and vibrant piece highly visible to motorists driving westbound on Minnesota State Highway 60/Fourth Street. And it’s the eighth historic-themed mural to grace downtown Faribault.




Dave, who owns Brushwork Signs along with his wife, Ann Meillier, teamed up with Adam Scholljegerdes to design and paint the sign. Daughter Madeline Correll also assisted, traveling back from Milwaukee upon her parents’ request.




Saturday Dave worked to finish the project before a 1 p.m. dedication while Ann kept a watchful eye from below…until she climbed into a lift for a close-up view and photo opps.


This restored 1915 clock was installed on the Security State Bank Building, 302 Central Avenue, on Saturday.

This restored 1915 clock was installed on the Security State Bank Building in September 2015. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.



The Faribault Rotary Club led efforts to bring this newest mural to downtown, and fittingly so. The subject matter ties to a previous Rotary project—raising $25,000 for restoration of the Security Bank Building clock. Just a year ago, that refurbished historic clock was installed at 302 Central Avenue, 1 ½ blocks away. The clock is a focal point in the mural.




Credit for the mural subject goes to Faribault Area Chamber of Commerce and Tourism President Kymn Anderson who discovered and purchased the original fifties streetscape painting. Once the Rotary mural planning team saw the art, they knew it would be perfect. And it is.




I love how this latest mural honors the 1950s history of Faribault. I appreciate the vintage street scene and its connection with the 2015 restoration of the Security Bank clock. Faribault is a community which values its past. That’s evident in projects like the clock restoration, well-kept historic buildings and historic murals. Public art expresses visible community pride. And every community needs such pride to thrive in to the future.

© Copyright 2016 Audrey Kletscher Helbling


Mankato’s newest public art project: “Poetry Walk and Ride” August 5, 2013

MANKATO HAS LAUNCHED its newest form of public art—poetry posted on signs in parks and along recreational trails.

My artsy effort to illustrate this post.

A scene I created to illustrate the poetry project.

The Mankato Poetry Walk and Ride is designed “to inspire and encourage poets of all ages, to provide public art in our communities and to encourage exercise,” says Yvonne Cariveau who suggested the project to the Southern Minnesota Poets Society of which she is a member.

Serving on the committee for the Mankato and North Mankato CityArt Walking Sculpture Tour, an exhibit of annual rotating outdoor sculptures, Cariveau envisioned a similar concept for poetry.

The Poets Society embraced the idea (member Susan Stevens Chambers organized a contest) and, with support from the cities of Mankato and North Mankato and numerous businesses, the project took off.

My husband and I listen to one of my selected poems.

My husband and I listen to one of my selected poems, “The Thrill of Vertical.”

Today 34 poetry signs are up, mostly in Mankato, with a few in North Mankato, for reading and listening. Yes, listening. Poets recorded their poems, which can be accessed via phone, dialing (507) 403-4038 or scanning a QR code.

Me, next to my "Off to Mankato to 'get and education'" poem posted near Glenwood Gardens.

Me, next to my “Off to Mankato to ‘get an education'” poem posted near Glenwood Gardens.

Two of the 34 poems, 27 selected in a competitive process, are mine.

"Off to Mankato to 'get and education'", posted near Glenwood Gardens, in the background in this photo.

The setting in which one of my poems is posted near Glenwood Gardens.

You’ll find “Off to Mankato to ‘get an education’” near Glenwood Gardens close to the intersection of Glenwood Avenue and Division Street. The poem was inspired by my arrival in the autumn of 1974 as a freshman at Bethany Lutheran College, located not all that far from the posted poem.

"The Thrill of Vertical," located next to Hiniker Pond.

“The Thrill of Vertical,” next to Hiniker Pond.

My second poem, placed at Hiniker Pond Park in what seems like North Mankato but is really Mankato, also was prompted by my college year experiences. In “The Thrill of Vertical,” I write about zipping down the curving and hilly streets of Mankato on my 10-speed bike. Interestingly, the street I remembered in writing this poem is where “Off to Mankato to ‘get an education’” is posted along a recreational trail. Back in the 70s, there was no such trail.

Reflecting on that hurtling ride, I can’t help but think how stupid I was to fly at such speeds, back hunched, hands gripping racing handlebars, no helmet and two narrow bicycle wheels separating me from unforgiving pavement.

Today that crazy college kid abandon is forever captured in words, now published for all to see and recorded for all to hear. Until next June, when the 2013 poetry signs will come down and new ones will be erected.

Likewise, the other published writers—all of whom had to live within a 50-mile radius of Mankato, who range in age from seven to over 70 and are anywhere from new poets to recognized published poets—wrote about topics such as Mankato history, the river, Fudgsicles, family, mentors and more.

