Researching has its perks

I feel privileged to teach composition to college freshmen. This semester my students are working hard to learn how to research the academic databases to find scholarly sources to back up what they write. Unfortunately, except for those students whose parents or grandparents attended the former agricultural high school, few know about the early background of this institution which started in 1906.  I would venture to add that most of these same students know very little about an important, historic place that is only 13 miles away from a university that is heralded for its education.

The place where a treaty was signed (and later broken) is just across the border from our county. A monument commemorates the treaty signed by the Chippewa Indians in 1855. Many students have never been to this historic place while a bigger city 23 miles away holds a far greater attraction. Most know nothing about the Chautauqua event that is held annually every September at this park to celebrate the Native American and Métis traditions. I daresay, most faculty and staff have not adventured across the county lines to witness this yearly event either.

As I was doing keywords searches to help look at the microfilm in the library, I looked at headlines having to do with WPA (Works Progress Agency), NWSA and other words. Fortunately, I stumbled upon articles that related to the two 16 x 22 foot murals in our campus auditorium.  I discovered an Aug. 11, 1942 article in the local paper that reported the painter John Martin Socha was from St. Paul, Minnesota. He had accomplished other large scale paintings on the walls of the Federal Reserve Bank in Minneapolis, the auditorium of the Winona State Teachers college, the New Ulm high school, other St. Paul high schools and St. Luke’s Catholic church of St. Paul.

As I read the next article from Nov. 11, 1942, I understood that the murals in our auditorium were meant to artistically depict “Landing of the Norsemen in North America” and “The Signing of the Old Crossing Treaty.” I’ve learned that when researching with one goal in mind, inevitably it may lead you into surprise discoveries.  Before this discovery, I had just asked the downtown librarian who was helping me with the microfilm reader’s paper jam what he thought of the murals on our campus. He was noncommittal but said the artist should have done better on the costumes of the Vikings and the Native American Indians.  Since I grew up in the country of this same town and had attended many events such as lectures, plays and concerts at this auditorium, I told him that this artwork were in my blood.

Little did I know that after saying my strong connection with the art, I would be reading on the microfilm that my very diminutive aunt with her soft voice and gentle chuckle would have some notoriety in a November 1942 newspaper written about these very murals. Apparently blood does run thicker than the water of our town’s river. I read, 15 minutes after telling the librarian that the murals were in my blood, the newspaper account that reported the murals “have been formally presented to the Northwest School by the graduating class of 1932. Miss Eleanor made the presentation at the Parent’s day program Saturday. She read a congratulatory letter from Dr. A.A. Dowell of St. Paul, former superintendent of the Northwest School, who with Mrs. Dowell acted as counsellor for the 1932 class.” My own “Invisible Farmer” Aunt Eleanor who died several years ago in Arizona, was a part of this mural that started with the NWSA class of 1932. Wow, I teared up and wished at that moment that I had known about this when she was still alive. I would have asked her more questions about the murals.

The article went on to credit the two murals as a result of the efforts of the State Art Director, Clement Haupers, of the WPA (Works Progress Agency). Haupers had read Federal Art Project’s manual of procedure. It plainly stated that he was “to maintain and increase [art] skills.” Haupers, who for six decades had been an artist, teacher, and pioneering arts administrator also knew many artists during the Great Depression were out of work. According to another article I read, “finding these skilled artists was one problem. Finding homes for their work was another. The Federal Art Project intended that the artists’ work would somehow serve the public welfare.”

Haupers described much of his work as State Art Director as “public relations.” He had to develop receptive audiences for the arts in communities where many believed that art had to be Art — imported or certified by the ages. He not only had to find audiences, but he had to find sponsors -local institutions or community leaders who would bear the costs of a project. Clements continued, “The program was predicated on community service. The government paid the artist’s salary, but the recipient of his work was the sponsor who paid all other than labor costs. And that’s rather important to remember.”

Of course, Haupers may have been the Paris trained artist and art savvy person who did the background work for the WPA project that graces our auditorium but it was John Martin Socha who did the actual large scale painting that was honored on Nov. 11th, 1942. That presentation happened a decade after this had been started with the class of 1932. It was also noted in the article that the granddaughter of Chief Little Boy, a signer of the treaty, Mrs. C.A. Smith of Grygla had a daughter named Myrtle who was attending the agricultural high school. They were present at this ceremony honoring the John Martin Socha’s artistic rendition of a time in history.

So, you just never know where your researching on one subject may lead you down a different path.  I better get back to grading my 35 students’ papers.

Kiehle murals

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