Massive community effort brings public art project to fruition in northwest Minnesota community of Badger

Sep. 17—BADGER, Minn. — It’s been nearly five years in the making, and now, a massive public art project in this northwest Minnesota community is nearly complete.

The Badger Community Heritage Wall, which includes a 12-by-25-foot stained glass mural of Badger history and culture, along with a gazebo-like gathering space behind the wall, will be dedicated at 1:30 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 18, during the community’s annual Fall Festival.

For stained glass artist Sherri Kruger-Kukowski of Badger, the end of the project is “a little overwhelming.”

The wall is the centerpiece of a green space Kruger-Kukowski calls Heritage Park — at least for now — situated behind Border Bank and in clear view of state Highway 11. The past several days have been a scramble putting finishing touches on the project so all of the stained glass panels are in place, Kruger-Kukowski said.

“I almost sat down and cried last night,” she joked Wednesday, Sept. 15. “But I’m like, ‘Nope, you’re not done yet. You can’t do that.’ “

A Badger math teacher, Kruger-Kukowski has been making stained glass art for more than 20 years as owner of Winding River art studio, marketing her work at shows across the region. She decided to do a public art project after receiving a grant from the Northwest Minnesota Arts Council to spend a week in Philadelphia in 2015 studying with Bonnie Fitzgerald, a renowned public artist.

In April 2016, Kruger-Kukowski met with the Badger City Council and proposed creating a public stained glass piece on a building.

“I was thinking 8×10 maybe, 6×8,” she said. “At the council meeting, it was like, ‘If we’re going to do something, let’s do it.’

“Well, I think we’ve done it.”

The mural features thousands of stained glass pieces, created on several panels and screwed to a double-layer Plywood wall. The artwork highlights familiar buildings both past and present, including the grain elevator, the old Arden Hotel, a local church and a farmhouse, along with livestock, old tractors and even Kruger-Kukowski’s longtime canine companion, Otis, who died a couple of years ago.

“There’s little bits of me in there but it’s more about what made this community last,” Kruger-Kukowski said of the scenes depicted on the wall. “Agriculture has been pretty much the foundation of this community, so that’s why agriculture took such a big, big chunk of this wall.”

Surrounding the artwork are 190 panels, each measuring 6 inches square, that represent the families and individual donors who paid $35 each to have them on the wall, helping to offset the cost of the project in the process.

The gathering space on the backside of the wall is situated on a cement slab with electrical outlets for coffee pots, slow cookers and other small appliances and conforms with Americans with Disabilities Act accessibility requirements.

It’s quite the change from Kruger-Kukowski’s original concept.

And so it begins . . .

With funding from two grants totaling $15,000 from the Northwest Minnesota Arts Council and private donations received during a 2016 all-school reunion, Kruger-Kukowski started on the artwork in June 2017, setting up shop in a then-vacant hardware store building on Main Street that now houses a health club. Numerous people from the community stepped up to help, Kruger-Kukowski said, and she worked on the project six days a week from mid-June until Labor Day and then evenings after school.

She used actual photographs to trace scale patterns of the buildings featured in the mural.

Despite the meticulous work required to cut thousands of pieces of stained glass to create the mural, the artwork was the easy part, Kruger-Kukowski says.

She didn’t plan it that way, but Kruger-Kukowski also became the de facto project manager, gathering bids, organizing fundraisers, lining up contractors and volunteers and dealing with all of the numerous roadblocks that popped up in the lengthy process of building the wall.

“I have no background in any of that kind of stuff,” she said. “I can put together a heck of a prom and pull off parties, but I’ve never had to do anything like this before.

“All I wanted to be was the artist, and I got to be an artist with a very big A.”

The original idea, she says, was to install the stained glass on a cement wall, only to learn that would require placing footings 14 feet into the ground because of the weight involved.

“The cost of that was just astronomical,” she said. “And so, we had to scratch that.”

The artwork, which was completed in the fall of 2017, spent the winter of 2018 in cold storage. When it became apparent the original completion date of summer 2018 wasn’t realistic, the panels were temporarily installed in a gathering room of the city office building with help from Kruger-Kukowski’s husband, Jack.

Her husband has been a big help throughout the process, Kruger-Kukowski says.

“There was a lot of discussion about just leaving it there, but it wasn’t big enough to handle all the family tiles, and it’s not open 24/7,” she said. “Unless you know about it, you’re not going to find it, and that was our biggest concern, is it just wasn’t public enough.”

Day or night, the wall is hard to miss for anyone passing through town on Highway 11. A “solar eye” triggers the lights to turn on at dusk and shut off at dawn.

“It’s lit all night,” she said. “Part of that was for safety reasons. The front wall is completely lit at all times.”

With the stained glass now installed, the project still requires a few finishing touches before it’s complete, Kruger-Kukowski says. Tongue-and-groove will be installed on the back wall and ceiling of the gathering space, and ceramic roping, along with galvanized corrugated steel, will border the artwork.

In the meantime, there’s more fundraising on tap, Kruger-Kukowski says, some of which is happening during this weekend’s Fall Festival.

The project, which is at $65,000 and counting, never would have happened without support and donations not only from the community, but from companies and businesses in other towns across the region.

“That’s truly what’s made this possible,” she said. “It’s every $35 for a family tile or every $100 from a church or from an organization or private people donating several thousand dollars.

“It’s truly a community project. It’s taken everybody to make this happen.”

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