Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

Mankato’s emerging massive mural represents diversity & more November 18, 2019

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THE ARTWORK CAUGHT ME by surprise as I looked across the Minnesota River toward the grain towers dominating the riverside skyline in Old Town Mankato.

 

One of many sculptures in Mankato and North Mankato that change yearly as part of the city’s sculpture walk.

 

Yet, the presence of an evolving mural in this arts-centric southern Minnesota city didn’t surprise me. Mankato is a community rich in public art from poetry to sculptures. It is one of the qualities which draws me back to this place where I graduated from college in 1978 with a degree in mass communications and a minor in English.

 

My poem, River Stories, attached to a railing along the Minnesota River Trail. In the background are the Ardent Mills silos and the bridge from which I photographed the in-progress mural.

 

This time I arrived in town to view my latest poem selected as part of The Mankato Poetry Walk & Ride. Spotting the in-progress mural on the 135-foot high Ardent Mills grain silos was a bonus find. I snapped a few quick frames while crossing the Minnesota River bridge and then while heading onto U.S. Highway 169. Only too late did I notice public viewing areas along the roadway.

 

 

Upon my arrival home, I researched the $250,000 project by Australian artist Guido van Helten. Although specifics of the mural design are elusive, the art will represent diversity and more. I saw that in the image of a young Dakota boy already painted onto the towering canvas. This region holds a rich Native Peoples heritage, making the art particularly powerful.

 

“Forgive Everyone Everything” themes this art in Reconciliation Park. Names of the 38 Dakota who were hung at this site in 1862 are inscribed thereon along with a prayer and a poem.

 

Having grown up some 80 miles to the west, in a region between the Upper and Lower Sioux Indian Communities, I’m aware of the strong Dakota history and also of The U.S.-Dakota Conflict of 1862. Within blocks of the Ardent Mills silos, Reconciliation Park honors 38 Dakota tried and hung by the U.S. government following that war. The healing continues.

 

 

This latest public art represents so much—history, culture, diversity and a coming together of peoples. And today, more than ever, we need that sense of community, of understanding that no matter our backgrounds or the color of our skin or our history, we are simply people who need one another.

© Copyright 2019 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Public poetry in Mankato & I’m in, again November 15, 2019

That’s my poem, viewed through the opening in the flood wall in downtown Mankato, Minnesota.

 

ALONG A BUSY STREET in the heart of downtown Mankato near Reconciliation Park, across a duo set of train tracks and then through an opening in a flood wall mural, you’ll find a work of literary art. Mine. A poem, River Stories.

 

Me, next to my posted poem, River Stories. Photo by Randy Helbling

 

 

Photographed from the opening in the flood wall, the mural showcases the Minnesota River, to the right.

 

My poem was recently selected for inclusion in the Mankato Poetry Walk & Ride, a public art project that now boasts 41 poems posted on signs throughout Greater Mankato. This, my fifth poem picked in recent years for the project, will be displayed for the next two years at the site along the Minnesota River Trail hugging the river. I am honored to share my poetry in such an accessible way via this ongoing effort of the Southern Minnesota Poets Society.

 

 

To hear River Stories, call 507-403-4038 and enter 406 when prompted. (That’s not me reading.)

 

This 67-ton Kasota stone sculpture stands in Reconciliation Park. It symbolizes the spiritual survival of the Dakota People and honors the area’s Dakota heritage. The park is the site of the largest mass execution in U.S. history. The U.S. government tried and hung 38 Dakota here following the U.S.-Dakota Conflict of 1862. The location of my poem near this park seems fitting as part of the city’s river stories.

 

The Mankato Poetry Walk & Ride is a competitive process which challenges Minnesota poets to pen poems of no more than 18 lines with a limit of 40 characters per line. River Stories is short at only nine lines. Just like crafting copy for children’s books, creating poetry is among the most challenging of writing disciplines. Every word must prove its worth. Poetry has made me a stronger and better writer.

 

The Minnesota River, which runs through Mankato, inspired River Stories.

 

In writing poetry, I often reflect on my past and on a strong sense of place. Rural. My previous Mankato Poetry Walk & Ride poems include Cornfield Memories, Off to Mankato “to get an education”, The Thrill of Vertical and Bandwagon.

© Copyright 2019 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.

 

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.

 

BONUS PHOTOS:

 

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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mural-in-waterville-36-shelterhouse-mural

 

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.

 

mural-in-waterville-37-close-up

 

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

 

mural-in-waterville-39-close-up

 

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