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Burning the Prairie

Author: Katarzyna Litak, M.D.

As a child, Mary Welke would balance along the tops or “scale” the railroad tracks one block west to the Mississippi River or two blocks to the east to Fleischmann Malting Company, where her father worked as a Maltster. His job was to turn Minnesota grain into malt to be used for brewing beer or other uses. Minneapolis was once considered the milling capital of the world.

Respect for the soil

Mary spent the early part of her childhood in NE Minneapolis helping her grandma weed the large family garden that was next to these railroad tracks. It was here she learned a deep respect for plants and soil. “When you get on your hands and knees and use your bare hands to weed rows of vegetables, you learn a lot about nature along the way.”

Prairie Transformation by Mary Welke
Prairie Transformation by Mary Welke

“Farming in my blood.

The slow-moving train bumping and clanging along the NE Minneapolis railroad tracks is what ties Mary’s early childhood, artistic development, and this local history together. Boxcars full of corn, wheat, rye, and barley spilled onto the railroad ties along the tracks where germinated seed would sprout miniature prairies. With her family and ancestral roots connected to the land, it is no surprise she would choose nature as a subject for her art. She summarizes, “I have it in my blood. My grandparents were from a farming area in southern Poland near Nowy Targ. They came to America with a strong connection to the soil. It also explains why they ended up in the Midwest.”

Study in Poland in the 1970s

Mary had an opportunity to study in Poland on three separate occasions as a Kosciuszko Foundation Scholarship recipient. She studied Folk Art, Beginning Polish Language, and later, after completing the two-year Polish Language course under Professor Polakiewicz at the University of Minnesota, was awarded her third Kosciuszko scholarship for the Year Abroad Program in Krakow at the Jagiellonian University. The experiences of study and life in a foreign country governed by a communist regime helped shape Mary for the rest of her life. Many officially arranged field trips to original castles, churches, museums, and cultural events enriched her studies. They allowed her to see firsthand the intellectual, cultural sophistication, and previous wealth of Poland. Trips to the countryside revealed a self-sufficient people full of historical and cultural pride who generously shared their folk arts and local cuisine, which also turned out to be the same food her mother cooked at home in NE Minneapolis. Mary witnessed people's daily lifestyle in constant need of bare necessities, often waiting in long lines to get something as simple as an orange or toilet paper. She observed a gray environment in the City where the water or electricity was often turned off for hours at a time in Krakow. “It taught me what it means to be an American; to appreciate the place I was born with so many privileges and opportunities.”

Burn by Mary Welke

In the United States

Using her BFA from the Minneapolis College of Art and Design and a MFA from Pratt Institute in NYC, Mary spent years working art-related jobs across the country before finally returning to NE Minneapolis, where she has her art studio in the Thorp Building. She exhibits her work across the railroad tracks at Tres Leches Art Gallery in the Northrup King Building. Over Lunch, Mary painted her first prescribed land burn painting after her son, Jeff, vividly described what he observed from observation on a freeway ride. This subject resonated with her because it was about the renewal of nature and the cycle of life.

She saw potential for a project based on land renewal that could be shared with the public to create awareness of prairie and farmland soil renewal and encourage community dialogue about the importance of soil health. The subject was close to her artistic interests in landscape and nature. It was an “aha!” moment that made Mary imagine the connection of this topic, her creative work, and the possibility of grant support. Things took off from there, with more burn paintings, preliminary research, and conversations with artists, prairie restoration experts, and a couple of farmers to develop crafting the lengthy grant application.

Prairie Research

Mary has been busy doing her own research into prairie and farmland renewal and sharing that journey on Instagram and Facebook. She documented several prairie sites in southern Minnesota, including Oronoco Prairie Scientific and Natural Area, Winona Pleasant Bluff remnant prairie, Mankato Minneopa State Park, Northfield Cowling Arboretum, and Nerstrand State Park, Red Wing Spring Creek Prairie Scientific and Natural Area, and a prairie burn in Burnsville.

My favorite research trip was the visit to a soil restoration, large commercial farm owned and operated by Dave Legvold, in Northfield, MN. After two hours going over the land with Dave, I will never look at a farm the same way again. He took a shovel, scooped up some dirt, leaned over, and grabbed a fist full of soil to enthusiastically show me the richness in color, embedded organic material, angleworms, and wormholes. He explained how “soil snot,” which is Dave’s term for the mucus the worms leave behind as they travel through the soil, enriches the soil health. Dave told me how soil could become like concrete at just two inches below the surface, making it nearly impossible for the worms and plant roots.
Smoke and Fire by Mary Welke

Prairie Burning

An equally memorable trip for Mary was to observe and document a controlled prairie land burn. These planned burns are one of the quickest ways to regenerate the soil and are as old as when Native Americans used them on prairies to encourage new plant growth, which in turn attracted buffalo and other animals. They burn off invasive species that have short roots, leaving the prairie grasses and wildflower roots that extend deep into the soil. Buffalo grasses have roots that extend up to six feet deep to help prevent soil erosion. Farmers also use these burns on their fields and surrounding prairie buffer zone areas to break down plant matter and put nutrients back into the soil and revitalize the land.

Torching the Canvas

Mary is now torching directly onto her stretched canvas resulting in scorched burn holes and blackened canvas. Part of her creative process is adhering to scraps of torched burlap, organic matter, and ash directly onto the canvas, which was gathered from prairie and farmland areas.

She is learning about handmade papers with native grasses and wildflowers embedded into the paper to be used as a collage layer on her paintings. She currently has a variety of other works on paper, such as her prairie buffer zones called Field and Fence Line Studies. These are sketches of the prairie grasses and wildflowers that grow along the farming property fence lines.

Icons of the Landscape

An important group of experimental work is a series of small collages using burlap and rough linen to create simple, abstract Silo and Grain Elevator Studies. This work is influenced by Midwest farming and the agricultural economy in Minnesota and across the country. When I asked her if her father’s employment had anything to do with this series, she smiled and replied, “It’s hard to avoid, isn’t it? We are surrounded by so many silos and grain elevators in this area. Most people don’t even notice them.”

Her Work

Mary’s experimental artwork from her research into prairie and farmland is on view to the public in an exhibition at Northfield Arts Guild. Her work is also included in private and corporate collections such as Nordstrom, Regions Hospital, and US Bank Corporation.

Acknowledgment Mary Welke is a fiscal year 2020 recipient of an Artist Initiative grant from the Minnesota State Arts Board. This activity is made possible by the voters of Minnesota through a grant from the Minnesota State Arts Board, thanks to a legislative appropriation by the Minnesota State Legislature, and by a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts.

All photos by Sarah Whiting

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