NEA Arts Magazine

A Sense of Identity

Minnesota's Min No Aya Win Human Services Center

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Pie Social, 1997, by Carl Gawboy, a member of the Boise Forte Band of Chippewa, is displayed at the Min No Aya Win Human Services Center on the Fond du Lac Reservation in Minnesota.

Pie Social, 1997, by Carl Gawboy, a member of the Boise Forte Band of Chippewa, is displayed at the Min No Aya Win Human Services Center on the Fond du Lac Reservation in Minnesota. Image courtesy of Min No Aya Win Human Services Center

In most healthcare facilities, artwork is generally limited to framed posters outlining the proper way to wash one's hands. If you're lucky, you'll find inspiring phrases splashed across Photoshopped images of sand dunes or ocean waves, as if cancer can be cured by Dreams and Motivation.

On the Fond du Lac Reservation, however, the Min No Aya Win Human Services Center has replaced the sterile medical atmosphere with an expansive collection of Ojibwe art. Comprised of beadwork, paintings, bronzes, and historical photographs, the 350-piece collection is at once a cultural statement and spiritual healer.

Located in northeastern Minnesota near Cloquet, Fond du Lac is home to roughly 4,000 members of the Ojibwe Nation. The Fond du Lac Ojibwe operate a school, two casinos, and a cultural museum, yet it's the Human Services Center that has become the artistic centerpiece of the reservation. The collection is almost single-handedly the work of Human Services Director Phil Norrgard, who came to Fond du Lac 32 years ago as a volunteer grant writer and never left. When he arrived, he worked in a basement with four other individuals; today he oversees a staff of 280. As employee numbers grew, so too did the center itself.

"We wanted to develop a sense of community ownership and identity," said Norrgard. "As we built facilities or expanded facilities over the last 30 years, we always set aside money to acquire art when construction was completed."

Sharing Meat, 1999, is another painting by Carl Gawboy on display at the Min No Aya Win Human Services Center.

Sharing Meat, 1999, is another painting by Carl Gawboy on display at the Min No Aya Win Human Services Center. Image courtesy of Min No Aya Win Human Services Center

Although it isn't unusual for a reservation to showcase tribal art, few -- if any -- house their collections in healthcare centers. This rarity isn't unique to reservations of course: aside from a few university hospitals, medical facilities in general aren't known as vibrant centers of fine art. And yet, the healing properties of art have been a focus of medical research for years. Numerous reports have shown that both art creation and art in the environment offer positive effects for patients, a correlation that the Arts Endowment actively supports. At Min No Aya Win, which primarily provides medical and dental services, the art collection works double duty, fostering community spirit while helping ease physical ailments. Because of this, Norrgard terms the clinic's pieces "working art."

"[The artwork] becomes sort of like part of the staff, it becomes part of the building," Norrgard said. "It can distract [patients] from their own pain or feelings of illness into giving them memories that might be pleasant and reassuring." He continued, saying, "Most people come in because they don't feel well. I want to believe that the artwork has the opposite effect. They feel better once they get here."

It improves the spirit of staff members too: clinic personnel often request pieces for their offices or hallways, which benefits both themselves and their patients. Norrgard forwarded an e-mail he had recently received from a staff member who had just moved into a new, bare-walled office. She asked for three pieces to place over an interview desk -- "something nice for patients to look at," she wrote. Norrgard commented that "this is an example of how staff working here have come to appreciate what art can do for people (and expect that it should be part of the environment)."

It was not always this way. Resources are scarce at Fond du Lac, and with each new building, Norrgard has had to convince board members to allocate funds for art acquisition. All of his campaigns have ultimately proven successful. Today, the medical complex includes the main center, a clinic in Duluth, and a recently opened pharmacy in Minneapolis, each of which is awash in art. "You sort of can't turn around without seeing a piece somewhere."

