Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

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.

 

Embracing the writing & art of the Northern Great Plains at SDSU April 19, 2017

“The Prairie is My Garden,” a painting by South Dakota artist Harvey Dunn, showcases the prairie I so love. Here I’ve photographed most of a print which I purchased at a yard sale. I bought the art because I liked it and only learned afterward of its value and prominence. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

 

ONE OF MY FAVORITE PRINTS, “The Prairie is my Garden,” is rooted in South Dakota. The artist, Harvey Dunn, was born in a claim shanty near Manchester, west of Brookings.

I’ve been to Brookings. Once. While in college, I accompanied a roommate to her hometown where her dad owned the John Deere dealership. I don’t remember a lot about that visit except the fancy house in which my roommate’s family lived and our attendance at the annual Hobo Day Parade. That tradition of South Dakota State University, which peaks in a Jackrabbits football game, is going on its 105th year.

As you’ve likely surmised, Brookings is rural oriented, the university known for its ag focused majors. Students, for example, make ice cream and cheese from milk produced at the SDSU Dairy Research and Training Facility. This is a hands-on college that draws many a rural raised student.

 

The promo for Oakwood 2017 features “Dancing with Fire,” the art of Samuel T. Krueger. Promo image courtesy of Oakwood.

 

This university, where students work with farm animals and where the prairie paintings of a noted Plains artist are housed in the South Dakota Art Museum, seems the ideal setting for Oakwood, a literary journal. Featuring the work of SDSU students, staff and alumni and also of greater Brookings artists/writers and others in the Northern Great Plains region, the magazine releases this Thursday. According to the Oakwood website, the journal embraces a regional identity.

I am happy to be part of that identity with the inclusion of my poem, “Ode to my Farm Wife Mother,” inspired by my mom. She raised me and five other children on a dairy and crop farm about 1 ½ hours northeast of Brookings in Redwood County, Minnesota.

 

A gravel road just north of Lamberton in Redwood County. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

 

Most of the poetry I write is based on prairie life. I write with a strong sense of place. The endless open space and wide skies of the prairie lend themselves to creativity. Within the stark setting of rural southwestern Minnesota, I noticed details—the strength of the people, the blackness of the earth, the immensity of the setting sun, the sharpness of a winter wind, the quiet of stillness. I can trace my poetry, my photos, everything I create, to that rural upbringing. I am honored to have my latest poem selected for inclusion in Oakwood 2017 as a writer from the Northern Great Plains.

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FYI: A public reception will be held at 7 p.m. Thursday, April 20, at the SDSU Briggs Library & Special Collections for writers and artists whose work is included in Oakwood 2017. Readings and talks will be featured. Because I live nearly four hours away, I can’t be there. When I can share my poem with you, I’ll do so.

© Copyright 2017 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Southwestern Minnesota: The place of my heart, in images & words December 6, 2016

I shot this rural farmsite/sunset scene while traveling along Minnesota State Highway 67 between Redwood Falls and Morgan.

I shot this rural farmsite/sunset scene while traveling along Minnesota State Highway 67 between Redwood Falls and Morgan.

OFTENTIMES IT TAKES LEAVING a place to appreciate it.

A farmhouse along Minnesota State Highway 19 in Redwood County near my hometown of Vesta.

A farmhouse along Minnesota State Highway 19 in Redwood County near my hometown of Vesta.

There are days when I miss my native southwestern Minnesota prairie with an ache that lingers. I long for wide open space and forever skies,

The grain elevator in Morgan.

The grain elevator in Morgan in eastern Redwood County.

for farm fields and familiar grain elevators,

This gravel road connects to Minnesota State Highway 19 between Vesta and Redwood Falls.

This gravel road connects to Minnesota State Highway 19 between Vesta and Redwood Falls.

for gridded gravel roads

A prairie sunset photographed from Minnesota State Highway 67 between Redwood Falls and Morgan.

A prairie sunset photographed from Minnesota State Highway 67 between Redwood Falls and Morgan.

and flaming sunsets. And quiet.

Sure, I could drive into the country here in southeastern Minnesota and see similar sites. But it’s not the same. This is not my native home, the place that shaped me. Although decades removed, I shall always call the prairie my home.

