2011 was a pretty good year for the arts in Grand Forks

You know it's been a great year for the arts in Grand Forks when you can say, without irony, that you've heard music made by the jawbone of an ass. The makers of said music, the Boston-based band David Wax Museum, performed in July in Grand Forks...

David Wax and Suz Slezk are the core of David Wax Museum
David Wax and Suz Slezak of the band David Wax Museum played in Grand Forks for the North Dakota Museum of Art Concerts in the Garden series. Slezak is holding the jawbone of an ass, one of the instruments she played.

You know it's been a great year for the arts in Grand Forks when you can say, without irony, that you've heard music made by the jawbone of an ass.

The makers of said music, the Boston-based band David Wax Museum, performed in July in Grand Forks as part of the North Dakota Museum of Art Concerts in the Garden series. The band, built around musicians David Wax and Suz Slezak, had just been named by Time magazine as one of the 10 bands to watch at the huge South By Southwest music festival in Austin, Texas.

When David Wax Museum performed outside the North Dakota Museum of Art in Grand Forks on a particularly lovely summer evening, fiddler and vocalist Suz Slezak did indeed play a quijade, an Afro-Peruvian instrument made of a donkey's jawbone. The band drew one of the biggest crowds ever in the history of the summer outdoor concert series produced by Matthew Wallace of NDMOA.

The annual Concerts in the Garden music series was just one of the 2011 milestones that indicated a thriving arts scene and a Grand Forks entertainment community worth watching.

Probably everyone has their event or moment or observation about what made the past 12 months a success and a banner year for the arts. This is my list.


• "The Lutefisk Wars," a movie written, directed and produced by Grand Forks native Christopher Panneck and David E. Hall. Lutefisk is the punch line to about 2 million Norwegian jokes circulating at any given time in Grand Forks. As a non-Norwegian, I find maybe one-fourth of them funny, and most of those just kind of funny.

"The Lutefisk Wars," however (which I saw at the Fargo Theatre during the annual Fargo Film Festival in February), was hilarious. Panneck and Hall had shot part of the movie near Northwood, N.D., where (Panneck said in an interview with the Herald) neighbors often showed up at the film site with food, snacks and advice.

Shot like a documentary, "The Lutefisk Wars" examined the escalating trouble in fictional Newford, N.D. It featured a Schwan's man, an aspiring chef, the local sheriff, a mysterious death, an ancient lutefisk recipe and a family feud that went back hundreds of years. The movie's tagline? "Before this is over, somebody's going to eat it."

The bad news? Because the movie is still making the rounds at film festivals, Panneck said, it's not yet available on DVD. If you want to track its eventual release, keep an eye on , or "like" it on Facebook.

• A fifth anniversary for the Third Street Gallery on Kittson. It's not that hard to open and sustain a successful art gallery for five years. All you have to do is take a leap of faith, invest your own money, trust that the community will support you and work without a salary. Except for the no salary part, that was more or less the business plan for Amy Jo Lyste and Becky Sefcovic Uglem when they opened Third Street Gallery (later re-named Third Street Gallery on Kittson) in downtown Grand Forks.

Five years later, it has hosted dozens of shows by some of the region's best-known, most talented and respected artists: Brad Bachmeier, Michelle Brusegaard, Billy Chuck, Kim Fink, Guillermo Guardia, Wayne Gundmunson, Adam Kemp, Gretchen Kottke, Walter Piehl, Robb Siverson and many more.

The gallery has given local and regional artists a place to show their work and has given the community new artists to look at and collect.

• Mike Clute, North Dakota's newest Grammy winner. Clute, who grew up in Tolna, N.D., and graduated from Adams (N.D.) High School, is a successful Nashville music producer and engineer. In January, he won a Grammy for Best Southern, Country or Bluegrass Gospel Album for his work on Diamond Rio's "The Reason." That made him part of a very exclusive Grammy-award winning club from North Dakota that includes the late, great Peggy Lee, blues artist Jonny Lang and Greg Nelson, another Nashville producer.


Clute may be one of the few Grammy winners from our area, but he is one of dozens of area natives who are working in the arts and entertainment field around the world. People like singer, songwriter and Grand Forks native Tom Brosseau, who continues to tour worldwide and whose appearances this year included a stop at Garrison Keillor's "A Prairie Home Companion" radio show.

