My good life has long roots.
I was 37 years old, three months pregnant with my daughter, a year after my father’s death in 1992. I was doing freelance copy editing to support our family in Duluth after moving here from Los Angeles.
I was standing in the woods, tropically lush in July, barefoot on the red-dirt path, listening to Chester Creek, smelling cedar. My dad had grown up playing in this park but had been gone from this city for a long time. He’d been a small-town doctor who’d loved his working life and where it took him: Madagascar, Switzerland, a floating clinic on his boat on Lake of the Woods. I thought about how he seized his desire and ran with it. He ignored normal family life, and also ignored exhaustion and fear. He held on, and that work created him.
I decided then that that was what I had to do — my work.
I’d always served others’ work. I’d graduated with majors in fine arts, then roamed around the country, doing various pickup jobs. I went to grad school in English, then quit to go with my new husband to Los Angeles so he could get his MFA.
I worked there as an editor at an excellent literary press, where I learned a lot. I had a son, who, along with my daughter, taught me a million things, like that the world is much deeper and kinder than you thought, and time is limited.
As L.A. descended into violence in the late 1980s, we decided to move to Duluth. We returned to Minnesota without a lot of employment prospects beyond my copy editing.
Standing in the woods, I knew I had to stop waiting. Whatever I wanted I had to make, myself, from whatever I had to hand.
I began doing site-specific guerrilla installations with painted cloth and sticks on street corners and in the woods. I took photos. I submitted them to art calls. Finally, about four years later, my then-husband and I made it to the final round of jurying.
We worked for two years to build a one-acre park for $50,000 from the City of Minneapolis: Columbia Park Neighborhood Gateway at 36th Ave. NE and University, in Minneapolis (it’s still there, different, but well used). It was based on a concept of this railroad workers’ neighborhood as the link between the downtown towers visible from the park and the prairie wheat that built them. It has a concrete viewing bench and small plaza, with bronze wheat-ear reliefs and a millstone set in the center, along with an earth amphitheater, circular pathways, community garden beds with a railroad-style water tower to serve them, a vernacular farm-style picnic shelter. We didn’t make money but we survived and got images of completed work. A year later we got another commission.
Meanwhile, I’d begun writing about art. I was hired by the Walker Art Center to create the front-page content for the new website mnartists.org, which I visualized as an online arts journal covering all kinds of creativity. After six years of this, a newspaper arts writing job opened up in Duluth. I’d always loved newspapers, and threw myself into this job with all my heart. But the paper suffered devastating losses and cut half its newsroom staff. I was on the street.
I was also newly single, with two kids to support.
I was terrified. With one eye closed I could see that writing would be very little help in the recession. So I hunted commissions again. Gradually they began to come: small ones, a bronze relief for the State Capitol, a depiction of prairie and sky in steel for the bus station in Fargo, gradually more.
And now I felt I really had something to offer. After precarious years depending for my emotional survival on countless hours in the woods and in my kayak, I knew I could try to give others a sense of the wild, a source of creativity and insight and solace.
I’m currently creating an estuary environment in bronze and stone and wood for a public plaza in downtown Duluth (it has bronze water you can sit on, an otter, fox, frogs, turtle, beaver and terns), and a steel tower of birds for a roundabout in Fergus Falls. I’m glad that that barefoot pregnant lady, standing in the woods 20 years ago, was able to hold on long enough to find this work, and that people have welcomed it.
Ann Klefstad still writes, but mostly does sculpture in her studio in Duluth. Her website is annklefstad.com.