Minnesota State Highway 67, one of the roadways leading "home."

Minnesota State Highway 67, one of the roadways leading “home.”

With family still living in southwestern Minnesota, I return there occasionally. And that, for now, is enough. I drink in the scenery like gulping a glass of cold well water tasting of iron and earth. I am refreshed, renewed, restored.

This lone tree along Minnesota State Highway 19 near the Belview corner has been here as long as I can remember.

This lone tree along Minnesota State Highway 19 near the Belview corner has been here as long as I can remember.

I need to view the prairie, to walk the soil, to reclaim my roots. I need to see the sunsets, to breathe in the scent of freshly-mown alfalfa, to watch corn swaying in the breeze, to observe snow drifting across rural roadways, to feel the bitter cold bite of a prairie wind.

A farmer guides his John Deere tractor along Minnesota State Highway 67 near Morgan.

A farmer guides his John Deere tractor along Minnesota State Highway 67 near Morgan.

There are those who dismiss this region as the middle-of-nowhere. It’s not. It’s a place of community, of good hardworking people, of Saturday night BINGO and Sunday morning worship services. It’s lines at the grain elevator and fans packing bleachers at a high school basketball game. It’s acres of corn and soybeans in the season of growth and tilled black fields in the time between. This place is somewhere to those who live here. And to those of us who were raised here.

Every trip back along Minnesota State Highway 67, I am drawn to photograph the electrical lines that stretch seemingly into forever.

Every trip back along Minnesota State Highway 67, I am drawn to photograph the electrical lines that stretch seemingly into forever.

For me, this land, this prairie, shall always be home.

© Copyright 2106 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Autumn, Southern Minnesota’s season of harvest & hope October 4, 2016

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Somewhere between Morgan and New Ulm, in the middle of prime Minnesota farm land.

Somewhere between Morgan and New Ulm, in the middle of prime Minnesota farm land early Saturday evening.

HARVEST. That word holds the seasons of a farmer’s hope.

A partially-harvest cornfield between New Ulm and Morgan.

A partially-harvest cornfield between New Ulm and Morgan.

From spring planting to summer growth to autumn ripening, a farmer focuses on the outcome—a yield that brims with golden corn and soybeans.

Harvesting between St. Peter and Nicollet.

Harvest equipment sits in a cornfield west of St. Peter.

Through months of looking toward the skies, of weathering too much or too little rainfall, of watching heat shimmer waves across fields, of tending and waiting, a farmer anticipates this season of harvest.

Driving west on Minnesota State Highway 99 toward Le Center.

Driving west on Minnesota State Highway 99 toward Le Center.

On a day trip Saturday from the southeastern to the southwestern side of Minnesota—through Rice, Le Sueur, Blue Earth, Nicollet, Brown and Redwood counties and back—I observed the harvest. Minimal on the eastern side, which has been flooded with too much recent rainfall, but in full swing in the counties of Brown and Redwood.

Combing beans near New Ulm.

Combining beans near New Ulm.

Farmers worked the land, dust enveloping combines.

A red grain truck jolts color into a field near New Ulm.

A red grain truck jolts color into a field near New Ulm.

North of Belview, trucks await the harvest.

North of Belview, trucks await the harvest.

Parked outside the elevator in Morgan.

Parked outside the elevator in Morgan.

Farming communities like Morgan are busy with harvest.

Farming communities like Morgan are busy with harvest.

Grain trucks idled in fields and barreled down county roads toward local elevators

Near Courtland.

Near Courtland.

Grain bins near Waterville.

Grain bins near Waterville.

or homestead grain bins.

Driving into Courtland.

Driving into Courtland.

This time of year, motorists need to be watchful of slow-moving farm equipment.

This time of year, motorists need to be watchful of slow-moving farm equipment.

Harvest started west of St. Peter.

Harvest started west of St. Peter.

The landscape crawled with tractors and combines and trucks, farmers at the wheels, guiding the crops toward harvest.

White among fields of golden crops.

A harvested field against a farm site backdrop of white.

And I observed it all. No longer an intimate part of this process as I once was so many decades ago on my Redwood County childhood farm, I am still connected to this season by the memories that trace deep within me.