Or people like Chicago fashion designer Anna Hovet; Kurtis Scaletta of Minneapolis, author of books for young people; and New York City opera and musical performer Michael Marcotte, all of whom grew up in Grand Forks. Then, there are people like Eric Eylands of Grand Forks, a sound engineer in an L.A. recording studio who works with some of the biggest musicians today. Or Kari Nelson of Roseau, Minn., who's making a living playing the fiddle for country artists like John Rich. A lot of talented people who got their start here are making a living out there in arts and showbiz today.

• The opening of the Muiderman Auditorium. Dr. Kevin Muiderman and his wife, Amy Muiderman, founded the Masters of Guitar concert series in 2007 after moving here from Wisconsin. Muiderman (rhymes with Spiderman) is a plastic surgeon, but he also loves to play guitar and builds guitars from some of the world's best guitarists. So, he has a bit of an "in" in bringing musicians such as Michael Chapdelaine, Martin Simpson and Leo Kottke to play concerts in Grand Forks.

When the Muidermans built a new home for their family just outside Thompson this year, they decided it would include a performance space so they could host guitar concerts and other arts events. The result was the Muiderman Auditorium, which -- when it's not being a concert venue -- is the Muiderman's living room.

In August, Muiderman Auditorium hosted its first concert, featuring acclaimed guitarist Willy Porter, with faculty from the UND Department of Music as the opening act. There's an extra edge of magic and beauty about having award-winning, accomplished musicians playing in your living room, Kevin Muiderman had said a few days before the concert, and lots of people apparently agreed. The concert was standing-room only full of people obviously very happy to be there. The next concert at Muiderman Auditorium Jan. 14 will feature guitarist Peter Mulvey.

• Sci-fi and horror cult classics and more at the Fire Hall. Greater Grand Forks Community Theatre had a busy and eclectic year, with its, as usual, excellent seasons of GGFCT and Crimson Creek shows, and lots more.

Lots of people were drawn to Fire Hall to see '50s and '60s era movies about wasp women and giant leeches, fire-breathing monster turtles and brains that would not die by such cult directors as Ed Wood, Roger Corman and George Romero.

The community theater also sponsored acting workshops for children and seniors, sponsored a Saari Safari bus trip to see a Steve Saari play in Bemidji, presented cabarets and many more events directed to involve the community in all its diversity.


On New Year's Day, it will sponsor a movie marathon of movies from the 1930s to 1940s about how vice can lead us down a very rocky road -- an event sure to encourage viewers to keep their New Year's resolutions. The marathon will begin with 1941's "Escort Girl" and end at 8 p.m. with "Reefer Madness" from 1936.

• The Lustron home: In September, the Grand Forks County Historical Society opened the Lustron home to the public for an open house. In post-World War II America, the Lustron home had been cutting edge -- pre-fabricated, easy to assemble and virtually maintenance free -- just the thing for a country with a housing shortage and awash in young, growing families.

The Lustron house, once at 602 Lincoln Drive and completely underwater in the 1997 flood, was taken apart, moved to the grounds of the historical society on Belmont Road, and restored and refurbished.

The floors, ceilings, walls and roof, made of pre-fabricated steel panels, were shiny from a layer of porcelain enamel. The house, a little more than 1,000 square feet with a roomy living area, three bedrooms and a bath, a galley kitchen and dining area and a utility room, originally came with a machine that washed dishes and clothes, although not at the same time.

Even before the open house, historical society director Leah Byzewski said, the Lustron house had attracted attention. Many a "weepy Baby Boomer" had been through its doors, Byzewski said, exclaiming how the house reminded them of their childhoods.

• Angry llamas by Guillermo Guardia. Of all the wonderful local art images of 2011, the most unforgettable to me was Guillermo Guardia's angry llamas. Guardia, a sculptor of ceramics who works at the North Dakota Museum of Art, is a native of Peru. Llamas, also native to Peru, were often on Guardia's mind as he became aware of how many of them lived on the plains of North Dakota.

Llamas may have a patient, peaceful persona, but Guardia sculpted herds of angry llamas for his "Mis 3 verdades/3 truths" exhibit at Third Street Gallery on Kittson. The exhibit reflected Guardia's world views, showed his increasing use of and interest in color and paid homage to his South American cultural and ethnic roots.

