(Published in the October 3, 2017 issue of the Warroad Pioneer)
A century from now, our descendants will travel the widened yet familiar section of Highway 11 that runs at a diagonal from Lake of the Woods to the North Dakota border. When they reach the small but thriving community of Badger, someone in the vehicle will inevitably say, “Watch for the Wall!”, and as their vehicle slows, all eyes will strain towards a small green space a block beyond the highway. What they watch for is eye-catching even on a gray day, when the light through the clouds still plays with the colorful hundred-year old glass shards, thousands and thousands of them, painstakingly cut, set and cared for over the years by loving fingers that have long since returned to the Earth.
It’s a very likely scenario and one that artist Sherri Kruger says she prays for. “Forever. I pray that it lasts forever,” she said, when asked about the possible longevity of her creation. Said creation is her brainchild, but in its short lifespan to date, the project as a whole has become much more than just “hers.”
The Badger Community Heritage Wall will be a large stained glass mosaic mural that depicts historical scenes and landmarks from the surrounding community. When complete, it will be framed by 176 family tiles, backed by a precast cement wall that rests on cement footings and flanked by a sidewalk and cement patio. A roof, parking and accessibility for all are also planned.
The story begins a few years back.
Inspired by a community that has welcomed and wrapped its arms around her in multiple ways, Kruger decided to offer up a gift of what she knows best. For the last fifteen years, she’s taught math at the Badger Community School, everything from 7th grade basic math to college pre-calculus, and though teaching the truths of mathematics were her first ties to Badger, it’s actually her art, her twenty-year old passion and mastery of stained glass mosaic, that has called her to give. To date, Kruger has completed scores of smaller stained glass pieces and even has a mosaic coffee table on display in the Roseau Public Library.
But, it was time for something bigger.
“This has become my home,” she said about the Badger community and school. “These are my kids and this is my family. It’s a place where everybody helps everybody” With that inspiration and a specific idea in mind, she met with the Badger City Council in Spring 2016 and proposed a wall mosaic. They accepted and jumped on board, but the ideas, logistics and community involvement quickly outgrew the initial concept.
“This isn’t a city project any longer; it’s a community project,” Mayor Jim Rinde said, as he explained the different venues and events the Wall has been a part of.
Kruger concurred. “If you’ve worked here, lived here, traveled through here, spent your money here, you are part of our community,” she said. Despite being brought to the city, the Heritage Wall has centered around the community at large from the get-go. It was announced and kicked off at Badger’s All-School reunion of summer 2016, and planning, fundraising and artistic construction have been underway ever since, including a display and fundraiser as part of the community’s recent Fall Fest. The main piece, according to Kruger, has been crafted by 20-30 different hands, not counting the many families that created their own tile themselves. Once work on the outdoor structure begins, which is set to happen before the snow flies this winter, the number of community volunteers and involved business entities will continue to rise.
It could be called a textbook demonstration of the value of “public art”. The interactive experience, both in the creation and the final intended purpose, has already and will continue to build a sense of ownership and camaraderie.
Before the Wall concept was even born, one of the key steps Sherri took to build her way there, was to enroll in a week-long public art intensive facilitated by renowned artist, author and educator Bonnie Fitzgerald. Though that class was two years ago and she’s undoubtedly taught many before and since, Fitzgerald remembered “Sherri from Minnesota with her teardrop trailer” very well. (Kruger towed a small camping trailer with her to Pennsylvania in order to attend Fitzgerald’s course.)
“She’s an extraordinary human being,” Fitzgerald smiled through the phone when asked about her former student. “Sherri is a very skilled artist and a great example of how to make public art because she’s so committed to her community.”
The moniker “public art” may sound inflated to some, but to hear Kruger define it and Fitzgerald explain the value of it, even the hardened hearts and wizened minds of rural survivalists would surely move to defend it.
“Public art is there for the public to interpret and enjoy,” Kruger said. “There will never be a fee charged; it’s just out there.”
“The thing about public art is that the artists aren’t making it for themselves, ‘It’s not about me.’ It’s not about Sherri,” Fitzgerald said. “It’s about the public and about the community. The public is going to look at it every day, not Sherri.”
