Posts Tagged: decorah

Getting Our Hands Dirty: A Growing Interest in Community-Focused Gardening


Story and Photos by Kelly Larsen 

The disdain I once held for gardening still remains distinct in my memory. As a little kid, I dreaded being told to pick beans from the long, lush bushes beyond our back porch. With dirt-encrusted ice cream buckets in hand, my siblings and I would trudge out into the sunshine and complain our way down the never-ending rows, sweating and moaning.  Mission accomplished, bushes bare, we would trudge back inside, plopping the bucket onto the scarred kitchen table only to be greeted with a smile, a cutting board, and the task of trimming heads and tails from the beans before dinner. After considerable protest, we would sigh, resigned to our fate, and begin the monotonous chopping process. I hated gardening, my nine-year-old self decided. I liked beans, but definitely not gardening.

If only I had known.  A decade later, my college roommate and I found ourselves craving homegrown, flavorful produce after a semester of cafeteria food. In a surge of optimistic domesticity, we soon had our own little assortment of plastic cups and earthenware pots lined scraggily along the windowsill in our dorm room: carrots, marigolds, thyme, basil, parsley, oregano, and violets. Some were successful, some less so. But we treasured our little garden, watering it daily with drips from our Nalgenes, rejoicing together over little green sprouts in the early spring gloom of papers and exams. In our garden we found a return to home, the satisfaction of growth and development, and a little outlet from the stress and cares of college life. We loved our garden. It didn’t matter that our carrots were underdeveloped and the oregano never grew. We were trying it. Soon our curious friends came in to examine our attempts, some eventually planting their own flowers and veggies. Our puny plants quickly blossomed into a community garden of sorts, an assortment of pots worth much more than the sum of its parts.

Gardening – both community and home-based – is growing just like those scrawny plants in our dorm room window. According to a recent survey by the National Gardening Association, approximately 36 million American homes – 31% of US households – had a food garden in 2008. In 2009 that number was expected to increase dramatically, up to 43 million households (37%). Reasons for that upswing varied, with the desires for better tasting, cheaper, higher quality, and safely grown food topping the list.  Though the vast majority of food gardens are still found at individuals’ homes, more than a third of those surveyed said they would be at least somewhat interested in community gardening. The idea of gardening in community, a group of people sharing a plot of land, has been around for years, especially in urban communities where green space is scarce. In recent times the trend has spread into more rural areas, including Northeast Iowa.

Gardening has already proven itself a valuable pastime. The monetary return over one growing season from the average American’s $70 garden investment equals about $530.  With recession-frugality reigning and a generational trend towards organic, eco-friendly, and homegrown products, gardening – especially community gardening – has become a popular way to share, produce, and save. Even the White House has caught the bug: Michelle Obama’s food garden has made international news and the USDA’s People’s Garden is inspiring embassies around the world. Gardening has gone mainstream, appearing on such popular shows as Martha Stewart, where Decorah’s own Seed Savers Exchange was featured in February 2009.

Though Seed Savers Exchange’s focus is seeds, not produce, the organization plays an important role in area agriculture and gardening. Its lavish gardens, nestled among the Heritage Farm’s acres of woods and trails, certainly catch the eye of local and visiting gardening enthusiasts. It was misting gently when I visited, and my jaw dropped at the veritable Eden of growing plants. Notebook in hand, I strode quietly alongside Shannon Carmody – an Illinois native now interning at the heritage farm – as she pointed out highlights of the organization’s many on-site gardens. Vegetables and herbs nestled among flowers and themed mini-gardens within a broader tapestry of flora all provide beautiful examples of edible landscaping, companion planting, and organic gardening at their finest. But the Seed Savers gardens serve a greater purpose than just beautifying Northeast Iowa. The number of needy recipients of the organization’s Herman’s Garden program – a seed donation program designed to help non-profit community gardens and educational programs around the country – jumped more than 30 percent in 2009. Seed Savers has seen huge growth in public interest in gardening over the past year and membership has also increased 47 percent.

“It’s trendy,” Shannon laughs.  “Especially with people in our younger generation, there’s a do-it-yourself trend.  Knitting, home brewing… even gardening.  It’s vogue; it’s hip now. It’s hip environmentalism.”  Of course, she adds, the increased interest in gardening isn’t solely due to the garden projects of celebrities like Martha Stewart and Michelle Obama. “It goes mainstream, and then it’s accessible. I hope people actually see that it’s important. It’s important to have your own food, to understand where it’s coming from.”