Why were his llamas angry? Guardia said he started to think about the llamas like people, having human feelings about all that was transpiring in the world around them. Maybe the llamas were angry at having to protect themselves from snarling coyotes. Maybe the llamas were angry at being pushed too far. Or maybe it was an immigration issue, or war, or politics. But looking at those sculpted faces with their glaring llama eyes and furrowed eyebrows, there was no doubt -- those were some seriously pissed off llamas.


• Zombie Fest. Let me begin with this disclaimer. I do not "get" zombies and I do not understand their popularity as a cultural icon, in movies and on TV. However, there's little doubt that the North Valley Arts Council's annual Zombie Fest in Grand Forks Town Swuare has been a big hit. The event in October combined live bands, food and family- friendly activities with a major dose of the zombie folklore.

Adults (and their children) wearing fake scars, tattered and dirty clothing and splattered stage makeup came downtown in a creepy prelude to Halloween, said Marie Strinden, director of NoVAC.

Besides the zombie theme -- complete with biohazard tape decorations, a "Zombie Annihilation Response Unit" truck and men walking around in chemical suits -- the event also featured art tables, inflatable games and other activities to keep the kids busy. For older ghouls, there were hours of live music, food and a beer garden.

• Graphic radicals. With Occupy Wall Street protests popping up around the country, "Graphic Radicals," an exhibit at two galleries in Grand Forks of 30 years of left-wing political cartoons, could not have been more timely.

"Graphic Radicals: 30 Years of World War 3 Illustrated," at UND Myers Gallery and at the Third Street Gallery on Kittson, featured political cartoons from the magazine World War 3 Illustrated, an anti-establishment response to the social problems of the day. Its artists took on events such as the Iran-Contra affair, Tomkins Square Riot, Gulf War, genocide in the Balkins, 9/11, the War on Terrorism and Hurricane Katrina recovery efforts.

The exhibits and connected lectures included a presentation by Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist Clay Bennett of the Chatanooga Tennessean. He's the one who drew the cartoon of a slightly befuddled Bill Clinton wearing a T-shirt with an arrow pointing down at his crotch, and an inscription that says "I'm With Stupid."

• North By Midwest. The North by Midwest Craft Spectacular in October at North Dakota Museum of Art billed itself as Grand Forks' first indie craft fair, a type of hybrid vendor-sales event that has flourished nationwide by promoting a hipper, edgier brand of handmade goods. It's motto? "We're not your grandmother's craft fair."

"Obviously, we love grandma," said Tricia Halvorson Lunski, who along with Becky Sefcovic Uglem and Michelle Brusegaard organized the event. "She's the one who taught us how to do crafts. But it's just a younger, funkier feeling."


North by Midwest had 38 vendors and hundreds of customers. Not only did the merchandise live up to its beautiful and funky billing, but its vendors were savvy enough to point out that what they were selling was handmade by local artists and that customers were investing their shopping dollars locally.

• Paying attention to heritage, one Norwegian goody at a time. Yes, passing down Grandma's food traditions is artful, and eating the food that she took such pride in making is very entertaining, especially when the food is rich, buttery rounds of lefse.

Cindy Dahl, a lefse-making instructor at the Sons of Norway in Grand Forks, is one of the people who took the time this year to teach others the time-honored and time-consuming art of making lefse. Dahl and the others who teach and demonstrate lefse-making (and other traditional and ethnic arts) are helping preserve the things that make us who we are.

After all, to folks whose grandparents came from Norway, no family holiday dinner would be complete without lefse. And although lefse is a simple food, it's not simple to make. If you've ever made it, said one cook, you'll appreciate every bite of lefse when you eat it.

• The growth of Muddy Waters Clay Center. When Muddy Waters Clay Center opened in December 2008, its members had remodeled about 2,000 square feet in its north Grand Forks building for its gallery, studio and kiln area. This year, Muddy Waters more than doubled its space by claiming 2,800 more square feet vacated when another tenant moved out of the building at 2014 13th Ave. N.

Muddy Waters Clay Center is a nonprofit community clay studio that offers year round, high-quality ceramic arts classes and activities for adults and children, gallery events and outreach opportunities. When it began in 2008, it had 14 studio members. Now, it has 27. With growing membership and classes that were consistently full, the membership decided to act on the opportunity to expand.

Just another sign of the growing interest in the arts in Grand Forks.

Reach Tobin at (701) 780-1134; (800) 477-6572, ext. 134; or send e-mail to .


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