The geographic center of North America lies somewhere in North Dakota—though residents may dispute whether its exact location is closer to Rugby, as calculated by the U.S. Geological Survey in 1928, or the aptly named Center, some 150 miles southwest. So, when the state recorded its first positive test for COVID-19 on March 11, 2020, it was clear that the disease had penetrated from elsewhere to the heart of North America.
There are many widely varying facets to how the coronavirus pandemic is impacting life in the United States, and especially the artistic practices, traditions, and cultural heritage of both individuals and communities. With the help of the Folk and Traditional Arts Program at the North Dakota Council on the Arts (NDCA), we focus here on several noteworthy examples from North Dakota.
Some of the earliest efforts at cultural sustainability pertained to religious services, which play an important role in sustaining community values throughout the state. Some services moved to an online format, and some even added radio broadcasts for those who do not use social media. For instance, Judy Larson, who lives just north of the South Dakota border, was able to keep the music alive even though her local Reformed Presbyterian Church had canceled the in-person services.
To recreate the hymns and songs that are so vital to the services, Larson and her family first repurposed an outbuilding on their farm and turned it into a recording studio, complete with sound equipment and “ratty blankets or quilts” hung up to dampen the sound. Then she and her family—husband Todd, and five children ranging in age from ten to nineteen—recorded the hymns selected by their pastor, Spencer Allen. Todd played the bass, as well as both electric and acoustic guitars, and all provided vocals.
The only thing missing was a piano, so Larson added her accordion. It’s an instrument she had started playing only five years ago, but had also recently studied in depth with master North Dakota musician Chuck Suchy through the NDCA’s Folk and Traditional Arts Apprenticeship program. Learning from Suchy about the traditional music played by North Dakotan settlers originally from Germany, Bohemia, and Norway, Larson understood how “people worked with what they had,” even if they may not have been “the best players in the world.”
In a similar fashion, Larson and her family provided music for the church services—both online and on radio—from mid-March through mid-May. Much like the traditional music played for entertainment in small North Dakota communities on a Saturday night, the Sunday morning “church services brought people together in a way that they can participate together even though they had to stay separated,” Larson observed.
Similar ingenuity amid coronavirus restrictions throughout the state brought a “drive-in” Easter Sunday concert of church music and hymns at the Hettinger County Fairgrounds in Mott on April 12. Understanding the importance of music in traditional Easter services, pastor Corey Warner had approached a group of local musicians, the Waddington Brothers, with the idea of playing for congregants in their cars. Originally from Montana, the Waddington Brothers have performed both at bluegrass festivals and in churches throughout the United States and Canada. True to their name, they are indeed a band of brothers, consisting of Seth on guitar, twins Ethan on banjo and Jacob on mandolin, and Job on bass.
Realizing that the band would need massive sound equipment to play music loud enough for congregants to hear through their car windows, Seth and his wife Rachel came up with the idea of using an FM transmitter instead. By tuning in on their car radios, the passengers in some sixty automobiles heard a traditional Easter service—complete with pastoral readings, a sermon, and music and hymns. Instead of applause, the passengers honked their car horns.
“It was an honor to be able to play for people even though they couldn’t come sit in a chair and I couldn’t see them right in the face and speak to them,” Seth reflected. “It was a blessing to be able to have an Easter service and fellowship with the community.”
That sort of fellowship and community cohesion is one of the goals behind the NDCA’s Art for Life Program. The program uses interaction with art and artists to improve the emotional and physical wellness of elders—both those living in care facilities, as well as those living independently—through partnerships consisting of community artists, arts agencies, elder care facilities, and schools. The strict quarantines initiated in March isolated many of those elders, who suddenly lacked the interpersonal connections that are so vital to their lives.
For instance, Chuck Suchy—the master musician from Mandan with whom Judy Larson apprenticed—visited with elders (from Bismarck, Enderlin, and Jamestown) on the phone about their lives, thoughts, and experiences. Using words of inspiration generated from those conversations, Suchy wrote, recorded, and shared four songs, which reveal some of the strength, humor, and wisdom during these difficult times of isolation: “We Worked with Horses,” “Listen to the Wise,” “At the Center,” and “How Will I Know Your Heart.”