Although the Ojibwe Nation spreads across northern Wisconsin, Michigan, and southern Canada, Norrgard almost exclusively buys art from local and regional artists, many of them young and not yet established. Not only does this offer financial support to struggling up-and-comers, but it can serve to validate nascent talent while signifying that Ojibwe artistic traditions offer a viable, valued professional path. As is the case with many minority groups, Ojibwe art has largely been overlooked by mainstream art institutions, making it difficult for artists to have their voices heard.

Two historical photographs of boarding schools brought in by members of the community to be displayed at the Min No Aya Win Human Services Center.

Two historical photographs of boarding schools brought in by members of the community to be displayed at the Min No Aya Win Human Services Center. Images courtesy of Min No Aya Win Human Services Center

"The artists were delighted," said Norrgard as he described reaction to the collection's early beginnings. "They finally got some recognition for the work that they did."

The facility also houses pieces from more prominent Ojibwe artists such as Carl Gawboy, Rabbett Before Horses, and Joe Geshick, making the collection a comprehensive survey of young and old, historic and modern. Beadwork and sweetgrass baskets share space with contemporary paintings and blown glass, providing residents with "a greater understanding of their own cultural and historical past and present."

Many of the more narrative works depict local scenes and traditions, and serve in a way to visually convey Ojibwe heritage. On the other hand, modern works speak to attempts to reshape a diaspora that has been blighted by poverty, disease, and political marginalization. A number of contemporary pieces are done in the Woodlands style of Ojibwe artist Norval Morrisseau, who was called "Picasso of the North" and was known for his use of vivid colors and more abstract forms. Norrgard finds these pieces in particular "very inspiring. I think culturally [they] fit in very well with the American-Indian aspirations for redeveloping and emerging cultural awareness."

The support given to Ojibwe artists is inextricably linked with the sense of community fostered among the clinic's patients. Unlike a museum, a healthcare facility doesn't cater to a specific arts-minded audience: it is a focal point for the community, and almost everyone will pass through its doors at one time or another. Given this, Min No Aya Win has a unique opportunity to strengthen social pride by presenting the community's culture. While this is an obvious benefit for any group, Norrgard emphasized that it is particularly important for American Indians.

"Distrust in institutional care of any kind is so prevalent because of past cultural [and] historical experiences," he said. "I think the artwork said that this is a tribal facility. It's owned by a tribe, it's operated by a tribe, it's supported by tribal people, it's governed by tribal people….That was very critical. There was a much higher degree of acceptance and a pride in ownership." Norrgard lamented that more medical facilities haven't invested the same resources into art. "Healthcare facilities really have not understood that the feeling of well-being or place and culture, especially in a minority community, can be very helpful to feelings of security and trust."

A photo of Chief Wadena, circa 1902, that hangs in the Min No Aya Win Human Services Center.

A photo of Chief Wadena, circa 1902, that hangs in the Min No Aya Win Human Services Center. Image courtesy of Min No Aya Win Human Services Center

In addition to the artwork, Min No Aya Win also showcases historical photographs. Any member of the community may bring in a historical photo or negative. For five dollars, the Human Services Center will scan the image and print two eight-by-ten copies: one for the image's owner, and the other for the center's walls. "People come in and see their own grandparents or great-grandparents in the photographs, or they see themselves as babies," said Norrgard. Not only does this deepen the sense of familiarity and comfort, but it can add perspective by reminding patients "how it was in times that were tougher than these."

Whether or not other minority and mainstream healthcare institutions take Norrgard's advice to beautify their facilities, he has already set an example on Fond du Lac. Both the school and one of the casinos have reprinted some of the historic photos, while the casino has also purchased artwork from some of the clinic's featured artists.

As for the Human Services Center, Norrgard said that as long as the facility keeps expanding, he'd keep collecting. "We've gotten a lot of positive feedback and a lot of heartfelt appreciation for having this here. I think it's been really good for our patients and for our community. I just hope they keep valuing it. I'm awfully confident that they will."