Browerville woman travels across the country to discover, admire artwork of her great uncle

Minnesota Gov. Rudy Perpich traveled to Browerville in 1987 to meet with state Rep. Rick Kreuger, Browerville’s mayor Steve Wiersgalla, and 86-year-old Joseph Kiselewski. The visit’s purpose was to proclaim March 26 as Joseph Kiselewski Day.

“Look at Uncle Joe,” Barb Noland said, pointing to a photo of Kiselewski on the day of the governor’s proclamation. “See how little he was.”

Joseph Kiselewski with the sculpted bust of Benjamin Franklin which was used to design the 1962 half dollar. Contributed photo

Uncle Joe is Barb’s great uncle. He is so small that he appears to be sitting in the photo. In 1919, when he left his family’s Browerville farm to study art at the Minneapolis School of Arts, the diminutive 17 year old knew that farming wasn’t for him. Art was his future. To be exact, he was going to become a renowned sculptor who studied in Minneapolis, New York, Paris and Rome before establishing a productive New York City studio. From there he would create hundreds of sculptures, including a massive sundial sculpture called Time for the 1939 – 40 World’s Fair and the much smaller image of Benjamin Franklin on the 1964 U.S. half dollar coin. Throughout his career he won numerous prizes, such as the Parisian Beaux Arts competition, the Prix de Rome, and the J. Sanford Saltus Medal for excellence in medallic sculpture. The Sanford Saltus Medal was for his design of the U.S. Army’s Good Conduct Medal.

“It amazes me to think that a member of my family did what he did,” said Barb, who lives in Browerville.

She was able to spend time with Joe during his seven-year semi-retirement in Browerville. At that time Barb was in her teens and early 20s.

“He rented two apartments,” she said. “One was for him to live in, and one was for his studio. One wall of his studio was covered with  photographs of his work.”

The elderly sculptor wasn’t idle during his Browerville years. He created a number of busts including one of Sinclair Lewis, now on display at Sauk Centre’s Sinclair Lewis Library. He also sculpted the busts, of a parish priest and two businessmen. When he died he was working on a statue for Browerville’s Catholic Church. A small prototype of that statue can be found in the church today.

“He asked me if he could sculpt me,” Barb said. “He said I have nice wrists. That was important to him. I said no. I regret that now.”

Barb doesn’t recall when she started taking an interest in Joe’s work, but a few years before her mother, Jane Biermaier, died in 2012, Barb took her to see Joe’s sculpture at Holy Cross Cemetery in Fargo.

“I thought Mom would enjoy seeing that,” Barb said. “It’s called Bishop’s Monument and it’s where a lot of the Catholic bishops from the area are buried.”

Barb had a photo of herself taken with the sculpture, and she thought that was that. But that photo was just a beginning.

A few years later, when both her mom and Joe had gone, Barb was going through her mother’s things. She discovered that Joe had given her mother a treasure trove of photographs, intricately sculpted medals, and small sculptures.

“She had it all packed away in boxes,” Barb said.

Barb’s mother’s collection was a small part of Kiselewski’s vast legacy. Not only did Barb’s mother have a collection but so did two of her sisters. In addition to that, Kiselewski had made arrangements with Lee State Bank in Browerville, now American Heritage, to have a permanent display of his photos and smaller sculptures. He also left a collection of papers and photographs with the Smithsonian Institution in Washington.

Barb Noland, of Browerville, next to one of her great uncle’s (Joe Kiselewski) sculptures in New York. Noland has been researching his sculptures and traveling to see them in person. Contributed photo

But, as she pored through her uncle’s photographs in amazement, Barb begin to realize that Joe Kiselewski’s main legacy was the actual sculptures that he had created and spread across the American landscape.   

Each photo that Joe had left Barb’s mother had its name and a general location typed on a small strip of paper attached to the lower front of the picture. For example, a photograph of a graceful creature is labeled “Sea Horse – Brook Green Gardens, South Carolina.”

So, Barb created files on each of the sculptures that she had a photo of. Then she started researching each sculpture. Using the Internet she found out, for example, that Brook Green Gardens is one of America’s premier outdoor sculpture gardens. As she discovered new information she’d add it to the files.

“I’ll start researching and one thing leads to another and pretty soon I’ve been at it for three or four hours and I’ll have a stiff neck,” Barb said.

