Tuesday, January 30, 2018

Sparked by the Prairie; Formed by the Farm

Every year, we try to accomplish one of our farm dreams (little projects, you know, like building a commercial kitchen or putting up a greenhouse!)

2017 was the year the Sculpture Garden finally took shape after years of thinking about it.  This welded woman has been dancing atop the hill for a few years, all alone, marking the vision.

Last April, I received a grant award letter from the  Southeast Minnesota Arts Council (SEMAC) announcing that I had been awarded an established artist grant of $5000 to construct 4 sculptures.   Agri-sculpture was about to happen!!

Before my grant check even arrived, I learned that my bison farmer friends, Ron and Bon at Shepard Buffalo Farm, were retiring, selling their bison herd and their farm.  They generously gave me their life-sized metal bison sculpture, but it needed a few repairs--the two front legs had broken off. Fortunately, I was signed up to take a welding class to improve my welding skills, so, I loaded the broken bison into our little trailer and hauled him to class. I was grateful for some expert help with the tricky tack welds.
Repaired, standing upright on his own 4 legs, the bison got plenty of stares and double-takes on the drive home.
He was installed at the crest of the hill and is so large that people notice him from up in the farm courtyard - often  mistaking him for a real bison at first glance -  and are drawn down to the sculpture garden area.
I thought I was going to have to rent or purchase welding equipment to complete my sculptures, but my brother was traveling through the area and brought my father's MIG welder that he can no longer use, due to health issues. Our barn is a 100-year old wooden structure and I was was nervous about the sparks from welding in it, so instead I set up a moveable outdoor welding station with a 6-panel screen from a thrift store to block the wind and a vintage grocery cart turned welding cart.
Local artist Amarama Vernockne has created many wonderful outdoor concrete mosaic sculptures and agreed to be my technical  advisor, kindly sharing  expertise about structural integrity, invaluable tips for shaping the hardware cloth to form the figure, and abundant encouragement.
As soon as the figure began to take shape over the armature, it got very exciting.
 This Prairie Woman sculpture is larger than life, and is balancing a large bowl on her head, which will contain growing prairie plants during the summer. I decided to concrete the head and bowl before it was even attached to the body armature because otherwise it would be too high to reach without working on a ladder. (Me making art on ladders is not a good plan!)
 The concreted head was then attached to the armature and the figure sited in place at the edge of the woods. All of her weight is borne on her right leg, and there is a long metal pole with cross braces that extends down from that leg into the earth. Amarama had a brilliant suggestion to attach the sculpture to a round metal mesh table top and bury it into ground for extra stability. So, this sculpture is welded through the center of a 5-foot diameter table that is buried 6 inches below the soil - she's not going to fall over any time soon!  The metal mesh will allow water to drain so I can plant flowers around her.
Adding the concrete was so much fun! It took much more concrete than I expected--I made many trips to Menards for just a couple more bags.
Since I was creating on site, in the woods far from the shop,  I  devised a portable sculpture studio in a wheelbarrow to haul my tools, (heavy!) bags of concrete, mixing tubs, metal mesh, spools of wire, stepladder,  mosaic pieces, gloves, cleaning cloths, mosquito repellant, and bottles of drinking water (or occasional glass of wine) back and forth from the garage.


The mosaic part was both the most rewarding and most tedious aspect.The dress was being created primarily from several sets of vintage, yellow, flowered plates that I had smashed to bits, and I realized early on that I was not going to have enough, so all summer as I worked on the sculpture I scouted thrift stores for more similar dishes.

Grouting the tile was fun, but cleaning the grout off the tile was such hard work. I experimented with assorted brushes, scrubbers and even a wire brush on the cordless drill, but in the end, hand-scrubbing with a terry towel was what worked best. It had to be done in short sessions because it was so hard on my arthritic hands.
 The completed Prairie Woman! I am quite delighted by the illusion of movement of her dress--she looks as though she is sashaying down the path.  Also, her location in a clearing at the entrance to the prairie trail is perfect--she glows in a circle of sunshine all day and people can see her from the barn stage area. She entices them to the sculpture garden.
Although the Prairie Woman was by far my most time consuming and ambitious sculpture of the summer, she wasn't the only one. The Butterfly Bench was created using willow and twig construction, with an old salvaged newel post for the body.
A large spider web (made from a salvaged industrial fan cover) and Argiope spider (her body is a trailer hitch) spans between two trees.
 An owl can be found in another nearby tree.

My intent is for all the of the sculptures in this garden to have a connection to the environment - the prairie and the farm. A few more pieces are already in the works, but the snow came and the outdoor sculpting season had to end the year. Look for them next spring. As the sculpture garden grows, there will be works by other artists as well.

On October 31st, the public was invited for a formal artist reception to see all  the finished  sculptures. It turned out to be a very cold, drizzly day, so we tempted people with a bonfire, s'mores, and hot cider. A small but hardy group of art lovers turned out (thank you.)  However, by my best estimates, over the course of the summer, about 1500 people visited the sculpture garden while I was working on the Prairie Woman and observed its progress. They seemed to enjoy seeing how she was being made. I can't wait for them to come back this spring and see her finished, dancing in a bed of flowers.

I wish to express my sincere gratitude to SEMAC for the artist grant that enabled my long-dreamed-of project to finally happen. Special thanks to Amarama for expertise and assistance, my brother Lyle for his welding tutorial, my husband Rog for helping me with the heavy moving and insightful ideas for the layout of the sculpture garden, and to our fabulous farm staff whose great work in the garden and bakery allowed me time to focus on making art last summer! 

This activity is made possible by the voters of Minnesota through a grant from the Southeast Minnesota Arts Council thanks to a legislative appropriation from the arts and cultural heritage fund.