Seed Savers Editor John Torgrimson agrees. “I think the growth is due to a lot of different things,” he says. “You could say that the economic times are such that people are looking for ways to control costs, and gardening is something you can actually do. A lot of people do it for recreation. It’s a great pastime. And the benefits are obvious.”

John and his wife Pat enjoy a large garden at home, while Shannon maintains a plot in Decorah’s community garden, located in the floodplain by the Upper Iowa River.

That community garden, Shannon adds, has been a joy, and enables inexperienced gardeners to learn from others. “It’s hard to be the pioneer when you don’t know what you’re doing,” she explains. “But when you see your neighbor doing it, it becomes accessible.”

Rick Edwards, Decorah Parks and Recreation director, was instrumental in bringing the Decorah community garden to fruition in the spring of 2008. Though a massive flood wiped out the first year’s efforts, this summer there has been a resurgence of interest, with different families and individuals maintaining about 20 gardens. The 20-by-20-foot plots cost $25, with water and mulch provided. The soil is good, Rick adds, though the deer can be bad.  But that’s part of the gamble of gardening.

The beauty of the community garden aspect, he says, is in the collaboration and creativity. “Everybody gets together and talks, you know, about how stuff is growing, how the deer are eating it… some people are having pretty good success,” he explains.  “We have everything from very experienced gardeners to some gardeners that are giving it their first shot. But they’re all in one spot, so the novice gardeners can get advice, see how the experts do it, help each other out.”

The sense of community, however, isn’t the only thing that drew Edwards and residents of Decorah’s neighborhoods to gardening. For Rick, like many others, it comes back to knowing where his food comes from and what’s in it. “There’s something great about having a tomato and knowing you’re the only one who’s touched it,” he says.

Not surprisingly, that desire for healthy, local food is also part of what inspired Decorah’s Jenni Werners and Deborah Bishop to organize other volunteers and plant a garden specifically designated for the Decorah Area Food Pantry.

“Most people at the food pantry can’t afford to garden themselves, or housing is the issue, or even transportation to get down to the community garden,” Jenni explains.

Surrounded by fencing draped with clanking, deer-dissuading tin pie plates, the plot is full of a variety of well-tended vegetables, from the conventional potato to the mysterious rutabaga. Jenni and Deborah also know of many other groups that have collaborated on garden projects for donation to the community. Theirs is just a small patch in what they hope to see grow into a larger movement. Though the struggling economy has probably bolstered the growth in gardening, both women agree that the revitalized interest is a good thing.

“It’s got people excited,” says Jenni. “And it’s really a lot of fun,” Deborah adds.

Gardeners like Jenni and Deborah are an enthusiastic lot, and that enthusiasm seems contagious. Luther College has a large community garden for faculty and staff flourishing on Pole Line Road; Waukon boasts a community garden which was planted to improve access to locally grown food; the Northeast Iowa Food and Fitness initiative maintains a heavy emphasis on fresh, healthy, and local food; the Decorah Community School District has begun working to add garden-grown produce to its cafeteria options; and even college students like myself, stereotypically both busy and cheap, are forgetting their childhood disdain and digging in.

Perhaps the pendulum is swinging in a new direction. Gardening is chic again, and the generational trend of re-learning our grandparents’ habits is inspiring. Maybe next year my roommate and I will be able to find a patch of ground on campus where we can dirty our hands and grow a few herbs and veggies. If not, the windowsill will work fine. After all, the carrots are only part of the joy. Growing them together is the real fun.

Kelly Larsen is a student of international relations, journalism, and Spanish at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan.  Next year she dreams of growing a watermelon in her dorm room “garden.”

Interview with artist Doug Eckheart

By Aryn Henning Nichols

In the middle of a gallery, with walls covered in bright memories of places and events he’s experienced over the past four decades, Decorah artist Doug Eckheart begins a sentence just as he’s probably begun many before: “Like I tell my students…” he pauses briefly, “surround yourself with what you love.”