West of New Ulm, grain wagons sit in a field.

West of New Ulm.

Harvest still holds me in hope.

© Copyright 2016 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

A country moment from southwestern Minnesota October 3, 2016

YOU KNOW YOU’RE in rural Minnesota when…

 

cattle-by-rock-dell-cemetery-123

 

…within feet of a country cemetery, a fenced-in cow saunters past a mounded grave graced with flowers.

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Photo taken on October 1, 2016, Rock Dell Lutheran Church, rural Belview, Minnesota.

© Copyright 2016 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

The skies of summer in southwestern Minnesota July 8, 2016

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Sky in sw MN, 27 red barn close-up

 

DECADES AGO, I LAY flat on my back in a Redwood County, Minnesota farm yard, eyes fixated on the clouds. I wasn’t a weather watcher. Rather, I was a girl with an imagination. As I lay there, I imagined a monstrous bird swooping from the sky to bite a chunk from the silo.

 

Sky in sw MN, 15 big sky & farm site

 

I’d just viewed a movie about a giant bird attacking the Empire State Building. It was no surprise then that I noticed frightening creatures looming in the sky.

 

Sky in sw MN, 21 highway 14

 

That was then. This is now, decades later, when I am still fascinated by the clouds of summer. There’s nothing quite like the summer skies of my native southwestern Minnesota prairie. Traveling west on July 2 to a family gathering near Lamberton, I delighted in the perfect summer sky of white clouds suspended above the land in a background of blue.

 

Sky in sw MN, 23 corn, barn & bins

 

Below, fields of corn and soybeans stretched for acres, broken only by farm sites, grain elevators, small towns and slashes of roadways.

 

Sky in sw MN, 7 big sky & farm site

 

The sky and land are so big here. I suppose to some, the vastness can unsettle. But for me it’s freeing.

 

Sky in sw MN, 28 full corn field, farm site and cloudy sky

 

My mind wanders from worries and difficult realities of life, of attacking giant birds, to a carefree state. I simply feel happy here beneath clouds that hang like wispy pulls of cotton candy above the greening cropland.

 

Sky in sw MN, 24 bins and sky

 

This land, this sky, this place, this rural Minnesota shall always claim my heart and my imagination.

 

Sky in sw MN, 30 entering Lamberton

 

TELL ME: What place claims your heart and why?

© Copyright 2016 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

Note: All of these photos were taken on July 2 while traveling westbound on U.S. Highway 14 between Sleepy Eye and Lamberton, Minnesota.

 

Rural roadside surveillance May 18, 2016

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Roadside stand, 93 side view

 

ALONG U.S. HIGHWAY 14 at its intersection with the road to Wanda, just east of Lamberton, I spotted a roadside stand advertising rhubarb and asparagus. I had rhubarb back home in my refrigerator. But I didn’t have asparagus and I love that spring-time vegetable.

So Randy pulled our van off the highway, turning onto a farm driveway next to a green trailer. I asked if he had $3. He did. I had only larger bills. I grabbed the money and my camera, bracing myself against a fierce prairie wind to snap a few photos.

 

Roadside stand, 95 close-up of coolers

 

Then I headed for the trailer. I lifted the lid on a red cooler, noting the instructions to “Please close tightly.” I did after finding that cooler empty. Then I opened a blue cooler with the same results. Empty. No asparagus for me.

 

Roadside stand, 97 camera

 

Discouraged, I took a few more photos and headed back to the van. Randy was already backing up, which I found odd. “Is that a wildlife camera?” he asked, indicating a camera inside a wooden box mounted to the trailer. Could be.

 

Roadside stand, 94 trailer next to driveway

 

I slammed the van door, handed the money back to Randy and buckled up as he resumed backing toward the highway. About that time, a white vehicle started heading down the driveway. “We’re being watched,” I observed, which should have been obvious to me given the camera and sign noting “Protected by security system.”

Soon the vehicle curved back onto the farm site.

 

Roadside stand, 96 close-up of sign

 

I left not only without the asparagus I craved, but also a bit disillusioned. I’d like to think unattended roadside stands don’t need security systems or chains or locks. But who am I kidding? Apparently myself.

© Copyright 2016 Audrey Kletscher Helbling