Just Down the Road

Since early in the pandemic our little nearby impromptu road trips seemed to take hold; times when the walls grew close and we sensed a need to breathe, to sense new air and landscape. These trips just down the road are long from being routine, for if so some of the adventure and joy might wane.

Usually Mary will make the suggestion late in the afternoon after a day of creative labor. She might have been in her “cave” piecing together one of her incredibly creative quilts, or perhaps dabbing her paint brushes into a mix of water color paints with Pandora on the Alexis. Here in my studio there never ceases to be something to work on … until it’s time to cook. I’m not a bad cook, although my wish is to create dinners with such of an array of flavors as Mary can create with a salad. Much like her quilts, her salads are rich with  both color and flavor.

Now when she suggests we hop in the car for a drive I reach for the keys along with my camera gear with hopes the battery is charged and there is room on the card. Her urgings are nearly impossible to decline for there seems to be something just waiting for us somewhere down the road. “Down the road” is somewhat like Christmas for we usually find a gift, although we simply cannot predict what might be in store. 

For years I’ve driven past this tree-lined wetland, yet on this one afternoon the light and color gave us a beautiful gift!

We’re blessed with wildlife nearly year round. We have ample whitetail deer, a few pheasants and even fewer wild turkey, plus we live on a birder’s “interstate” thanks to the ribbon of river “lakes” along the border starting with Lac qui Parle Lake, followed by Marsh, Big Stone and eventually Travis. We’re also blessed with multiple river tributaries and some steep, wooded ravines off the prairie. Across the lake in South Dakota is the Coteau des Prairies, still mostly undeveloped ­ — broad, hilly landscapes defying time.

One of our favorite drives is the nature loop at Big Stone National Wildlife Refuge, although it has been closed for several weeks this summer for the resurfacing of the road. Foreman for the project is Mary’s son, Dan, which means we trust that the road will be more solid and less of a pothole haven than before.

No I don’t own a deer farm, yet there are herds of Whitetails around. This post sunset color gave us a wonderful gift!

Beyond the Refuge we have several routes through various grouping of what remains of the glacial prairie potholes to the southeast of us, and just down the road is Big Stone Lake State Park. This is the “Meadowbrook” section of the park, which is several miles from the northern Bonanza section. Meadowbrook is mostly prairie while Bonanza blends a hillside of prairie with a fine woodland that stretches along the banks of Big Stone Lake.

Nearly are many patches of restored prairie and undrained wetlands, mostly small “potholes” that are decidedly smaller than the bigger “lakes” or sloughs to the Southeast. Bless the farmers who leave them undrained!

A swallow grabbing a beakful of water on the Minnesota River provided a “minimalist moment.”

There are also some nice areas to scout near Mary’s Lake Linka cabin, too, although the ancient glacial moraine is under continued and serious attack by an ambitious farmer-barron who threatens the natural resources of the area with his conversion of the former prairie and pastureland to corn and soybeans. As an old Colorado rancher friend named Myles Craig would say, “Boys, them roots don’t grow much pointing upside down!” Yet, there is the protected Ordway Prairie, Lake Johanna Esker and Glacial Lakes State Park among other perpetual natural options bearing no names and catch-as-catch-can possibilities. The nearby Griffin Estate is one, with some of it in Nature Conservancy. 

Our late summer afternoons heading into twilight are special times for capturing interesting light and color. Almost as special as the colors of an awakening dawn, if one can awake early enough. On a recent evening we ventured to the north only a few miles and caught a beautiful cloudy and colorful sunset that set off a line of trees surrounding a wetland. I’ve driven past that wetland numerous times over the years without even as much as a glance, yet on this particular afternoon, with that light, a whole new life and look greeted us. Another lovely “Christmas” moment?

Catching the wild turkeys at roost was nearly a “bucket list” moment.

On another afternoon, after a somewhat monochrome sunset, we caught three deer in silhouette at the apex of a steep ravine that gave life and interest to the colorful sky. Again, just down the road. Then on the evening of the recent Summer Solstice we found a sky painted from a heavenly brush, strokes giving us colorful wisps of clouds hovering over a distant, curvy wetland to add a beautiful feature to the image.

More recently, thanks to the closure of the Refuge auto tour, we decided to circle the highway loop around the nearly 12,000 acre compound and caught the twilight afterglow at the Minnesota River bridge where gulls and swallows energetically swept over the river surface. A lone swallow diving for a beakful of water near a half submerged drift log brought us another wonderful gift. It was just the sort of split second moment we seem to find on these nights just down the road.

My recent Summer Solstice” image was taken “just down the road.”

Later, on the way home, as we motored past a 400 acre area section of the State Park where non-native “weed trees” are being removed and burned to release a natural fen, we caught a grouping of wild turkeys roosting in the branches of a barren tree. For years such an image was something I’ve wished to see and photograph, a quiet and unspoken moment we aged might call a “bucket list” item. Another wonderful surprise!