What the public will see in this case is a definite first of its kind in this area. The Wall when finished will measure nearly 26 feet long by 12 feet high. It’s big. And it’s got something for everyone; Kruger and her “go-to” artists Julie Elick and Paulette Christianson are making sure of that, from the macro – ensuring the site is wheelchair accessible, down to the micro – including both a red and a green tractor in the mosaic.
“This was a farming community first,” Kruger explained as she described the many details of the piece. In her research, she read several history books of the area, and the importance of different landmarks, buildings, crops and scenery slowly began to merge into a graduated rendition of the community’s history over the years.
“The grain elevator, the church – which is the center of the community, the seed house, water tower, school, even the rebuilt school after the fire, and of course the farmstead, these are all very important. We’re also known as the Mallard Capitol of the World, so we had to tie in Badger Creek and some ducks, as well as our harvest train and a team of horses and wagon.”
Though it has seen a passel of volunteers throughout, the Heritage Wall is still largely Sherri’s domain. She’s actively involved in nearly every aspect, organizing, fundraising, grant writing, logistics, social media and more. “In a small community you wear many, many hats to see something through,” she said, quickly brushing off any praise or hints at proprietorship. “There are many people helping behind the scenes,” she added.
Fundraising is ongoing, and Kruger didn’t mince words when asked about budget. The project is still in need. She wrote two grants that helped fund the art, but the wall itself, from the footings, the engineer services and the precast piece, not to mention the roof and accessibility features, will reach $30,000, Sherri estimates.
Mayor Rinde explained that it’s being managed in part through the Badger Area Community Fund, which means that donations are tax deductible. The value it’s already brought to the area isn’t hard to put into words. “It has refreshed the historical conversation of our Badger community,” Rinde said. “At our recent Fall Fest, I found it so neat to listen to people talk about the different landmarks and buildings, and surprisingly, even to see so many young people take interest.”
It was important to Kruger and her fellow artists to cover a lot of topics in the mural so that visitors from all over the world and at every age may have at least one point of reference with which to relate. It also depicts, in part, a way of life that may not be around forever – the small farming homestead. But just as those iconic roots built an indelible work ethic and a sense of compassionate community that lives on even today, now, so does the capturing of it in public art.
Art in rural areas isn’t often prioritized. When money is tight for individual families, small towns operate on shoestring budgets and larger entities carefully mete out their donation dollars, a public art project can be a tough pitch.
But Bonnie Fitzgerald put it best. “I really believe that a creatively engaged mind helps us through the most trying times and helps us be better people,” she said. The creative process can “take our minds off our problems and show you, in a community setting, that you’re not alone. These sorts of projects are a way for people to come together,” especially in the hard times that some rural areas similar to Badger may be facing right now. She continued, “You’re putting your head someplace else, and it gets you out there into a relatively healthy environment. You can go do something. You can roll up your sleeves and work.”
Sounds eerily familiar to what an old farmer might have said once upon a time.
The Badger Community Heritage Wall is being designed to stand the test of time, and more importantly our extreme Minnesotan climate. Stained glass doesn’t fade or deteriorate in any way. After being scored, cut, nipped or even ground into the exact shape needed, it’s installed using thinset on wedi boards, both of which are durable cement-based products. Kruger described having to move a piece of glass from the tree so the cow would fit better. “I had to use a Dremel to cut the glass and then take a chisel and a hammer to it. I still ended up breaking the glass,” she laughed. “So it hangs on really well, which is what we want.” Once that’s done, Kruger and team will use a thinset grout and seal it with a commercial sealant. The completed panels are then applied to the cement wall with thinset, as well as with washers and screws.
The final artistic step will be a month of outdoor work adding the stained glass over the top of all the washers and seams so it presents as one complete 24’x10’panel of glass. Installation will be complete by June 2018. Kruger has committed to maintaining the Wall “with a fine-tooth comb” for at least the first three years, and it’s probably safe to say, that she, along with many of the folks who have worked alongside her will likely remain loving caretakers for the rest of their days.
So, in less than a year’s time, or in a hundred, if you’re the great, great grandchild of one of Sherri Kruger’s many math students, stop in Badger at the green space behind what is currently Border State Bank to see what has enlivened a community and united the surrounding public. Stop and appreciate our area’s newest and arguably most intricate public art piece, one that will stand for generations to come.
“I wanted to bring back the stories,” Kruger said. She’s certainly done that and helped to write a slate of new ones in the process.