Surrounding Doug at this moment is the bright aqua of the Venice canal, an exceptionally pink spring in Paris, the wide span of a Norwegian horizon, the geometry of Belgian houses. But more than the locations, it’s the feelings he had there that inspired Doug to paint the 20 pieces in his current show, “My Journey: Images of the Artist’s World Travels.” The vibrant watercolors aren’t entirely factual – colors are altered, scenery adjusted, lighting tweaked – but each is a personal experience of that specific locale, a record of a moment in time for Doug. These records, locked in memories, photos, and sketchbooks for quite some time, finally began to manifest on canvas late last year.

“The idea of this show has been in my head a long time. About 35 years,” he says. “These things need to percolate.”

While the travel took decades, the painting process took less than half a year. And each piece comes with a story.

“I intended for the paintings to inform and educate people about the place, event, cultural and historical significance,” he says. “I wanted it to be like a tour for people.”

Like this show, Doug’s career as a Luther College art professor spanned 40 years.

He retired in May 2009 with more than 60 one-person and 40 group shows under his belt in cities such as New York City, Chicago, Des Moines, Malta and Norway. He has held the title of artist-in-residence, keynote speaker, juror, department head, gallery director, and curator. He has been featured in print and on television, and has served internationally as a visiting artist. Not bad for a guy who never thought this was going to be his thing.

“I didn’t start out to do art,” he says. “I was always outside building forts and bow and arrows. But my friends and I would get together to draw. We were always listening to the radio and drawing.”

In Moorhead, Minnesota, a young Doug Eckheart also began to watch a TV show, “Come, Draw With Me,” with his friends. It featured artist Jon Gnagy, who was, essentially, Doug’s very first art teacher. From this time on, Doug always had a sketchbook handy. Art become his first love. His second was basketball. The third and most life changing: Georgiann, his high school sweetheart and now wife. The two went on to get married, begin a family, and start a life together. He earned his bachelor’s on a full scholarship for basketball at Concordia College in Moorhead, his master’s at Bowling Green University in Ohio, and then had a brief, albeit incredibly busy, stint teaching at Waldorf College before finding himself in Decorah, Iowa. Famed Decorah artist Orville Running, one of the “Brothers Running” who had helped Doug at various points in his life, asked Doug if he’d like to come teach at Luther College.

“I knew when I drove down the hill on Highway 9 that this was the place for me,” he says. “The interview consisted of a three-hour tour of Decorah – everything he showed me had to do with landscapes, all places he knew I’d want to paint.”

Decorah had him at Dunning’s Spring. And it was this lush landscape that Doug first set out to paint in his brand new home.

“Really, I found the perfect place – no. It found me,” Doug says of Decorah. “Life led me right where I was supposed to be.”

Faith, he says, has directed him in virtually every aspect of life. Now, looking back on more than four decades of teaching, a 48-year marriage to his childhood sweetheart, four grown children, 13 grandchildren and one great-grandchild, life has definitely taken him on a sweet ride. Turning his sights on retirement, Doug sees painting, teaching workshops, and finding patience for golf just as he’s found patience for watercolors. Looking over his art, too, Doug can definitely see the years passed.

“My early work has a different energy,” he says. “I like it. It has a spontaneity you lose with age. Of course I’ve improved in some ways too. I like my age. I like where I’m at and what I’m doing.”

And this, Doug says, is paramount.

“Like I tell my students: find out what it is you like. Then do it.”

Aryn Henning Nichols likes to read, which led to writing, which led to journalism, which led to travel, which led to this magazine, which led to design. She likes all of these things. Which is nice.

 Learn more about Doug’s workshops – drawing, watercolor, ink – and Eckheart Gallery (107 W. Water Street) at www.eckheart.com

Interview with Artist Kelly Ludeking

By Aryn Henning Nichols

Sculpture artist Kelly Ludeking loves metal. Pretty much all kinds of it. And while he originally started with bronze and aluminum, it was an iron pour that really pulled him in. For Kelly, pouring iron is about community. It’s about learning and teaching, and it was this aspect that really sealed his path and passion.

Born in Decorah, Iowa, Kelly attended the local high school, and like many small town teens, was involved in essentially every extracurricular activity that he had any interest in. Mostly art-related things: band, drama, painting, sculpture, etc.

“It kind of amazed me to look back and see how much art I dabbled in to find my niche,” he says.

