BIRD ISLAND — For more than 40 years, Rosemary Glesener has known that Bird Island is the perfect place to showcase the work of artists.
It’s because southwest Minnesota is truly rich in the number of amazing and talented artists who call it home, and they are found in every direction of Bird Island, according to Glesener.
She attributes this abundance of talent to living amidst what the late author Bill Holm called the “horizontal grandeur” of the prairie.
“Out here, people take the time to nurture imagination,” said Glesener. “It’s flat, but you feel free. You feel so free you become inspired by that freedom.”
Many of these artists will tell you that it’s Glesener who has inspired them, and they want her to know it. The Southwest Minnesota Arts Council is recognizing Glesener with its Prairie Disciple Award for her efforts to support the arts in southwestern Minnesota.
Her dedication to supporting and mentoring artists in the region was apparent by the tremendous number of letters that the Arts Council received from artists to nominate Glesener for the award, said Nicole Johnson-DeBoer, executive director of the Southwest Minnesota Arts Council.
She had the privilege of informing Glesener that she is the 2021 Prairie Disciple. It’s presented to a supporter of the arts in the region and comes with a $1,000 prize.
Johnson-DeBoer said this was Glesener’s response when she called her with the news: “Thank you so much. Who should I give the award money to?”
Glesener has been supporting the arts for as long as she’s made Bird Island her home. She was hosting “pop up” art exhibits to feature artists from the region well before there was such a thing. An abandoned convent and an armory were the locations for some.
Most of the exhibits occurred at the downtown business that she and her husband, Mark, operated for 23 years in Bird Island. The Gleseners provided residential care for survivors of traumatic brain injuries. The couple would move furniture and open up space in the downtown facility for the exhibits.
Over the past four years, there has been no need to shuffle the furniture. Mark and Rosemary opened the Bird Island Cultural Centre in January 2017 in a former funeral home that Mark’s father had built. The Cultural Centre serves as a gallery and features the works of a different artist from the region each month.
It’s also a community center. Everyone is welcome to gather for everything from card games and dominoes to the occasional jazz jam or poetry reading.
It’s also where the Prairie Disciple honoree now holds many of the arts classes she offers to everyone from preschool-age children to senior citizens.
The nonprofit Cultural Centre’s mission statement is derived from the focus of the studies Glesener undertook when she returned to school and earned a Bachelor of Science degree, cum laude, from the University of Wisconsin, Superior, at age 61 in 2012. Her degree focused on integrated community wellness. Art, psychology and health come together in the individual and community, she said.
Art is first for her, and it began early. Her mother was a country school teacher near Royalton, between St. Cloud and Little Falls, where the family lived on a small hobby farm. Glesener said she remembers as a young child watching two sisters in the school sketch and being in awe at how they did it. “I just always loved art,” she said.
Her school did not offer art classes, but she pursued art on her own. Her marriage to Mark brought her into a family that loved the arts. It’s always been the process that she’s loved, she said.
The two met while both were in college. They moved to Ann Arbor, Michigan, where Mark completed graduate studies at the University of Michigan. After work in Michigan, they returned to Minnesota and landed back in Mark’s hometown of Bird Island in 1980.
The transition to prairie life wasn’t necessarily easy. Rosemary remembers stomping out of the house in tears on one cold winter’s day and venting her frustration at God for placing her in a place without open water.
It was at sunset, and suddenly the snowdrifts were colored as if waves on an ocean. “I snapped out of it,” said Rosemary of her funk.
Her other discovery early in her life on the prairie was the surprising number of artists who call it home. To a T, they are truly humble, she said.
"Nobody will say I am an artist. You just have to let them get to know you,” she said.
Once the trust is there, she said she is able to work with the artists to support and promote their work.
Johnson-DeBoer said Glesener’s support for artists in the region makes her an obvious choice as a Prairie Disciple. She pointed out that Glesener is also working hard to promote artists in the region’s underserved communities, including those from the Upper Sioux and Lower Sioux communities, and the region’s Hmong, Pacific Islander and Hispanic communities.
The COVID-19 pandemic interrupted some of her work at the Cultural Centre, but exhibits are underway again and people are returning. Glesener said it’s important to provide artists with the opportunity to show their works. As Ortonville artist Richard Krogstad had emphasized to her, “without the viewer, the art is irrelevant.”
“You need courage to be an artist,” said Glesener.
That’s the other attribute she believes the prairie instills in its residents. To stand before a blank canvas and create is “like a prayer,” she said.
While she loves to create her own art, her passion is to help others. She puts in long hours and devotes her own resources to promote the arts, but shrugs off any suggestion she is making a sacrifice.
“Like the old saying, the more you help the more you receive,” she said.