Reflections

As part of our residency program, each citizen-artist-in-residence (CAIR) is asked to submit a reflection on their week-long experience in Houston Co. These are their stories.

"SKIPPING STONES IN THE DRIFTLESS"

NIK NERBURN

Duluth, MN >> SEPT 2019

Place-based Artist & Community Storyteller

(Pictured: Choice, Minnesota)


My makeshift portrait studio on the side of the road in Houston County. I spent most of my residency making roadside portraits for folks, setting up in a different county gathering place each day. I hooked my printer up to a deep-cycle marine battery and made prints on the spot for subjects to take home. Sometimes it worked, other times it didn’t; but, the emphasis was on the conversations and serendipitous encounters that start to happen when word gets out that an itinerant photographer is printing portraits in the ditch.

In Gore Vidal’s novel, Duluth, he describes a town that bears only a passing and poetic resemblance to the Duluth (Minnesota) where I live.


Vidal's Duluth is situated on the edge of a desert, not Lake Superior. Native flamingos wander amongst Spanish moss hanging from the trees that line its grand boulevards. Simultaneously, the novel's Duluth is covered by snow drifts and city streets are slicked with black ice. Clearly, Vidal's Duluth is a psychedelic sister city to the real place, with a jumbled mirror image that clearly isn’t meant to line up. Sometimes, the history of Vidal’s deranged Duluth does mirror actual historical events from the real city in northern Minnesota, but it’s hard to tell where the history ends and the mythmaking begins.


Vidal creates layered narratives of place and time in Duluth. When characters of his fictionalized Duluth city die, they reappear in a popular televised soap opera of the same name. Residents of Duluth (the city) watch each episode of Duluth (the TV show) with excitement.


In one scene, a real estate agent from Duluth (the city) dies after crashing into a snow drift, only to reappear in a courtroom scene in Duluth (the TV show). She pauses the courtroom drama to speak to a bewildered former client of hers through the television, recommending a few new properties that just came on the market. At a certain point, you stop asking which narrative world you’re in, and dipping between them becomes a cryptic pleasure.


The novel suggests a parallel world, just on the other side of ours, similar but different, which you can sometimes pass back and forth between, without knowing. Reading it was good preparation for spending time in the Driftless.

Above: Mike "Lucky" Volkenant's dolls at L J's Laundromat & Playhouse, Spring Grove, Minnesota. “Gotta do something with that high ceiling.”


While photographing during my week in the Driftless, sometimes I would wonder what book Vidal would have crafted out of this dense tangle of people and place.


The word "driftless" refers to glacial drift. When glaciers pass through a region, they often leave boulders and other debris on the landscape in their wake. Geologists call this "drift." Since the glaciers that shaped much of Minnesota’s geography mysteriously skipped this region of the upper Mississippi, they left behind no glacial drift, hence the name "driftless."


I felt like the land’s origin was, in some ways, more like a poem than a story. Everything that has happened here since then owes a little bit to that early geological enigma.


Erin Dorbin, residency coordinator and my host during the residency week, said that she felt like Houston County has a secret hiding around every hill. As we drove around, from historical societies to obscure roadside monuments, to lovingly preserved little prairie churches, I began to sense the same thing. From atop a grassy bluff, looking around with her, I could physically see across the 569 square miles of Houston County, but if I squinted, I felt like I could be seeing the corresponding Bluff Country of Wisconsin, Iowa, or Illinois. Squinting harder, I could even see the fjords of Norway, the hollers of Appalachia, and the highlands of Laos.


Even the name of the place itself caused confusion with people back home. I had to clarify that I meant Houston, Minnesota, not Texas. The place is hard to describe--not because it lacks specificity, but because it embodies more specificities than I’m used to. It’s Houston County, sure, but it’s a lot of other places at the same time.

Above: Rushford Foods, Rushford, Minnesota’s grocery store deli, with portraits of Miss Rushford from over the years.


One day, I met and photographed a man, named Wally, operating a thrift store. He had two prosthetic legs. He had lost one leg to the bite of a brown recluse spider, and the other to diabetes. He moonlighted as a karaoke DJ, but he dreamed of becoming a motivational speaker. On that same day, I listened to another man hold forth on the roadside about the simple beauty of Andrew Wyeth‘s paintings. Later, a woman showed me how she could mimic the calls of every owl in North America.


Later still, I spent an evening in an underground house and listened to a couple reflect on escaping the 1979 Islamic Revolution in Iran. As the light faded from the valley, I stood in the county fairgrounds as a man I met at the library considered the “tension between a historic document and the story that we tell to describe it."


The landscape felt like the biggest library, and I was just brushing my fingers across the spines as I walked down the stacks. High crests and low lands, deep dives and surface tensions.

Above: Wally, seated at Hope Thrift Shop, Caledonia, Minnesota



I spent one day photographing in Choice, an unincorporated little place, tucked in a valley that’s fed by a creek. While setting up my makeshift photo studio on the roadside, I met Ilene, who’s lived in Choice for a long time. In this picture, she’s holding a stack of photocopied newspaper articles all about Choice that she brought out to show me. She’s also holding a framed copy of the 1870 farm census, which showed her homestead as being home to a single man named Ole Richardson, as well as “3 horses, 4 milch cows, 10 other cattle, 20 sheep, and 9 swine." That year, the farm produced “750 bushels of spring wheat, 400 bushels of Indian corn, 250 bushels of oats, 50 bushels of Irish potatoes, 225 pounds of butter, and 25 tons of hay." Ya coulda done worse, Ole.


Behind Ilene is the Choice bluff, which used to be decorated with lights every Christmas. People would drive from all over to see them. The old Norwegian lady who hung the lights, since passed, used to bake cookies and give away a jar of them to every person who came to see her display.


Ilene drove her golf cart back to her house and brought me a small Tupperware of the same cookies. “I got the recipe from her, and she had gotten it from another old Norwegian lady who had gotten it from another,” she said to me. “So Choice goes way back. What else do you wanna know?”


“Choice: a town

that has no stores, no post office, no internet searchable census results.

A sign at the bottom of a lush valley

A spot in Minnesota

where aster, bluestem

bergamot, blazing star

bloom straight

to highway’s shoulder.”


- Rachael Button, 2018 CAIR


A while back, Ilene told me the little creek that flows through Choice flooded. It was the subject of much local press at the time, and she showed me the yellowed and brittle proof in her stack of papers. For a brief moment, I could hear the rumble of a distant flood, of conspiring waterways, of the ghosts of glaciers twisting their way down a mighty and mysterious road.

Above: Ilene sits for a portrait in Choice, Minnesota