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Granite Falls artist-in-residence eager to discover where the invisible shapes the visible

Leah Cook, the second artist-in-residence for the city of Granite Falls, has set ambitious goals to produce art around the Minnesota River and build community engagement. How the invisible shapes the visible is the underlying theme for her works in progress.

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Leah Cook, the second artist-in-residence for the city of Granite Falls, helps Yellow Medicine East High School senior Shaun Bestland organize video clips Tuesday, Oct. 11, 2022, for a project centered around the Minnesota River. Cook has set ambitious goals to produce art around the Minnesota River and build community engagement.
Macy Moore / West Central Tribune
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GRANITE FALLS — Leah Cook grew up on an organic farm on the Canadian border in Maine near a small community known for its strong Acadian culture.

A stint in the Peace Corps brought her to a destination even more remote: The tiny village she served in Suriname, South America, was reached only by a lengthy upriver paddle or by bush plane.

“Good training for something like this,” said Cook of her new role. Since mid-August, she has been serving as the second artist-in-residence for the city of Granite Falls in western Minnesota.

Her prior experiences are important to this new challenge. She said they've taught her the importance of learning the history and culture of the people and, especially, how to be a good listener.

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Leah Cook is currently serving as the second artist-in-residence for the city of Granite Falls.
Macy Moore / West Central Tribune

As the artist-in-residence for Granite Falls, she has a three-month time frame in which to carry out two objectives set for her by a community advisory council: To make art around the theme of the Minnesota River and to do community engagement.

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It all starts by “listening to the things said and the things almost said,” said Cook. “It takes a little bit of time before people will say some things; (they won’t) tell you everything at once.”

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Yellow Medicine East High School senior Bradley Akins films underwater footage Tuesday, Oct. 11, 2022, for a video project centered around the Minnesota River in Granite Falls.
Macy Moore / West Central Tribune

She’s been listening and hearing a lot. She is also finding many in the community of all ages and backgrounds eager to participate in creating art and a stronger sense of community.

A theme for the art now in the works is “how the invisible shapes the visible,” said Cook. There are so many invisible threads that shape our lives and the world around us today, she explained — the transformation of the prairie to farms; the relationship of the Dakota people and the European settlers — the cultural heritage of the settlers are all examples of the ties that shape lives today.

With support from the Granite Falls City Council, Cook has identified five projects for her residency.

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Fall leaves, corn cobs and other foraged items were arranged into a temporary tapestry on Friday, Sept. 30, 2022, on the eve of the annual Meander arts crawl, as part of a community art project led by Granite Falls artist-in-residence Leah Cook.
Kit Grode / West Central Tribune

One is completed. A group of local residents joined her on the eve of the Upper Minnesota River Valley Meander to forage in wild places along the Minnesota River for natural materials. They turned their collection into a tapestry, which was displayed Sept. 30 and Oct. 1 for both residents and visitors to the area.

The remaining projects are works in progress.

Related:
Exhibits on display in the next month
Fine arts and student performances at area colleges
Southwest Minnesota Arts Council events in the next month
Original programs scheduled for broadcast on Pioneer Public TV

Perhaps the most ambitious among them is the production of what she terms "Wonder Boxes." Similar to small, neighborhood free libraries, the Wonder Boxes will be placed around town on wheeled bases for portability. Each box will offer a way to look at the invisible threads shaping the world today.

One example she offered is a box with louvered slats. Look at one side, and you will see prairie sprinkled with wetlands. On the other side will be modern farmland with islands of trees around homesteads.

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“(They) all show different things we can wonder about or things that bring wonder,” said Cook of the Wonder Boxes.

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Granite Falls residents were invited to forage items for a temporary art installation on Friday, Sept. 30, 2022, on the eve of the annual Meander arts crawl. The temporary tapestry featured items collected around the Granite Falls area, including bones, dirt, shells, leaves and corn cobs, and was part of a community art project led by Granite Falls artist-in-residence Leah Cook.
Kit Grode / West Central Tribune

She is working with the community’s block nursing program to develop a "Memory Cafe" of the stories that seniors can tell of the community’s past.

There are so many interesting stories, she said. She’s already talked to people who remember a summer celebration that once attracted thousands of people to view a parade of floats on the Minnesota River. Others told her how some of the town’s first buildings were pulled across the frozen river to Granite Falls from Minnesota Falls, a rival community that was abandoned due to flooding.

To celebrate the river and its people, she is also working to create a "River Sing" event with the voices of all those willing to participate. This is for everyone, no matter their singing ability, she emphasized.

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Leah Cook, the second artist-in-residence for the city of Granite Falls, speaks with Yellow Medicine East High School students Tuesday, Oct. 11, 2022, about what video clips they need to record along the banks of the Minnesota River.
Macy Moore / West Central Tribune

She is also working with students at the Yellow Medicine East High School to create "Voices and Views," a video production about the Minnesota River and all that it offers.

One of the recurring themes she has heard from people is how the river is underutilized as a recreational asset. There are many — young people and longtime residents alike — who have yet to discover it, she explained.

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Taking on five distinct projects in a short time frame is a challenge, but important to the goals of the residency, she said. She believes that offering a mix of opportunities is the best means to connect lots of different people in the community.

She is optimistic. She has been impressed by the level of community engagement she has discovered.

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“I knew Granite had a lot going on before I got here,” said Cook. “Now that I got here, wow, it’s got a lot going on.”

Anyone interested in being part of any of the projects is welcome to contact her at 207-316-6776 . She is particularly in need of people with carpentry or metalworking skills to help build the Wonder Boxes.

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Leah Cook, the second artist-in-residence for the city of Granite Falls, works with Yellow Medicine East High School students Tuesday, Oct. 11, 2022, on video editing for a project centered around the Minnesota River in Granite Falls.
Macy Moore / West Central Tribune
An arts project will get underway in Granite Falls to create colorful works on 18 to 19 busy crosswalks in the community. Its theme is storytelling, all for the sake of safety.

The city of Granite Falls, with a population of around 2,700, launched the artist-in-residence program two years ago. Dani Prados served as the inaugural artist-in-residence for the community. She served for a 13-month period and launched a variety of art projects with an emphasis on community engagement.

Tom Cherveny is a regional and outdoors reporter for the West Central Tribune.
He has been a reporter with the West Central Tribune since 1993.

Cherveny can be reached via email at tcherveny@wctrib.com or by phone at 320-214-4335.
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