Willmar benches draw attention to the arts

Willmar benches draw attention to the arts

July 6, 2019

Willmar benches draw attention to the arts

Willmar – Exercise undoubtedly contributes to a healthier lifestyle, so why is Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Minnesota putting $20,000 into a project here called “Sit With Me”?

The answer can be found on the more than 600 ceramic tiles that people of all ages, races and ethnicities have painted this year as part of a public arts project organized by the Willmar Area Arts Council. The tiles are going onto eight new concrete benches around town to show off Willmar’s diversity and community spirit.

Blue Cross and Blue Shield defines health with a broad brush that touches physical, mental, social and spiritual aspects, said Wendy Foley, senior health improvement project manager. She oversees a $2 million, five-year initiative called “Healthy Together Willmar” that aims to improve health across this central Minnesota city of nearly 20,000 residents.

“We have a very multicultural, rural community. People can live in silos,” Foley said. “Social isolation has a lot to do with some of the health challenges we have. We feel the arts is a great way to connect across cultures and across ages.”

Janet Olney, executive director of the Willmar Area Arts Council, said her organization wanted to tackle a project that would be pretty and engaging for a variety of people. By those measures, she said the “Sit With Me” program already has been a success, particularly for children and teenagers and for people over 60.

“Those little Somali kids, they really love painting these tiles,” Olney said. “And the little Hispanic kids, too,” added Bill Gossman, a potter who fired the tiles in the workshop behind his home in New London, where he is also mayor.

Janet Olney, executive director of the Willmar Area Arts Council, displayed one of eight tiled benches that are being installed around Willmar as part of a public art project.

Olney underscored his point: “So it’s not just a lot of old white people.”

The tile artists were found at a variety of locations around town. The project rolled out on Valentine’s Day at Kennedy Elementary School, moved to an interfaith dinner, then hit the annual Mayor’s Bike Ride in May, which drew the mayors of Willmar, Spicer and New London for a ride ending at the Open Streets Willmar event. The next painters will be nursing home residents and a group of people with disabilities.

The tiles reflect the diversity of the artists who painted them. Some, like one depicting a flag of Denmark, represent a painter’s heritage. Others, like the one showing a flamingo on a sunny day and signed Emilia, show a child’s appreciation of nature. A number of them are nearly black, the result of children adding too many layers of pigment. And still others depict the artists’ hobbies or passions: a saxophone, an outline of Minnesota over a rainbow, or, in Olney’s case, a steaming cup of coffee.

“You don’t want to just create something because you can. You want to create something people care about,” Olney said as she helped Gossman unload his kiln.

Olney said she suspects the bench project has been popular with children and teenagers because Willmar Public Schools dropped art from its curriculum in kindergarten through fifth grade. She and Gossman lamented a general waning of support for the arts.

“I still remember first touching clay in kindergarten,” Gossman said wistfully as he sat in his shop packed with coffee cups, vases, pots, sculptures and lighting fixtures.

The Winona Area Arts Council is struggling because few donors want to support operational costs, and volunteers drop off as they age, Olney said. “We’re doing so much more, and we’re doing so more visibly, and yet we’re struggling.”

Gossman said the benches might help. “It’s an example of what can be done with community input.”

Star Tribune by Dan Browning