The challenge in writing the poems, for me anyway, came in the restrictions of 40 characters or less per line in a poem limited to 18 lines. It is a good exercise for any poet, to write within such confines, to value every letter, every space, every word.

One hundred twenty poems, submitted in specified age categories for those in third to 12th grades and then in adult divisions of humorous and serious, were anonymously judged. Doris Stengel, past president of the National Federation of State Poetry Societies, considered the adult entries while Peter Stein, League of Minnesota Poets youth chairperson, judged the youth poems. It is always rewarding as a poet to know that your work was selected on the basis of merit and quality rather than by name recognition.

The poems are posted in locations like this, near the shelter house in Hiniker Pond Park. the unobtrusive signs are about the size of a standard sheet of paper.

The poems are posted in locations like this, along a trail near the shelter house in Hiniker Pond Park. The unobtrusive signs are about the size of a standard sheet of paper.

In addition to the 27 winning poems, seven poems from notable Mankato area poets are among those posted.

Reaction to the poems thus far has been enthusiastic, says project initiator Cariveau, herself a poet. Her humorous poem, “Dreams of Coldstone,” was among those selected.

“People,” says Cariveau, “love the poems and are surprised by them.”

As for my reaction, I appreciate a project that makes poetry accessible. Those who may not otherwise read poetry likely will in an outdoor setting. Short poems. Easily read or heard. Non-intimidating. This is public word art at its best.

FYI: To read a list of the winning poets and the titles of their poems, click here.

For a map showing the locations of the posted poems, click here.

To learn about the Southern Minnesota Poets Society, click here.

You can hear me read my poems by calling (507) 403-4038 and then punching in 427 for “The Thrill of Vertical” and 416 for “Off to Mankato to ‘get an education’”.

Information on the 2014 Mankato Poetry Walk and Ride contest will be posted early next year on the SMPS website.

A chapbook of this year’s poems will also be published and will be available for purchase via the SMPS website and perhaps at other locations in Mankato.

P.S. I did not showcase other poems here in photos because I was unaware of their locations when I was in Mankato to photograph mine.

© Copyright 2013 Audrey Kletscher Helbling


St. Paul artist connects art to geocaching via her GeoNiche Project July 11, 2012

A ST. PAUL ARTIST and educator with roots in the southwestern Minnesota prairie is bringing her art to the public via a project that links art to geocaching.

Felice Amato, who grew up in Cottonwood and Marshall, has hidden about 15 original works of ceramic art in St. Paul and in southeastern Minnesota through her GeoNiche Project, funded by a Minnesota State Arts Board Artist Initiative Grant awarded in 2011. To date, she’s stashed her sculptures at Swede Hollow, a St. Paul Park, and in or near Faribault, Red Wing and Winona. She’s created pieces for the Red River Valley area, too, but has yet to install them. And she would also like to sculpt GeoNiche art for her native prairie.

Amato follows the geocaching model wherein geocachers use GPS devices or smart phones to find her art based on geographic coordinates and clues. Her caches are listed on Geocaching.com as felice.amato and on Opencaching.com as felice1.

The project evolved as Amato considered a unique way to get the ceramic niches and tableaus she’s made for years out to the public. “My sister, brother and aunt are avid geocachers and it just struck me that this could be an interesting way to make my work public,” she explains.

Finding no one out there doing exactly what she proposed, Amato moved forward with the GeoNiche Project and her unifying theme of women’s lives.

“I wanted to create secular niches that spoke to a sense of place, history and continuity—and that honored the important life moments that we all experience,” she says.

“Under the Arbor,” one of the GeoNiches placed in Swede Hollow. Photo courtesy of Felice Amato.

She placed her first GeoNiche close to home, a mile away in Swede Hollow, a St. Paul valley originally settled in the mid 1800s by Swedish immigrants and thereafter by Polish, Italians and Spanish Americans. “The rhythm of settlement in Swede Hollow made that especially rich,” Amato says. “Flooding, impermanence and the piecing together of community shanty by shanty—the thriving, the dispersal, the abandoning, the reclaiming—it all inspires my imagination.”

This photo, courtesy of Felice Amato, shows houses and quilters in progress for Swede Hollow.

Amato was inspired to shape pieces like “Mother and Child by the ‘Hobo’s Washroom’,” “Little Girl with birds,” “Bread house” and three other larger works for Swede Hollow. Those GeoNiches hint at folktales based on the experiences of the immigrants who once called this place home. A hand-drawn map to those artworks can be found inside a GeoNiche by Swede Hollow Cafe (coordinates N 44° 57.551’ W093° 04.330’) as Amato awaits approval of official Geocaching.com listings for Swede Hollow.

“Seamstresses” in place at the historic Faribault Woolen Mill along the Cannon River blends seamlessly into its environment. Photo by Audrey Kletscher Helbling.

