Todd spent the week of August 12-18th in Houston Co. as part of a week-long collaborative residency with his co-CAIR, Melissa Wray. It was an experiment to invite two like-minded applicants--one originally from Houston and the other from Minneapolis--to share this geographic and creative space together. Here is Todd's story:
A couple of weeks before my artist residency’s official beginning, I set off for Houston County, Minnesota to document a rare service at historic Portland Prairie Lutheran Church near Caledonia.
I live in Minneapolis now, but was born in western North Dakota. It rarely rains in my corner of the Great Plains. It’s also flat and possesses a rugged, windswept beauty.
So imagine my surprise — and delight — when I turned off I-90 and pointed my car south toward Houston County. The Sunday morning sun was still low in the sky as my vehicle began to dip gently with the changing topography. I saw hills with a lush countryside populated by bulbous trees. How was it I had been dropped into Grant Wood’s Young Corn?
On arriving in Houston, Wood’s painting receded as I happily encountered remnants from a roadside party. On the west side of the road, empty lawn chairs sat next to a sheet of plywood propped horizontally on top of saw horses. Several red solo cups rested on top of the makeshift table next to a sign reading, “You honk. We drink.”
Those are my kind of people.
So were the worshippers I met inside Portland Prairie. Built in 1876, this country church was built by settlers from New England. On that morning, I recorded the sounds of parishioners singing their favorite hymns. In the beginning, I did this inside, near the pipe organ and a group of first- and second-row participants. Then I moved outside and held my microphone to an open window. The sound was even better, more evocative. Later, I interviewed some of the people who had come for the rare service, including Heidi Whitehurst of suburban Kansas City, Missouri.
The resulting audio story, which aired as part of KFAI’s MinneCulture series, blends the singing of hymns and Heidi’s personal story. Her affection for the place and its people is clear. “This is what we’ll all be doing in heaven,” she says.
Once my residency started, I made my way back to Portland Prairie to take photographs. Yes, I’d snapped off a few on that Sunday morning, but nothing compares to just-before-sunset light. A photographer once told me, "Late afternoon, evening light makes everything look beautiful." As an audio documentary artist who is working to improve his visual storytelling skills, I love getting advice like that. So I returned to 19th century church an hour or so before sunset. As I hoped, the steps were bathed in gold and small bursts of sunlight appeared on its west-facing walls.
Large trees prevented the sunlight from enveloping the entire structure but light peeked through the leaves and created subtle spots of color. I stretched out on the grass for low angles, poked around trees for other views, avoiding straightforward shots. I clicked and hoped.
The graveyard behind the church also attracted sunlight, especially the markers on the northern edge of the church's tiny, secluded lot. One granite headstone had a trickle of sunlight on its corner that seemed to crawl up to the word LAPHAM.
Once inside, the floors creaked as I poked around. Light from the west facing window wasn't streaming into the chapel, but it cast a touch of light on the curved, circular edges of the dark brown pews. Surprisingly, a south facing window allowed just enough light to cast a glow on a hymnal left by a parishioner just days ago.
As the light faded, I pressed the shutter a few more times and quietly returned to the outside world. During my seven days in the area, the reverential time I had alone with a historic building was the most peaceful.
Also memorable, but not at all peaceful, was my time hanging out with bull riders at the Houston County Fair. Before the riders straddled a bull, attempting to hang on for a successful eight-second ride, many bowed their heads in prayer.
The most determined rider I met that night was Kevin Farrell of Austin, Minnesota. Although he’s been riding bulls for four years, Kevin has never hung on for eight seconds. Still, he keeps driving to rodeos and climbing on for another try.
Another person who has never given up is Bertram Boyum of Rushford, Minnesota. Now 99, Bertram grew up speaking Norwegian, attended a one-room schoolhouse, got married and became a farmer. But then he had a change of heart. After volunteering at church auctions, he decided to go to auctioneering school. Today, he’s Minnesota oldest auctioneer.
Since Bertram is a full-blooded Norwegian, I suspected he might know a good Ole and Lena joke. He did not disappoint:
I told him one of my Ole and Lena jokes. Maybe your know it? It’s the one where Ole ends up stark naked on the outskirts of town and Sven asks him why he doesn’t have clothes on. Anyway, as I was telling it to Bertram, I forgot the punchline, which is pretty embarrassing when you’re trying to impress a pro like Bertram.
All photos and audio courtesy of Todd Melby