WILLMAR — There might not be an actual pot of gold at the end of Willmar's Fourth Street Southwest, where the vast majority of the trees and planters covered in gaily colored knitwear are located, but there is a Rainbow of Trees. And that public art project may create something even more valuable this year — community togetherness and mental wellness.

"Social connections are important even when they are not happening at the same place, under the same tree," said John Salgado.

Salgado and Nicole Arnhold, both who work in occupational therapy in Willmar, helped create the Rainbow Trees art project, with assistance from Artists on Main Street, a community arts program partnership between Willmar Main Street, Rethos, and Springboard for the Arts with support from the Bush Foundation and the Willmar Area Community Foundation Arts Fund.

The multifaceted goal is to help bring some relief to the community as it tries to muddle through the COVID-19 pandemic which has turned so much of life upside down.

"It is normal to feel anxious and depressed by what is going on," Arnhold said.

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As the pandemic began shutting down businesses, schools and entertainment, Arnhold and Salgado started conversing about how the pandemic could impact the mental health of the community and what kind projects or programming could help prevent the worst of it.

"We wanted to bring that mental health prevention out into the community," Arnhold said.

Rainbow Trees was born out of the idea that hands-on projects, such as knitting, can help with anxiety, depression and other mental health conditions. Arnhold has seen the positive impact such activities can have with the patients she works with. The knitted art, with their bright colors, eye-catching designs and emotional impact are also a simple way to bring a smile to people's faces as they walk by.

Knitting is an art form pretty much anyone can do, no matter their language, culture or artistic ability. Even if there isn't a common language, Arnhold said it is possible to show someone how to finger knit or needle knit.

"We are open to everyone in the community," Salgado said.

As part of the Rainbow Trees project, Salgado and Arnhold have held two knitting sessions at Spurs Restaurant in Willmar. People have come to not only learn about the project, but create pieces to display on the trees.

"It has been wonderful to be connected with Spurs," Arnhold said. "They have been so welcoming."

Thanks to grant funding from Artists on Main Street and donations from the community, Rainbow Trees is able to provide yarn and knitting equipment for those interested in taking part.

"We are all about breaking down barriers," Arnhold said.

Over the past several weeks Salgado and Arnhold have seen the positive impact Rainbow Trees has had. One participant brought knitting pieces created by her late brother to the first session at Spurs. With Arnhold's help, the two knitted them all together to create a tree wrap called "A Ray of Hope." It can be found by the Centre Point Mall on Fourth Street. Two young girls were taught to finger knit at the first session and they, subsequently, spent hours creating yarn art during a road trip this summer.

Then there are community members who took it upon themselves to create and display knitted art in the community, like the faces with masks found on several trees in downtown Willmar and the rainbow planter covers at the Goodness Coffee Shop created by Emily Streich.

Rainbow Trees of Willmar has even had an international impact. A family based in South Africa saw social media posts about the Willmar community art project and emulated it back home by decorating a palm tree in Durban, South Africa.

"If it makes sense for us, it probably makes sense for other people too," Salgado said.

The Rainbow Trees of Willmar projects will be on display at least until October, though there is the possibility they will be kept up longer.

One of the goals of the Artists on Main Street program is to create sustainable community art projects, so Arnhold and Salgado are planning for ways to bring the project back next year. They want to continue not only the physical art but the positive mental, spiritual and community impacts it can have.

"It is important for the human experience, for being human," Salgado said.