WORTHINGTON All over the world for thousands of years, people have created pottery, for practical and artistic purposes, holding water and, through shape and painted images, telling important cultural stories.

Students in a Worthington High School ceramics class recently had the opportunity to connect with the Lakota culture through design and pottery, with the help of Brulé lead singer Paul Summers LaRoche.

“I think it’s important for America to learn more about all these cultures that we’ve embraced in our country, because they all have something wonderful to offer,” said LaRoche, who graduated from WHS in 1973 and recently moved back to Worthington. “We don’t really have a system for sharing information, hearing the different music, learning about the different cuisines, stories that come from other parts of the world. It’s hard to bring those kinds of communities together.”

The arts can be a safe, easy way to do that, he said.

That’s part of why the Southwest Minnesota Arts Council offered a grant for a public art project, originally planned to be a mural at the end of Worthington's 10th Street. Due to COVID-19-related complications, the planned project evolved into the creation of five unique tiled ceramic planters, which will be placed near the 10th Street Plaza and grouped with the Harmony Park instruments.

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“We have been working on them all throughout the last two years with community participants,” said Gail Holinka, WHS art teacher, Artmobile artist and former Arts Commission chair.

Each of the planters is designed to represent a cross-section of one of the different communities in Worthington European Americans, Hispanic/Latino Americans, African Americans, Asian Americans and Native Americans. Each planter wall includes a 25-tile panel with a unique design.

Adults had gathered to paint glaze onto tiles for one side of the Native American-themed planter when LaRoche told Holinka he would love to work with some students. So on Aug. 31, the musician visited WHS again, this time to share his story as well as the stories shared by the Lakota and other Native American cultures.

“I was one of the Native American children who was adopted at birth. I was raised by two wonderful parents here in Worthington, but the strange little twist in my story was that I was never told I was Native American,” LaRoche explained. “It was still a bit taboo for families to openly proclaim they had Native American descent. And that’s kind of a tragedy for a lot of people.”

That has changed somewhat in recent years, he said, but he didn’t find his Lakota family until 1993. Not long after that, LaRoche founded Brulé, fusing traditional Native American sound with contemporary music and bringing his communities together in musical form.

Holinka’s students, at least a few of whom have Native American heritage, listened attentively to LaRoche’s story.

“There were at least a dozen different cultures that were represented in that one small setting,” he said afterward. “I think that we had a common bond right away, because I came in as a minority speaker myself and I think that they appreciated that.”

Then LaRoche spoke about the Medicine Wheel, a symbol common to many different Native American cultures that Holinka and the students hoped to incorporate into one side of a planter.

The tradition differs between communities, but typically the Medicine Wheel is a circle quartered by a cross in the center. The cross represents the four directions, each also given a different color, usually black, red, white and yellow, but the wheel also usually includes the sky, blue, the earth, green, and the self, represented in some traditions as the center, in purple.

“I encouraged them to explore that a little bit, from an artistic standpoint. I said ‘You have your artistic freedom to … do your own thing with this,” LaRoche said.

He encouraged them to share the story with others, too.

“Then my kids went into designing ideas, thinking about the Medicine Wheel and I had them do some reflection questions,” Holinka said.

The students got into groups, put their ideas together and created several designs, planning to vote on which one they prefer and then either paint the design on tiles themselves or bring it to a later arts event for the public to glaze.

LaRoche hopes the project will help bring the many cultures of Worthington together, as helping communities form intercultural bonds has been a long-standing goal for him and his family.

“It really was fun,” he said. “Before the day was done I volunteered again.”

Planter project tiles will be available to the public to paint from 3 to 5 p.m. Sept. 19 with the Artmobile at 10th Street Plaza as part of the Welcoming Week in Worthington event, designed to welcome new immigrants to the area.

The planter project was first introduced at last year’s Welcoming Week, and it was made possible by Minnesota voters supporting the arts and cultural heritage fund. Monies generated from the additional sales tax were distributed to SMAC to award its grants.

“We also want to invite artists who might want to help design the final Hispanic/Latinx planter,” said Holinka, adding that anyone interested should contact the Artmobile at 360-4619 or artmobile2018@gmail.com.