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Veterans Tribute invites public to contemplate

KC Flueger lifts the new veterans sculpture as Jim Carlson and Tom Bakke Guide it into place Monday at Levee Park. (Photo by Chap Achen)

By Ruth Nerhaugen, contributor

A unique sculpture that was put in place Monday in Levee Park aims to recognize the issues veterans face when they come home as well as the challenges they encountered while at war.

Many veterans memorials have been built for those who gave their lives, Red Wing Arts Association Director Dan Guida pointed out. “But not many people tell the story of the vets after the military experience,” he added. “Lots of times those vets get lost in the shuffle.”

That group of men and women was the focus of the Minnesota Veterans Art Experience organized by the arts association earlier this year.

Major components were an exhibit of artwork and writings by veterans, a print project that told individual veterans’ stories, a retreat for veterans, and public presentations by a former prisoner of war and the son of a World War II vet.

Plans called for erecting a tribute sculpture in Levee Park on Memorial Day weekend as an enduring reminder.

But the rising Mississippi River left Levee Park under water and forced postponement of the final element of the Veterans Art Experience until now. City crews prepared the site last week, and K.C. Flueger transported it to the park on Monday.

“This sculpture tells their story,” Guida explained.

The design evolved as project participants talked about all that they wanted it to reflect — both men and women, both during their service in the military and their adjustment to civilian life back home.

“You can’t represent it all with one figure,” said Red Wing artist Art Kenyon, who developed the final design for the Veterans Tribute.

The sculpture consists of two high-grade Pen Steel plates, each 11/16th of an inch thick, 9 feet high and 5 feet wide. A silhouette of a man and a woman in military gear is cut out of one plate; on the other parallel plate, the shape depicts those two people wearing civilian garb.

The arts group took the design to Thomas & Betts/Meyer Industries in Hager City and worked with liaison Wayne Gustafson to have the sculpture constructed, including the structural design.

Levee Park was the chosen location for several reasons, Kenyon said.

“We wanted it by the river. That’s a peaceful setting,” he said. “We wanted it downtown, where there is public access year-round — a place where people can sit and contemplate.”

The sculpture is placed on a 4-by-6-foot concrete base atop a slight mound at an angle to the river, so the viewer can look through it to Bay Point Park and see the American flag and the bend in the Mississippi. The concrete base will stabilize it in the event of future flooding.

There will be three limestone benches set at angles around the sculpture.

“We wanted the whole presentation to be pretty organic,” Kenyon said. The two plates should look as if they emerged out of the ground in a natural setting. Amy Olson of Scenic Spaces will be doing the landscaping.

Retired U.S. Army Col. Wendy Martinson, project adviser and participant, also favored the location, Guida said. Veterans who are still having problems coping with their wartime experiences likely will find it a contemplative and meaningful spot, she told him.

“She liked the idea of looking up to the turn in the river, around the bend,” Guida explained. “They don’t know exactly what’s around the bend in their future.”

Outdoor sculpture is different from pieces you see in a gallery, Kenyon noted. “The sculpture itself has to be meaningful,” plus when it’s placed in a natural setting, “the environment becomes part of it.”

Plaques on the two connected plates pay tribute to all veterans — for their military experiences and for their reemergence as civilians with futures.

“I am so excited to see it in place,” Guida said. “It’s powerful.”

“The high water turned out to be a blessing in disguise,” Kenyon said. “It gave us a chance to put some time and space between the concept and the finished structure. It verified in our minds the strength of the original concept.”

The mixture of solitude and serenity should make it a good place for veterans to “take time to sit and think things over, to reflect on their experiences,” Kenyon said, “and, as civilians, to reflect on ‘Where do I go from here?’”

One positive outcome of the veterans project is that many of the 200 or more vets who participated in it have stayed in contact, Guida said. “They formed a healing bond with each other. That made all of this worthwhile.”

The sculpture will be presented to Mayor Dan Bender representing the city during a public ceremony at 2 p.m. Saturday Aug. 16. Guida, Kenyon and Martinson will have comments, and veterans present will be recognized.

The financial supporters will be acknowledged as well.

For more information, contact the arts association at 651-388-7569.