A work by Rugby artist Terry Jelsing was featured on Prairie Public Television Monday evening. Jelsing and two fellow artists were highlighted on the program "Prairie Mosaic".
Jelsing's piece, "Spirit Wall", was created as a collaborative art project between the artist and members of the Spirit Lake Nation at Fort Totten.
The project got its start when the North Dakota Museum of Art in Grand Forks received a grant from the Robert Rauschenberg Foundation to explore the culture of Spirit Lake Nation through art. Six international artists from cultures as diverse as Egypt, Germany and Canada, and specializing in art forms such as photography, sculpture and music were selected to create an exhibit 'Songs for Spirit Lake'. Jelsing was one of the six.
The three-year, multi-part project began in 2012. Part One opened at the Rauschenberg 19th Street Project Space in Chelsea, New York in 2013. A piece called 'Conference of Mothers' was Jelsing's submission for the first segment. Part Two was exhibited at the North Dakota Museum of Art in February and March with Jelsing displaying an artwork he titled 'Spirit Wall'. It was the subject of Monday's program.
Jelsing wanted his second piece of art to be representative of Spirit Lake people and visualized a wall of papier mache bricks with each brick containing personal stories of tribal members. "I wanted the Spirit Lake Nation to have a part in the artwork," he said. He planned to give his piece a Sioux name but discovered the Sioux language doesn't have a word for wall. "As a nomadic people they had no need for barriers," Jelsing said. "They do have a word for spirit, so I decided to call it 'Spirit Wall'."
The wall became a collaboration of many individuals, however, not just those on the reservation. "Secretaries at Rugby High School saved shredded paper, as did others," he said. "Rugby High students worked on it. The ag department welded brackets and made the forms for the bricks."
Jelsing talked to Spirit Lake residents and tribal leaders about the project, telling them he would furnish paper on which they could write messages to be included in the bricks. He had an overwhelming response. "We had people from the casino, the community, small children and families, students from Four Winds School and Cankdeska Cikana College," he said. Some wrote just their name, but others shared history, dreams, thoughts and hopes. "It became a magical unity of people coming together."
The paper with messages was then torn into strips, combined with the shredded paper and mixed with water in seven mulching vats. After a time of allowing the paper to somewhat break down, this slurry was ready to be put into brick molds, and brick making sessions were held at Fort Totten. Molds were loaded with the papier mache and brick makers added personal touches--bits of colored paper, string, leaves or pinecones. Pieces of sage, which is used in sacred rituals by the tribe, were pushed into the wet bricks. As much water as possible was squeezed out, and the bricks were put on drying racks to be sun dried.
When the bricks were completely dry, Jelsing began building the wall around an internal structure of wood. To hold the bricks together, as well as to the wood framework, he used spray foam as mortar, going through a total of four cases. He picked where the bricks would go, aiming for pleasing color groupings and contrasts, all while knowing each brick was not perfectly shaped and he would have to compensate for uneven surfaces and other irregularities.
The finished product is about nine feet high, 12 feet long and one foot thick. It contains almost 2000 bricks and weighs nearly a ton.
Part Two of 'Songs for Spirit Lake' was exhibited for a month and marked the end of Jelsing's involvement in the project. He's ready to move on to new challenges, but says it was a great experience that will have a lasting impact on him. "You're not sure when you start out how it will turn out," he said.
He believes the making of the wall also had a positive effect on tribal members. "It was healing. I wanted to make them comfortable, and I wanted to do justice to their work. You need to have a reverence for what they did. They had a righteous intention, and they think that all these bricks are like people. In many ways it wasn't building a wall but building a bridge."
According to Jelsing, the goal now is to find a permanent home for 'Spirit Wall'. Because of its size it is considered public art and is not meant to be touring art. An appropriate space in the Spirit Lake Nation is being sought.
The Prairie Mosaic program featuring 'Spirit Wall' can be seen online at https;//www.youtube.com/user/PrairiePublicBcast. Click on Prairie Public Broadcasting-You Tube. Under Uploads click on Prairie Mosaic 707.