These gifted moments of grandeur and joy have all been just down the road, and we’re rarely disappointed. A photographer friend in Maine once asked if I owned an actual deer farm, and another artist friend once called this area a prairie paradise. There may be too much commodity farming for that to be a reality, yet having lived for years in the “black desert” of Chippewa and Renville Counties, some of the former glacial paradise remains around us. We are blessed with all of this nature and physical beauty … just down the road. 

A ‘Bumpy’ Ride of 400 Horses

It was several years ago when my artist friend, Dan Wahl, approached my cheeseburger and me at a table at Marshall’s Brau Brother’s Brewhouse with his sketchbook. “Here’s what I’ve been up to,” he said, opening the white pages to some of his first drawings of a huge personal mission. “My intent is to draw 400 horses.”

A couple of years later we were both part of a Southwest Minnesota Arts Council (SMAC) exhibit at the Hutchinson Center for the Arts. Dan had created a huge four foot by four foot “poster” of all 400 of his drawings and I found myself starring at the “postage stamp” images for much of the opening. Intrigued, and also somewhat stunned. There was so much to comprehend. Later during the initial Hinterland Art Crawl in Redwood County area, he strung fencing wire across a praireland pasture down to a small wetland and back where he hanged his drawings. Now they’re hanging on several cords across the second floor of a re-purposed building at the Laura Ingalls Wilder Museum in Walnut Grove.

This is an “interactive” exhibit, meaning that, as always, Dan is asking all who enter to create their own drawings of horses, which he is cataloging and keeping in a collection.

Before anyone comes to a conclusion about the exhibit they should realize that if they’re looking for 400 drawings that perfectly portray beautiful or famous horses, don’t. For this exhibit isn’t so much about the art as it is for the artist, and Dan’s artist’s statement offers such an explanation. He initially decided upon the arts project to “better understand the equine body structure” within the time line of a single year … 2015. For the record, each drawing is numbered.

“Why 400?” he asked. “Because 225 or 360 didn’t seem right. Four hundred seemed like a good, round number.”

Then something happened. And it’s all there, within all in those 400 drawings of an exhibit he calls “Don’t Doubt Your Horses.” “All” meaning the struggles he faced as an artist. This is the beauty of a well intentioned artist’s statement, where an artist treats us intimately to what and why of what they’re doing. A few years back artist Sarah Eckel had an exhibit of her paintings at the Prairie Renaissance Cultural Alliance in Morris that defied understanding until her artist’s statement was read … her paintings of hands searching over mounds of flesh, all hidden behind small black curtains, was a view you had to pry back the curtains to see and illustrated her frustrations of self image. 

Dan Wahl’s honesty was no less sobering, as reflected in both his statement and in his works … which vary from childish scribblings containing his notes of frustration to near “perfect” renderings of horses one might expect in such an exhibit, to some that would remind a viewer of a Bonnie Timmons illustration or a Picasso-like inked effort contained in flowing lines of artistic poetry. 

A few months into the project he faced what he describes as an “artist’s block. I didn’t know where to turn, or what to do. I was committed, although at that point I couldn’t continue.” Within the exhibit is drawing number 76, which looks like the circled sketches of a four year old over which he writes, “Haven’t drawn horses in a long time. I am forty-nine years old!” It was dated April 28, 2015 … a mere 69 days into the project. Wahl was some 324 horse drawings short of his projected goal. 

Dan said he journaled and meditated, and perhaps even said a prayer or two before realizing that the project wasn’t about making horse drawings, but “liking the horse drawings. If this project was to be completed at all, I would have to accept all the horses. Regardless of how they looked This was easier said than done.” Yes, it is all there in the 400 drawings, all of his angst and artistic frustration. And of the joys of mental freedom!

Yet that shift of focus from the act of drawing to the act of liking “necessitated a deeper appreciation of the horses themselves. In order to accept them I had to let them be who they were. Who they are.”

Yes, some would certainly be considered “bad art.” Those drawings an artist might either hide in their sketchbooks or perhaps even crumple up and ditch into a waste basket. “In the end,” he said, “it seemed right to include every single drawing into the one exhibit.”

To his credit this is precisely what he has done. At some point in the process Dan created a “limbo” box he used as a “repository” for his drawings. “They wanted to come out into the world but they weren’t quite ready,” he said, smiling his neon smile. “So I made them a resting place, a repository for waiting. It took me awhile to trust my horses enough to show everyone!”

The Hutchinson show was the initial “peek into the box” and thanks to a new SMAC grant, he and an aide are working on compiling both his drawings and the hundreds he has requested each and every viewer to draw. At his Walnut Grove showing a table has been set up with colored pencils and crayons and blank “postcards” for those so inspired, and many are. Along the outside walls he has hanged the drawings of the those efforts.

Every once in awhile there comes an exhibit by one of the prairie artists that requires a bit of time and effort to fully appreciate, to devour in depths of thought and eventual appreciation. Sarah Eckel’s exhibit at the PRCA gallery was one, and Dan Wahl’s is another. I have serious doubt that you can cross Wilder’s infamous Plum Creek on the way home without reliving and feeling some of the frustration, wonder and sighs of relief echoing from that second floor “repository” of Dan Wahl’s 400 Horses.