In Faribault, she was naturally drawn to the Faribault Woolen Mill, she says, because of an art series initiated several years ago on women in factory settings. Amato created “Seamstresses” and tucked it into a niche along a retaining wall at the mill next to the Cannon River.

Amato’s sculptures tell a story as seen in this close-up of woolen mill factory workers. Her sculptures are made from paperclay with wire details. Photo by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

Explains Amato of her women in factory art:

The metaphorical potential of women and labor—especially manual and repetitive labor—is enormous with so many different layers it makes my mind explode. To what did/do women give their lives? What other inner lives (maybe as poets or artists, or dreamers) did they have especially at times where realizing those passions was even more difficult than it is today? I wanted to speak to a sense of honor and even sacredness in the making, the plodding, the rote quality of manual tasks—often just a part of an end product. Sewing and weaving itself is rich with metaphor as is the factory setting: the balance of isolation and comradery.

Amato secured “Prairie” onto a tree near a bike trail west of Faribault. Photo by Kevin Kreger.

Outside of Faribault, lashed onto a tree along a bike trail, Amato switches to a rural theme in “Prairie,” a definitive piece which connects to her prairie roots. The sculpture was partially-influenced, she says, by “the solitude and perseverance of the prairie woman in her battles with so many forces—the soil, the wind, the grasshoppers, the fires.”

Geocacher Kevin Kreger of Faribault, who sought out both Faribault area GeoNiche art pieces, says he was drawn in by “Prairie” and found the placement of “Seamstresses” at the Woolen Mill a fitting location.

The sweet surprise GeoNiche at the Faribault Woolen Mill. Wear solid walking shoes as you will need to walk over rocks (not the ones photographed here) to reach this art treasure. Amato encourages finders to sign the logbook tucked into a plastic bag behind “Seamstresses.” Photo by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

“The idea (GeoNiche) delights me,” says Kreger who has been geocaching for half a dozen years everywhere from New York City to the Oregon coast and as near as a local county and city parks. “Turning the corner, seeing another’s idea of beauty in an unexpected spot, it’s one of those unanticipated sweet spots in life.”

The first entry in the “Seamstresses” logbook. Photo by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

Amato hopes for that type of positive reaction from those who discover her public art hidden in niches. “Many people seem to really experience my work, seeing it as meaningful to them and that it is meaningful to me,” she says. “It evokes stories of memories or hooks people’s imagination and emotions.” She wants finders of her art to interact with her, to share their thoughts in her on-site logbooks and/or online.

Kreger appreciates the time and skill Amato has invested in creating her art, made from “paperclay,” a method of mixing paper pulp into recycled clay. He wonders, though, how long the GeoNiches will stay in place, comparing them to performance art and as a gift the artist must be willing to give up.

Another sculpture hidden in Swede Hollow Park. Photo courtesy of Felice Amato.

While one of her Swede Hollow GeoNiche sculptures was smashed, the rest have remained intact with one even moved to a more logical and visible location. Amato’s considered taking the pieces down for the winter or sealing them to protect the vulnerable clay from the elements. But she’s unsure. “When I installed “The Potter” in the pottery dump at Red Wing and looked at all the shards of broken ceramic work, I thought eventually she will be among that and it felt OK,” Amato says.

An overview of the location for “Seamstresses.” Look and you will find her sculpture in this image. The positive responses from the people of Faribault have been a huge incentive, Amato says, to explore the area more. Photo by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

Exact placement of her art is most successful, she adds, when the spot is discovered as though it was waiting.

Even though the grant period for her GeoNiche Project has ended, this St. Paul artist intends to seek additional funding to continue creating and hiding her art for geocachers and others who may happen upon it. She plans to work, also, with artist friends interested in GeoNiche. And she’s contemplating offering a GeoNiche workshop.

While she’ll seek out funding for her innovative project of connecting art and geocaching, Amato says she’s not a geocacher or a seeker.

“I would imagine,” she says, “most people are primarily either seekers or hiders. I am a hider.”

Artist Felice Amato. Photo courtesy of Felice Amato.

FYI: Felice Amato, the mother of two daughters, has been a public school teacher for nearly 20 years (teaching first Spanish and then art) and has also taught summer art classes and camps for children through the St. Paul non-profit, Art Start. She is an artist specializing in clay and tile making. Her artwork has been exhibited in numerous shows and in several galleries during the past 10 years with an upcoming show set for October 18 – November 17 at The Phipps Center for the Arts in Hudson, Wisconsin. For more information about Amato, click here to link to her Facebook page and here to link to her website.

Click here to link to Amato’s GeoNiche website.

And click here to check out her GeoNiche Project Facebook page.

© Copyright 2012 Audrey Kletscher Helbling
Photos by Audrey Kletscher Helbling, Felice Amato and Kevin Kreger