BY: DAVID NELSON DAVIN.NELSON@GO.MNSTATE.EDU
Summer 2021 continued the past year’s theme of upheaval and unrest. The drought, continued political turmoil, and the rise of the delta variant were all contributing to that continued gloom. Fortunately, in the Fargo- Moorhead area, a project was finally being realized after a couple years of planning. A small art project that would eventually become a sculpture fixed on an arch, held together by two identical pillars. The images on the sculpture being the inverse to the depressing events transpiring all around.
The ‘Spirit of the Sandbagger’ sculpture is a long-term project, spearheaded by the Fargo Lions Club. The creation of the artwork itself perfectly reflects the club’s reason for being. Jane Pettinger, Vice President of the club, stated that, “Our whole reason for existence is to serve the community, the club is dedicated to a variety of service type projects.” As of 2021, the club has been in existence for 100 years. The Sandbagger sculpture was partly dedicated to the service’s club’s longevity. A gift of sorts from the service club to the general community. The other reason for the sculpture’s creation was to commemorate the actions taken by a whole community of people to protect their homes against flooding. An unfortunate, recurring occurrence which has impacted the Fargo- Moorhead area in the past. The flooding was unforgettable in 1997 and 2009, especially. This unforgettable experience playing a part in the conception of the sandbagger project.
Mike Benson, a member of the Fargo- Lions club, recalled some of his past experiences with the floods, “In 1997, I lived in the south side of Fargo. During the flood, it got higher and higher, I felt that my home was saved by volunteer sandbaggers who came to help us in our efforts to protect our home.” He continued to say, “There were about twenty other homes east of there, a lot which were flooded out. I’ve had a feeling of gratitude towards all of those people who did help in the sandbagging effort. It takes on another meaning when it’s your home.”
The willingness to help others during a time of trouble is an idea that many find is worthy of celebration. These instances of disaster sparked the idea of an artwork to emphasize those acts of selflessness. Mike Benson came up with the original concept. Once the idea for a work of art to be created had been conceived, the planning process began. The proposal had been thought up a few years ago, presently. Brainstorming ideas for the type of artwork followed. He said, “Initially we thought of having statues, people moving sandbags in a line. We didn’t know how to pay for it or if we could build something like this.”
Pettinger also commented on the beginning stages, “The project started about two years ago in concept thinking. We went through a number of ideas and iterations.”
It was clear that the project had a strong inspiration behind it, and there was a small group of people who were attempting to make their idea come into reality. What it lacked, at that moment, was a specific media in which that message would be communicated through.
Benson and the club took the project into the next stage of development. “We created a committee and they put out a call for artists for ideas on the concept.” This is where the small team of artists contributed to the effort. Benson would go on to select an artist and a sculptor. Karen Bakke, a commercial artist in the area, was one of two attached to the project. Bakke looked back and said, “My part took almost a year; I was approached to work on the project last October.”
Bakke’s efforts were focused on the actual illustration of the sculpture. Naturally, with the hiring of an artist, their interpretation of an idea is important to the appearance of that work. Bakke described some of the process, “I had selected several people to do modeling for me in the studio. They came with their sandbagging clothes on, one guy in particular came with what he wore when sandbagging,” she went on to say, “I tried to get the best images into the composition. I went through hundreds of pictures that I photographed, I chose, altered, illustrated. and put the best ones together.” The plan had shifted from statues to a single composition with small figures. The figures themselves are all standing next to each other, shoulder to shoulder. They are all lined up horizontally upon the arch in which they were placed. Bakke really emphasized the notion of a community coming together as one, strong entity. The illustration of the sandbaggers are abstract and neutral to any identity.
After almost a year of work, Bakke finished her part in the project. The illustration was ready to go.
Bakke talked about her contributions to the Spirit of the Sandbagger, “At first I thought I would be overwhelmed by it, but the more challenging something is, the bigger the reward. I feel really good about the sculpture. I’m honored that they would give me the part in designing it.”
Once the digital illustration had been completed, the next phase of the project would be to start constructing the sculpture. The hunt for a location had undergone a search. Mike Benson would go around the area, inquiring about possible destinations. Many locations were scouted but were either deemed not to be practical or just not the right fit. Some of the locations would potentially work but due to a history of vandalism, it was ruled out.
Eventually, Benson encountered a remarkable break in the long search.
“We knew that we wanted something but didn’t know where to put it. Those pillars were built to be an entrance to the park, originally. The city said, ‘Well why don’t you make something work with those two pillars in Riverside Gardens?’”
Construction on the project finally got underway between April of this year. The work progressed quickly and had just been finished with the installation of the sculptures only recently. Future plans for enhancements to the work are planned as of now. One of these new features will include lights for the sculpture so that the people of Fargo can still see the image of Sandbaggers at night. Another notable inclusion will be bronze plaques that will have a short statement engraved into them.
With the project almost fulfilled at this point, Pettinger expressed what she believes people should take away from the work, “As you’re looking at the sculpture, think about your own role in your own community. How can you be a positive member that makes a good difference?”
People can visit the ‘Spirit of the Sandbagger’ at the entrance to the Riverside Gardens in downtown Fargo. A tribute from the Fargo-Lions club to our community.