While I find myself somewhat mystified when newcomers compare and complain of having “nothing to do” here in our little corner of the prairie, I can also relate. Some 20 years ago I wore those same shoes.
Over time I’ve become more connected. Now there is hardly time to keep up with everything seemingly going on concurrently. This is just scratching the surface, for there are rivers to paddle and fish to catch, either by kayaking with my fly rod, or doing some river bank angling for my favored channel catfish. Nowadays I’m also connected with the area-wide arts community, and this weekend was chock full of activity. Once again.
In terms of culinary arts, Audrey Arner held her annual “Grasp the Nettle” where she introduces “foodies” to the goods of the prairie wild, from nettles to morel mushrooms.
Kathy Marihart also opened her new “Smallest Art Gallery” on the main street of Ortonville with the first class of the season featuring an incredible artist, Naomi Shanti Ballard, working with young elementary artists from the two-state area.
In New London, potter Bill Gossman worked with Goats Ridge Brewing, the town’s craft brewer, to work with customers in decorating beer steins that he will fire in his wood fired kiln.
I suspect the list goes on.
Further on down the prairie some 50 or so of us artists gathered for the annual Southwest Minnesota Arts Council’s (SMAC) Artist’s Retreat. This two day, overnight gathering at the unique Danebod Folk School in Tyler was a multicultural event featuring a mix of native American artists and others that I found helpful, entertaining, fun and inspiring. Unfortunately, it was also rather limiting since the event offered a packed schedule with more classes than you could possibly attend, often concurrently.
Our gathering session was a presentation by the Heart of the Beast Puppet and Mask Theatre on “The Way of the Monarch.” This was my third “instructional” presentation by Heart of the Beast and all have left me humbled by both the puppetry and the message, and one that equaled an Earth Day presentation years ago on clean water.
Our first afternoon session was by Granite Falls artist and SMSU English professor, Melanie Gabbert-Gatchell, who offered a “hands-on” activity with alcohol inks on tile, an art form that I’ve found intriguing as well as beautiful. Perhaps 20 of us were seated around tables blowing at colorful inks through plastic straws or blasting away with canned air to spread paints across both tiles and table tops. Melanie was rather kind about my efforts. “His tiles turned out just like his photography — the backgrounds were muted, and he had distinctive objects in the foreground. Just lovely.” How can you not like praise like that?
Charlie Roth strummed and sang into the night in the adjacent theatre, and as always, he was superbly entertaining. A songwriting and performing prairie icon, Charlie always makes his performances fun. This followed his afternoon workshop on songwriting, and he prefaced his songs Friday night with informative tidbits on either his singular efforts on originals or the explanations of songs he was covering.
Most helpful for me was Steve Gasser’s presentation on developing a web presence, which followed a long breakfast conversation when I shared my blog and frustrations with my photographic websites with him. His response: Not to worry, for it’s all workable. Provided I can gather the appropriate passwords!
Later in the afternoon was a grouping for a visual arts peer critique headed by sculptor/artist Eva Miller. Many of the suggestions were interesting and informative, although my favorite part was listening to each artist explain the muse and direction of their individual pieces.
Yet, the session that I drove home thinking about was by friend and native artist from Granite Falls, Super LaBatte. This was as much an insight on his personal struggles as it was on spirituality and his explanations of these unique native arts forms. His introduction into the arts began with his quest for sobriety many years ago, and his subsequent meetings with Native elders in his steps toward recovery, which was to dance. Dance, meaning at pow wows for personal and spiritual cleansing.
“To dance, I needed the vest. The moccasins. And I had no money,” he explained. This lead him through a long, laborious process into the tanning of hides, and of learning the ancient Native art of brain tanning. Brain tanning uses the brains of, in his case, pigs that he processes before applying it to the hides that he has taken through the preliminary tanning techniques … steps of which he explained in fine detail. The process gives hides a softness necessary to more successfully move into the other art forms. Softened hides gives you better moccasins and vests, both of which rely on beading. Then his chosen method of beading was as old school as his tanning process, and contrasted with that of another Native artist in the room. Their conversation of varied techniques was quite interesting.
Super’s presentation of the art forms was intertwined with interludes into his major life changes; of his confessions in his quest for a better life. In the midst of his presentation, Super told his mesmerized audience that his spirituality is rather individualistic, and that he rarely leans on the use of sweat lodge cleansings common among his peers. “My thoughts,” he said, “are that if you are good to people, if you make good choices, and if you live a good life, these are the keys to my personal spirituality.”
Of all the fun, new friends made, and important information gleaned from the retreat, Super’s life story and those words of his personal form of spirituality resonated with me driving home across the prairie.