New London artists in the rural house
Lisa Bergh and Andrew Nordin share a house, two kids, a dog and careers as visual artists. Living in a small town in the heart of central Minnesota, the two artists create abstract art that's exhibited in big city museums across the upper Midwest. They worked together on a sculpture that's currently on display at the Plains Art Museum in Fargo, North Dakota. They, along with other artists from rural and Indigenous communities, were asked to participate in the exhibit, which continues through May 30.
NEW LONDON — Sitting in their sun-drenched living room with several large pieces of their abstract artwork creating dramatic splashes of color and interesting lines of design on the walls, Lisa Bergh and Andrew Nordin have spent the last year during the COVID-19 pandemic doing what they always have: creating art in rural Minnesota.
The New London couple, who currently has a large piece they made together on display at the Plains Art Museum in Fargo, North Dakota, as part of an exhibit showcasing rural artists, has layers of art in their lives and careers.
Both have been independent artists for more than 25 years and have had their work displayed in museums and galleries throughout the upper Midwest. They currently have shows planned for 2021 and 2022.
A number of years ago the couple launched the Rural Aesthetic Initiative to spark interest and conversation about art in public places.
They also built the “Traveling Museum” to bring art to places it may not normally be seen. The little museum on wheels is built to look like a fish house and has featured abstract art shows on frozen lakes and small town streets.
They also have day jobs in the art world.
Bergh is executive director of the Hutchinson Center for the Arts where she coordinates art education, community outreach and visual exhibitions and Nordin is an art instructor and gallery curator at Ridgewater College in Willmar.
All that art energy in one house, while also raising two kids, is taken in stride by the couple, who don’t find it unusual at all that two full-time artists are in pursuit of living happily ever after.
“Doctors marry doctors, lawyers marry lawyers, ministers marry ministers, actors marry actors. Politicians marry politicians,” said Bergh. “We’re just working artists.”
They met in school and have a long history of understanding their individual artistic perspectives.
“We’re not the same artist but there’s a little bit of overlap, so that’s where those collaborative pieces come in,” said Nordin. “It’s helpful to have a peer for studio visits, and very often Lisa is the only person that I’m talking to about art decisions and aesthetics when she’s visiting my studio, and visa-versa.”
“It helps to have an artist as a spouse because they understand the art flow,” said Bergh.
Bergh does primarily sculptural installation artwork and Nordin is a painter. Occasionally their separate work is displayed in the same museum.
They’re “around each other with almost everything” and they give each other feedback on their work, said Bergh. “But we don’t always listen to each other’s opinion with everything.”
With their Rural Arts Initiative and the Traveling Museum, Bergh and Nordin spend considerable time collaborating on public art and community engagement projects.
These are “activities that have us working more as facilitators for other artists to present their ideas,” said Nordin. “Every once in a while we will create an art object together.”
That’s the case with their current exhibit at the Plains Art Museum , a sculpture of wood and light that’s called “Stoppage I.”
“This piece was really conceptualized and created together,” said Nordin. “We discussed ideas and formal considerations. Then we explored materials to best articulate the ideas.”
Made of reclaimed rough hewn lumber and gold leaf, it’s an homage to the work of Marcel Duchamp, a French-American artist from the early 1900s.
The installation is actually a replica of one the couple displayed in a gallery in 2014. That one was originally made out of nothing-special pallet wood and was destroyed after that show. The couple was asked to recreate the display for the Plains Art Museum.
The current piece is made with wood that was initially intended to be burned to create the artwork of their friend, Bill Gossman, a potter from New London who died last year after being diagnosed with cancer. The wood was in a pile next to the wood-fired kiln that Gossman used to create his unique pottery.
“The sculpture has extra meaning for us as it contains the materials our friend and peer used in the creation of his work,” said Nordin.
COVID hits art hard
Bergh and Nordin say appreciation for art in rural Minnesota is just as powerful as it is in large metro areas, but there usually aren’t as many options for experiencing art in small towns.
Nordin uses the word “desert” to describe the few-and-far-between nature of art opportunities in rural Minnesota.
During the pandemic, arts organizations have been hit hard and there’s a risk that they may not survive.
With galleries, theaters and music venues shut down, many non-profit arts organizations are struggling. Galleries and theaters still have bills to pay for maintaining the property even though there are no ticket sales to generate revenue.
Bergh said she lost all her fundraising options at the Hutchinson Center for the Arts during the last year because of COVID, but has still maintained exhibits. The typical open house receptions for featured artists have been replaced with online opportunities.
At Ridgewater , exhibits at the gallery are still taking place, although they are currently only seen by students and staff as the college is still not open to the public, said Nordin. The popular visiting artist program is currently curtailed but Nordin has used online video chats with several artists, including one from Scotland and one from California, to give students direct exposure and conversations with working artists with different perspectives.
Nordin said he’s looking forward to bringing artists in for face-to-face conversations with students, but said online video isn’t all bad. “In a weird way it can eliminate boundaries now that we’ve gotten used to interacting on the internet,” he said.
Like all art institutions, there are many behind-the-scenes people involved to make it happen.
Those jobs are at risk during COVID, which could also have long-term impacts whether community art facilities will continue to exist.
“If you look at the arts industry, they’re getting gutted,” said Bergh.
While metro art entities may be able to survive from corporate sponsorships that often make large financial investment in places like the Guthrie Theatre, Bergh said that typically doesn’t happen in small towns.
Large cities have corporations “to pull them through this,” said Bergh. “But out here, if we’re not sustaining our small, local arts organizations, they might not come back.”
She said if corporations like Target would invest the same amount of money in rural arts organizations like they do metro ones, the financial impact would have an immense ripple effect in small town communities.
“We all shop at Target, so they should consider bigger grants for arts out here,” she said. “Can you imagine what $25,000 would do out here for arts?”
Grants from regional arts organizations and local donations are helping, but she said more is needed if people want to preserve local art, whether it’s a museum that exhibits visual arts or places like The Barn Theatre in Willmar that provide live stage entertainment.
While many businesses are hurting because of COVID, Bergh encouraged people that have the means to donate to consider donating to their local arts organizations.
It’s a worthy investment, said Bergh, citing information from the American Alliance of Museums that says more Americans visit museums each year than attend professional sporting events.
People in rural Minnesota are just as passionate about art as people in cities, she said. Efforts need to be made to make sure their access to art continues.