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ARTifacts of the experience: North Dakota artist shares work at local art center

RUGBY, N.D. -- Terry Jelsing's artistic imagination was first sparked on the farm where he grew up in rural North Dakota.

"When I was young, art was a way to experience my imagination, looking out the window, seeing snowstorms coming. It was a way to imagine what the world was like," he explained.

His parents weren't necessarily artistic, but nevertheless supported their son's endeavors in small ways.

"I think my mother encouraged me. She would come home when we had storm days -- the bus would drop us off out here in the country, and she'd come home with groceries knowing that we could be snowed in for a couple days. She'd bring a couple of tablets of white paper and pencils to occupy us while we were stuck."

Now, Jelsing is returning to where it all began, setting up a studio on that same farm, hoping to eventually live there full-time once again.

"On this old family piece of property, we're building a new studio in the existing granary," he said during a telephone interview from the farm. "It's really a nice space. I'm about 75 percent done with it."

Rugby -- which Terry proudly notes is the geographical center of North America -- is located just 40 miles south of the Canadian border and is an ambitious 3½-hour commute from Fargo, where Jelsing and his wife, Cathy, are both currently employed.

"So going to Winnipeg is just as easy as going to Fargo," reflected Terry about his home territory. "It's in an area that really forces you to move out, move through in order to make it work. It's different than being in a town, in a city, where you're just kind of doing your little pattern, back and forth.... Coming back affords you a lifestyle, things you couldn't do in cities or towns that have a much more stringent structure to them."

By forging a studio in the midst of a predominantly agricultural area, Terry hopes to become part of a rural arts movement, promoting cultural endeavors in the area.

"I like the whole rural arts initiative," he said. "You see so many people leaving a state like North Dakota and moving to larger towns. It's like trying to develop a cottage industry, trying to bring people back to the state, showing that there's more than agriculture and cattle here. There's quite a bit of cultural things going on -- dance, theater, although not too much in the visual arts development area."

The Jelsing property is located not far off a major highway, so Terry believes a "prairie gallery" could draw patrons and other artists there to work and study.

"Cathy and I have both been talking that another way to get people out here is to do artists' residencies, cultural tourism, and use this as sort of a base station," Terry elaborated.

At the current time, such a program is still in the dream stage. Reality is living in an apartment in Fargo and working at the Rugby property whenever time, schedules and previous commitments allow.

This weekend, for instance, the Jelsings will be in Worthington, where an exhibit of Terry's artwork will be presented at the Nobles County Art Center. Cathy is the daughter of Byron "Barney" and Barbara Bishop of Worthington, who are longtime supporters of the art center.

"It isn't a show made specifically for the art center, but rather a sampling of work I've been doing over the last five or six years," Terry described. "It's mostly two-dimensional work, I didn't include much sculpture. A lot of it deals with the relationship of human scale to the environment. The drawings move between representational ideas and abstract ideas, so there are references to architecture as well as landscape as well as a sense of people being there without physically drawing people."

The exhibit includes some works from a series that explores the horizon.

"It's the first thing we orient ourselves to -- the sun coming up, the sun coming down, that sort of pastoral environment that we deal with every day," he continued. "As years went on, I kept looking at that, how many versions of the same average scenes can you paint and keep it interesting, what was the integral part of that. I kept reducing it, reducing it, and it finally came down to one line moving across the bottom of the page, showing land meeting sky. Instead of adding to enhance it, this became a subtractive process, so I think a lot of my work is subtractive now. When you take things out, the most important things are left over. That's what the subjects have come about now.

"It's a very simple thing, but when you look at that one line -- I call it 'The Bottom Line' series -- it started to become about our own mortality, too. That same reference to ourselves and the earth and the sky became a subject that was more about those universal kinds of ideas, about our own existence."

Terry is currently an adjunct professor at North Dakota State University, this semester teaching drawing and architecture and two-dimensional design. But his résumé is varied, citing an array of educational, exhibition, teaching and administrative experiences. He has a bachelor's degree from the University of North Dakota and master's degrees in art history, sculpture and painting from the University of New Mexico. Terry also studied at the Institute of European Studies in Vienna, Austria.

"Each of those places had an influence on my work," Terry said. "At the Institute of European Studies, I studied German expressionism. ... and there were the light, open spaces of New Mexico. I've gained as much from the places where I've been as I've contributed."

During his career, Terry has been involved with several public projects and was the director of the Plains Art Museum in Fargo during its building stage.

"If there is service to the field, that was my service," he said. "The building of that was important to the whole community, the region."

As his new studio nears completion, Terry is contemplating the transition to a new phase in his life and artwork.

"I think the transition is starting," he said. "This summer, the goal is to finish the studio and get it producing. Then there's the whole marketing phase, when you have to go out and shake hands and kiss babies and at least let people know you're there. Then it's securing the jobs, getting it going."

However this new endeavor progresses, Terry's artwork will reflect the experience.

"I've never thought about art as a thing. I've always thought about it as a way," he stated. "A lot of people think of it as a commodity. I always thought of it as an extension of my life. Wherever I was, it became truth unto itself, whatever I was doing, thinking about. If people are buying truly original work, they're really collecting a life, not a thing. The art object ends up becoming an artifact of the experience of making it. If you live your life true, then the things you make are true, and they live that energy."

The opening reception for "Points of Reference," an exhibition of works by Terry Jelsing, will be from 2 to 4:30 p.m. Sunday at the Nobles County Art Center, located in the lower level of the War Memorial Building, 407 12th St., Worthington. The exhibit will continue through January. Hours are 2 to 4:30 p.m. Monday through Friday. For more information, phone 372-8245.

Beth Rickers

Beth Rickers is the veteran in the newspaper staff with 25 years as the Daily Globe's Features Editor. Interests include cooking, traveling and beer tasting and making with her home-brewing husband, Bryan. She writes an Area Voices blog called Lagniappe, which is a Creole term that means "a little something extra." It can be found at  

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