The Art for Life Program also brought artists to the homes where elders are living. Artist Melissa Gordon created colorful chalk drawings on sidewalks outside Prince of Peace Care Center/Evergreen Place Assisted Living in Ellendale and Good Shepherd Home in Watford City, both in collaboration with their local arts agencies. As Gordon draws, some residents watch from the windows. Others sport protective masks and monitor Gordon’s progress from a safe distance. The images that emerge—such as a pastoral scene featuring a big red barn, or delicate pink and purple blossoms—resonate deeply with the viewers. Because many residents have spent most of their lives on North Dakota farms and ranches, the drawings bring back many memories.
“Everybody was talking about it, how excited they were,” observes Cyndal Glynn, a registered nurse at Evergreen Place. “They kept checking in. It gave them a lot of joy to go out and see something that’s outside the norm, especially given the quarantine.”
At Good Shepherd, Gordon created personalized chalk marker drawings directly on residents’ windows, based upon the requests of the residents. “Socialization is such a big part of their day, so to maintain those guidelines of distance, but to keep them engaged with their families and each other has been a challenge,” explains Alicia Glynn, Evergreen Place housing manager. “It was something to talk to their families about. It was neat for them to share that connection with each other, too.”
Kristin Rhone, activity director at Good Shepherd Home, agrees: “Art helps us take care of the resident as a whole, and helps us honor them—mind, body, and soul.”
Thanks to the NDCA, artists share their creativity not only with elders throughout the state, but also with students at the other end of the age spectrum. Visual artist and educator Nicole Gagner had to curtail her usual week-long visits to schools for hands-on, immersive lessons, as part of the NCDA’s Artist in Residence program. Instead, she decided to try a virtual approach. Following discussions with Lewis and Clark Elementary School in Mandan, Gagner provided lessons in drawing designs and constructing three-dimensional cities for seventy-five fifth-grade students. The sessions were recorded so students not able to connect to the live, interactive sessions could access the lessons later.
Rather than a culminating, in-person art show, photographs have been posted on the school’s Facebook page. Gagner admits that she would have preferred more personal engagement with the students, but that some interaction was better than none. Gagner had also been scheduled to lead the community in painting an outdoor mural in downtown Bismarck. Social distancing will not permit that close interaction, but Gagner is now crowdsourcing the design of the mural so that even if the public no longer has a hand in the painting, they can still provide input on the project. “I wouldn’t have it any other way,” Gagner concludes.
All of these projects—from music at religious services to art for elders and students—are designed in part to create positive memories in spite of the great anxiety and often tragic consequences of the coronavirus pandemic. Another recent NCDA project uses the memories of elders to create poems that evoke both the quiet moments and major milestones of their lives. Thanks to a grant from Art for Life, fourteen elders served by the Burleigh County Senior Center in Bismarck held telephone conversations to share some of their memories with writers Matthew Musacchia and Maureen McDonald-Hins. Following the conversations, the writers shaped those memories using the “Where I’m From” poetic template developed by George Ella Lyons to create poems, which the elders shared with friends and families, and will soon be compiled into book form.
Initially some of the elders were skeptical: “I thought, ‘Oh dear, my life is not exciting,’” says Nanc Skaret with a laugh. “But I found a lot of things to write about. I hadn’t thought about some of this stuff for years.”
Lisa Bennett, site manager at the senior center, felt that the poetry project was both a responsible and a timely way to process the complicated feelings stirred up by a global health crisis. Reading the memories of elders who lived through the 1930s Depression and World War II, Bennett gained a new appreciation for the people she serves.
“It taught me that they all lived really full lives,” she explains. “It just proved to me that the human race is very resilient. It was a very good reminder at a perfect time.”
Click on the photo to view more of the painting by Pieper Bloomquist
James Deutsch is a curator at the Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage who works on cultural sustainability projects and Smithsonian Folklife Festival programs. Reporting for this article comes from Matthew Musacchia, a country/folk musician who has been working with the North Dakota Council on the Arts since 2014; Alicia Underlee Nelson, an author and freelance writer/photographer who covers history, travel, art and culture for numerous publications; and Nita Ritzke, a poet and writer who is an associate professor of communication at the University of Mary.