Learning about Uncle Joe’s sculptures hasn’t been limited to Internet research, however.

“Librarians and archivists are great resources,” Barb said. “A lot of times they can actually tell you if a sculpture is still where the Internet says it is. So, I called them.”

Inspired by her visit to Fargo’s Bishop’s Monument, Barb decided to visit other sculptures. Sinclair Lewis was easy. So, in 2008, when she’d gathered lots of information about the sculpture and who the famous writer was, she went to Sauk Centre to have her photo taken with the sculpture. She also took a photo of the “Joseph Kiselewski” on the back of the sculpture.

“It’s on a lot of his sculptures,” Barb said “It’s sort of like a signature.”

The Sinclair Lewis file is the fattest of Barb’s 30 or 40 files. It has Joe’s big black and white photo of the sculpture, a newspaper clipping on the commissioning of the statue, Internet research on Sinclair Lewis, Barb’s photo of Joe’s name on the back of the sculpture, brochures from the Sinclair Lewis Interpretive Center, and of course a photo of her with the sculpture.

“That one is done,” she said.

Over the next few years Barb found, visited, and photographed a number of Joe’s sculptures.  The sculpture of Harold Vanderbilt, at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee, was particularly impressive. But she was disappointed in the sculpture of General Casimir Pulaski in Milwaukee. Graffiti painters had made a mess of it. It was hard to believe that 35,000 Milwaukee citizens attended the statue’s unveiling in 1931.

As Barb did her research, she discovered that there were a large number of Joe’s sculptures in New York City. As she learned about more and more of them she dreamed about traveling to see them. She planned the trip for the summer of 2016. She and her husband would go, but they decided that they needed a guide.

“Neither Jay nor I had been to New York before so we asked my aunt, Joyce LaVoie, to go with us,” Barb said. “Joyce had been there before, and she knew how to ride the trains.”

Hall of Fame for Great Americans at Bronx Community College. Contributed photo

Joyce, who lives in rural Long Prairie, had a map of the Big Apple, so once they had decided on the sculptures to visit, they mapped out the most efficient way to get them.

“We usually took the trains but we Ubered a couple of times, and we took a cab to Loyola Seminary in Shrub Oak, New York,” Barb said.

Loyola Seminary, it turned out, was abandoned.

“We did a little trespassing,” Barb said. “We climbed over the fence.”

The adventuresome trio got a close-up look at Kiselewski’s large sculpture framing the entrance to the seminary, and Barb got her photo.

The Parkchester apartments in the Bronx were a little easier to get to. The apartments are an entire neighborhood built by the Metropolitan Life Insurance Company in 1941. Met Life wanted Parkchester to be a fun place to live, so they also built a bowling alley and some movie theaters, and they sprinkled statues and sculptures throughout the neighborhood. Some of the sculptures were created by Joseph Kiselewski, according to the book Forgotten New York.

“The artists wanted to make it a fun place for World War II veterans to live so they got together and created a lot of fun statues and sculptures for the neighborhood,” Barb said.

Among the other Kiselewski sculptures that the trio visited were those on the nine-story Bronx County Courthouse and the busts of Oliver Wendell Holmes and Sylvanus Thayer at the Hall of Fame for Great Americans at Bronx Community College.

Remo, a man Barb had been corresponding via email with, met them at the hall and gave them a tour of the hall of fame.

“Every time I saw a new sculpture by Uncle Joe it sort of took my breath away,” Barb said.

Once she was home from her New York trip, Barb filed her photos and other information she’d gathered on the trip. Then she let the project rest for a while.

Several sculptures by Joe Kiselewski at the Hall of Fame for Great Americans at Bronx Community College. Contributed photo

But now she is dreaming of a trip to Washington, D.C., to see the Kiselewski sculptures there. She also wants to visit Joe’s Peace at the Margraten Cemetery for American soldiers in the Netherlands.

“He considered that to be his masterpiece,” Barb said. “It’s my mission in life to find all of his sculptures. I know that I probably can’t find them all, but I’ll keep trying.”

One sculpture that Barb will never see is Kiselewski’s massive Time  sun dial that he created for the World’s Fair.

“I think he made it from some kind of material that decayed after the fair was over,” she said. “You see these two figures in his photo of it? They represent a woman telling the sun to rise and a man telling it to set.”

Barb recently took a trip to see Joe’s Madonna and Child at Dominican University in River Forest, Illinois.