by Ozzie Tollefson
When I moved back to my home state of Minnesota after living out East for 57 years, my city friends wondered if I’d get bored. I recently had a phone call from an eastern friend. He started, “So what’s it like living out there in the sticks?” I’m sure you’ve heard the label east and west coast folks use for middle America. They call it, “fly-over country.” They assume that it’s all corn fields, pig sties, mosquitoes, and sticker bushes. Wrong! They need to drive the back roads and stop in little towns. They’d be amazed to discover what is happening in communities they have only seen from 30,000 feet in the air.
Battle Lake in west-central Minnesota is a case in point. It has a population of 875 according to the 2010 census, and yet it has a thriving art gallery, Art of the Lakes, which I recently visited. When my family and I lived in New Jersey, we made a lot of trips into Manhattan (only 35 miles away) and walked around Greenwich Village, checking out the art galleries. Trust me, Art of the Lakes gallery would compete with the best of them. If you walked in the front door on the west side of Lake Street in the center of town and saw the array of paintings, photographs, sculptures, and jewelry, I’m guessing you would utter one word, “ Wow!”
And when you discover that this gallery was not the venture of some hotshot art dealer, driven to make lots of money off local people and summer tourists, you will be further impressed. The beauty of this extraordinary accomplishment is its emphasis on the public, especially school children in the town and surrounding area. Art of the Lakes is a nonprofit association of more than 100 members, with a history that goes back to 1965, when 11 people started a group of local artists, who enjoyed painting together and holding annual art exhibits in Battle lake. Over the next 33 years, the group expanded in numbers until 1998, when the AOTL association purchased its present building. With hard work, generous donations from friends, and a grant from the McKnight Foundation, the building was renovated and opened to the public in June of 1999. Besides the gallery, there is also a classroom, small kitchen, and office.
A week ago, Sandy Thimgan, the jewelry coordinator and former president of the association, gave me a tour of the gallery. We sat down for a visit and I asked her about the primary mission of AOTL. She answered, “Promoting interest in the visual arts, sponsoring art exhibits, stimulating art appreciation among youth, and encouraging emerging artists of all ages.”
I wanted to know about the youth projects started by AOTL. She explained, “That’s a big part of our mission–encouraging art in youth, in the school and to encourage them to take workshops and offering them scholarships. One of the youth projects, or community projects we had were one-foot square mosaic projects. The students involved were to pick a famous artist, study about them, choose a piece of work, and put it into a one-foot square mosaic. And those are now on display at the high school near the auditorium.” She summed it up. “It’s about thinking creatively, teaching collaboration, exploring talents, building confidence, providing a platform for cultural awareness and empathy, and instilling the process of critical thinking–these are just a few of the benefits of education in all the arts.”
I asked her about the decorated benches along the sidewalk. She said, “The city was going through a beautification project at the time. They received a grant to create mosaic decorated benches, planters, and bike racks to enhance the amenities areas of the street. Over 133 people took part in building those mosaics. So it was a real community feeling to create those and then to see them permanently displayed on the streets.”
Before I left, I asked Sandy what she likes best about working in the gallery. She said, “I love interacting with customers, sharing information about the displaying artists, discovering why customers are interested in the gallery and art–it is such a wonderful experience spending time surrounded by gorgeous, quality art pieces.” I share your joy, Sandy, and to all you city folks out there, next time you travel, hit the back roads, walk around in little towns, and you will be surprised.
Ozzie’s article first appeared in the September 23, 2020 issue of the Fergus Falls Journal. It is reprinted here by permission of the Journal.