That niche was eventually found at the Minnesota College of Art and Design where he was studying metal work. Kelly and some friends were invited to an iron pour – their first – and they watched as nearly a dozen people worked together as a team to feed a fire, melt iron, and pour it into molds to make each person’s individual art works.

“It was more of a production,” Kelly says. “It was such an incredible event.”

After, Kelly and friends went back to their college, inspired. They wanted to build their own furnace. And with help from the school, they did. Amazingly, they hosted their very own iron pour later that year. That furnace lived on at the Minnesota College of Art and Design for several years until it was donated to a sculpture park. It’s still used today, and in fact, was recently done so by Kelly.

You see, this is what Kelly does. He is an artist. He’s only just relocated with his wife to Madison, Wisconsin, from the Twin Cities, and he’s already got a gallery showing lined up. He is doing it. He travels around the Midwest and nation to be a guest artist, speaker, or participant in iron pours and events. He was invited to three pours this spring alone, and even spoke at the National Conference on Cast Iron Art in Birmingham, Alabama. The goal was to help students realize there is “casting after college.”

“The conference helps teach the next generation,” says Kelly. “We want them to know that once they leave college, they can continue to cast. Through businesses and institutions, they can make a living at it.”

There are a lot of inventive ways to cast post-graduation, he says. One is to set up your own event, like the sixth annual Down on the Farm Iron Pour Kelly hosted on his family’s farm this past July. The whole thing started on a whim – after organizing more than a decade of pours elsewhere, Kelly was living in Decorah helping his family and decided to bring an event here.

“I figured I could show my family what I do and not have to leave the farm,” he says. “And this way I have control of things. My dad’s very cool about it, we can build a bigger furnace and I know there will be enough room for everyone. And from the sounds of it, it’s going to be quite a bit larger than it’s been in the past. It’s looking like 50 artists are coming.”

People of all experience levels will stay in rural Decorah out at the Ron Ludeking farm and cast and teach and learn from each other. They come here from a variety of locales –Kentucky, Minnesota, Wisconsin – for this “Down on the Farm” pour. Artists are beginning to look forward to the annual event, even recognizing the barn in the promo posters before they even know Kelly.

“I have a t-shirt with the barn on it and people say, ‘You’re that guy,’” Kelly says. “It’s growing. People are coming from all over to play at my farm. For some ‘weekend warrior’ kind of artists, this is their get-away. This is their time to make art.”

The entire four-day event is organized by Kelly’s company, Ironhead Sculptural Services, and is open to the public each day from noon until 7 pm. Visitors can come watch artists in the process of creating patterns and molds. Then on Saturday, June 27, at roughly 5 pm, Kelly and his crew of artists fired up the furnace and poured molten metal into the molds they’d been working on throughout the event.

After, DJ Efraim Santiago from White Bear Lake, Minnesota, fired up the tunes and mixed music for the annual iron pour party.

Kelly also taught classes at the farm June 24 through Decorah’s ArtHaus.

“I especially enjoy teaching kids, because they seem to be getting away from hands-on learning – tactile stuff. There’s so much virtual work,” he says. “Hands-on building is something so different from building on a computer. I think it’s just a good learning experience for them. And for the adults too.”
If things go as Kelly hopes, the entire Down on the Farm Iron Pour will really be one big learning process. Casting iron for fun and for an art didn’t start until the 60s, Kelly says, and a lot of the original “old dogs” are retiring from pouring and moving on.

“I want to learn as much as possible. It’s cool to be a part of something where the founders are actually still around,” Kelly says. “It hasn’t changed, why we do it. It’s the love of the metal. It’s really key to the process. If you can make iron beautiful and change the way people look at it – that it’s not machinery, it’s not something that’s cold and hard any more – if you can change somebody’s perception about it… that’s art. It’s pretty cool.”

Aryn Henning Nichols thinks molten metal is pretty darn neat. She hopes lots of people visit Kelly’s cool pour.

Down on the Farm Iron Pour: Stay tuned at www.krlmetals.com for details on this annual event
According to Kelly: “Completely open to ALL skill levels”
Ron Ludeking Farm, 1421 200th Street, Decorah
To get more information or to be involved, contact Kelly at:
651-280-5744
kelly@ironheadsculptural.com
www.kellyludeking.com