Corn dress artist returns to NY Mills to work on Wadena mural project

Most of us know the famous Minnesotans like Hubert Humphrey, Betty Crocker, and Charles Schulz. And names like Laura Ingalls Wilder, Bob Dylan and Judy Garland are pretty recognizable compared to Chief Little Crow, Jane Swisshelm and Joe Rolette....

Most of us know the famous Minnesotans like Hubert Humphrey, Betty Crocker, and Charles Schulz. And names like Laura Ingalls Wilder, Bob Dylan and Judy Garland are pretty recognizable compared to Chief Little Crow, Jane Swisshelm and Joe Rolette. The latter three are just some of the lesser known Minnesotans.

Robin Barcus, a visting artist originally from Chicago who made the infamous Corn Dress in New York Mills a couple years ago, was back working in Mills this month on a Wadena mural project, depicting some of the less notable characters in Minnesota history.

Barcus painted portraits at the NY Mills Regional Cultural Center for the "Pieces of History" mural project in Wadena. Barcus worked out of the Cultural Center for about a month and stayed at the Arts Retreat house through a self-funded residency.

Barcus has developed somewhat of a fondness for NY Mills since 2004 when she constructed a Corn Dress in a corn field at Homestead Valley Estates. That fondness and some local connections led her back to the area to work on the Wadena mural project.

At the time a couple years ago, the idea of a large dress made of corn seemed a bit odd for folks around here, but by the time Barcus unveiled the sculpture she had made a connection with a portion of the community, which led to a larger project. Barcus says the Corn Dress project in Mills grew into a larger project called "State of Dress", where she plans to create a dress sculpture in each state in the country.


"I came here and it was so much fun," Barcus says. "I was so impressed with how the community received me."

Barcus created the dress with the help of many people from the community, some who previously never would have gotten involved in the arts. Her project brought together different types of people from farmers to artists to high school students.

"That's the purpose of art," she says. "It's about communication and bridging cultures. The experience of the Corn Dress was so inspiring and so moving."

'Pieces of History'

While in residence with the NY Mills Regional Cultural Center in 2004, Robin met David Evert (part owner of the Village Emporium in Wadena), who was in the beginning stages of creating a mural project for downtown Wadena. Evert organized a meeting and Robin attended to share some of her experience and knowledge with interested community members. Robin has supported herself for 15 years as a mural painter in Chicago. Together they conceived a town-wide project called "Pieces of History", with a jigsaw puzzle theme uniting the various murals all over town.

Evert asked Robin: 'How much would it cost to bring you back to paint the first mural?" She gave an estimate (at a fraction of her normal cost, as it was a not-for-profit community project. Evert raised the money over the next year and Robin returned to the area in 2005 and painted "Prairie Life", which depicts the life of the Dakota/Lakota in what is now Minnesota, before white settlers arrived.

"It was very exciting to be a part of this project, and again I made new friends and connections," Robin said.

Evert again asked her back to work on the much more extensive project, "Faces of History", a mural depicting lesser-known colorful characters of Minnesota history.


Robin originally joined the Wadena group as a consultant and quickly became one of the main artists, using her experience and expertise as a mural painter to help make the project into a success.

She pitched the idea of depicting portraying historical figures, a group of volunteers compiled pages and pages of research. She settled on 16 characters and began painting earlier this month.

One such person of interest was Jane Grey Swisshelm, a feminist and abolitionist, editor and lecturer. Swisshelm, editor of the St. Cloud Visitor from 1857-1863, crusaded for the freeing of negro slaves and for women's rights in politics, business and public affairs.

Swisshelm met much opposition in St. Cloud for her attacks on what she thought evil were violent. One night her enemies smashed her printing press and threw the type in the river. She bought another press and type, and promised to print no more attacks in the St. Cloud Visitor. The next week her paper came out with a fiery article on page 1. She hadn't broken her promise, for she had changed her paper's name to the St. Cloud Democrat.

Joe Rolette was one of the most colorful characters in Minnesota history. As a member of the territorial legislature, Rolette walked 400 miles to attend a session when the snow was too light for his dog sled.

In 1843 he established a cart route from Pembina, N.D. to St. Paul, which diverted much of the Hudson's Bay Company's fur traffic to the U.S.

In 1857 a bill was passed to remove the capital from St. Paul to St. Peter. Rolette stole the bill and went into hiding until the Legislature adjourned - too late for the Governor's signature. So St. Paul remained the capital.

Chief Little Crow was a famous chief of the Sioux Indians. In August 1862, the Sioux, under chief Little Crow, attacked the white settlers, killing hundreds.


Little Crow was reportedly one of the most sincere friends of the whites in Minnesota. He was forced to go to war when government red tape delayed food supplies to his starving people. Many feel that had the government been more prompt with their annunity payments, which the Indians needed for the purchase of food, these reprisals would not have occurred. Little Crow knew no law other than right and wrong. His people fought in order to live. General Sibley defeated Little Crow at Wood Lake, Sept. 22, 1862.

Barcus completed this phase of the mural project and says she will be back next year to work on more murals. In the meantime she will continue her "State of Dress" project across the country. She has also completed dress sculptures in Wisconsin, Illinois, Iowa, Wyoming, and is currently working on a poker chip dress in Nevada.

After first arriving in NY Mills in 2004 as a visiting artist on a Jerome Foundation grant with the Cultural Center, Robin created the Corn Dress.

"I worked with farmers, local volunteers and high school welding students to create a 14-foot tall welded steel sculpture covered with corn and displayed in a corn field," she says. "Over 200 people came to climb up inside of it for the week it was up."

After that week, the sculpture was burnt in a bonfire party with the volunteers and the late Ray Sonnenberg.

"Ray became a good friend of mine during the project , and he died three months after its creation, so "Corn Dress" has been dedicated to his memory.

And in another tribute to Ray, the annual free pumpkin picking day for kids will be held this Saturday at Homestead Valley Estates and S&S Vineyards, 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. (see advertisement on page 3).

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