Long Prairie natives continue to express themselves in unique ways
Michael and Brian Cowdery grew up in Long Prairie. Michael, better known as Mikko, has drifted as far away as Osakis (though he’s lived in a variety of other places), while Brian has fled the cold north and now lives in Arkansas. Creativity is the common thread that meanders through their ancestors; winds through visual art, music and eccentric assemblages; and ties them to intentional lifestyles.
As Mikko, the older of the two by six years, nears a significant birthday marking 77 years on this earth, he’s polishing the final details of a two-year project: producing a recording of new and old music. Brian is applying himself, at age 71, to the last details of what he insists is his final home-building project while continuing to make one-of-a-kind metal toys.
The two took some time to consider what has influenced and inspired them.
The brothers’ mother, Cecile DuFrene Cowdery, lived and breathed creativity. She painted, she drew, she made portrait topped cakes before printers made them commonplace. While her husband, Ray, was in the military, she illustrated all the envelopes of the letters she mailed to him. These were published in the book The World War II Envelope Art of Cecile Cowdery in 1992. Ray was a cabinet maker after he came home from the war. The parents were artistically influential but it goes beyond them.
Mikko remembers his mother’s sister Marie.
“Marie, a wonderfully eccentric woman, who always wore frilly dresses, lots of make-up, bright orangish-red hair, and especially open toed pumps, the surfaces of which she painstakingly covered with glued-on sequins. Her house was a unique piece of environmental folk art, with many of the inside walls covered with broken shards of mirrors. Her daughter, Glee, was widowed early in life, and had a most amazing, inside and out, folk art house a couple blocks from St. Michael’s Hospital in Sauk Centre. It was a bizarre vision of colors and sparkles and plastic flowered charm.”
Then Mikko looks back to the previous generation.
“Their father, Clement DuFrene, had the heart of an old time farmer. He loved the land. He was very creative (but not very skilled) when it came to carpentry and plumbing and recycling building materials.
“But I think Ethel was more traditionally creative, being extremely talented at sewing, knitting, crocheting and fancy needlework. Being the mother of 13 of her own children, and a refuge for dozens of others who sought out her care over her long lifetime, she didn’t have much time to pursue her love of drawing or painting. But she did teach her children how to make carvings out of home-made soap. (It might be more accurately said that she encouraged them to make flakes of the soap which could be used in laundering all those clothes.)
“She was very active in the Ladies’ Aid Society and the women’s suffrage movement as well as the Christian Women’s Temperance Union. She loved to rally support and give speeches, though in her older years she focused more on humorous recitations…(she) gave humorous or thoughtful recitations at many of our community events ranging from her Labor Day presentations at the Long Prairie cemetery to her popular presentations at the Clotho Creamery Fourth of July picnics.
“But she encouraged every child with whom she had contact to draw, or write, or sing, or play a musical instrument, or cook, or even make their own clothes.”
With ancestors who weren’t content with the status quo, it’s not surprising that Mikko and Brian came to understand that the mirrors of life are not simply to be shined to reflect images but that they could be broken and reassembled to explore and represent new ideas.
Brian’s earliest memories of creativity were of his parents’ projects; making things by hand and showing their young son the value of self-sufficiency.
“As a little boy I’d watch my dad building everything from a duck boat to kitchen cabinets, acting as though there was nothing to it. My mother was an expert seamstress and prolific cake baker. Back in the 1950s I would watch her making cakes with pictures of the people they were for, using food coloring as you would use water colors.”
Mikko remembers other facets of his parents which led him in his own direction of music and writing.
“I loved to hear my dad sing old railroad songs. I loved the hand-made books our mother made.”
It was encouragement by an uncle that instigated his first public performance. As a youngster, he was belting out “Love Sick Blues” while mowing his family’s lawn. “My uncle heard me, took me to Irish Dempsy’s Bar, sat me up on the bar and said, ‘sing that song!’” Mikko and his uncle each got a free drink for the performance, his being Coke and his uncle’s something stronger. While his mother encouraged creativity, she wasn’t pleased about it taking place in a bar and forbade his uncle to come back on their property.
Growing up in a small Minnesota town in the 1940s, ‘50s and ‘60s could either mean being sheltered from the experiences of the greater world or being offered freedom and opportunities.
“Because of my family I grew up feeling I could do anything I set my mind to,” says Brian. “When I was a junior in high school I designed a school ring for Long Prairie. They adopted my design and used it for many years. I still have the artwork from that project.”
He also expresses some regrets that he hadn’t been a more attentive student.
“My art teacher in high school, Mrs. Bokinskie, desperately tried to teach me to be better. I thought I knew it all, so I pretty much ignored her and it wasn’t until several years later I realized how wrong I had been. Two other teachers commissioned paintings when I was in high school, but that just made me think I knew more than I really did.”
Brian credits the military with instilling discipline while giving him a taste of the big world. “It took several years and lots of exposure to life in other places to really get some direction.”
Mikko just plain escaped from the small town mind-set. “When I grew up in Long Prairie in the ‘40s and ‘50s it was a third world community. I went to California to live with a brother in 1959 and lived in the first air conditioned home that I recall. Ate my first taco, my first pizza, and the first spaghetti I ever tasted that did not come from a can.”
As the two were growing up that 6-year age difference meant they didn’t have many collaborations, although Brian looked to Mikko as somewhat of a mentor. “Actually, being 6 years older, Mikko didn’t want much to do with me when I was a kid. He got stuck with babysitting a few times and managed not to kill me. I do remember riding on top of a wagon full of hay bales that tipped over on a side hill when I was about 6 and he was only 12. I’m not sure a 12 year old is the right person to put on a tractor, but there’s a lot of that in farm country. From my high school age onward Mikko was very, very helpful and inspirational to anything I was doing. We got a new principal when I was in the 10th grade. Mikko taught me to silkscreen so I could make a bunch of T-shirts which were not flattering to the new principal. That’s the kind of thing brothers do.”
Mikko points to that age difference, too. “Being a half-dozen years older than Brian, and being a long way away from Brian for many years, we never had many chances to collaborate. But I am a huge fan of his creativity and expertise and discipline which together enable him to perform artistic magic.”
Some people view talent as inborn and either you have it or you don’t. Others view it as an interest that is polished, honed, and practiced.
“I think creativity is both,” says Brian. “In my case, I had some natural ability, but had to spend years doing it to get very good. My wife, Marlene, thought she had no artistic ability until she took several college courses in pottery and sculpture. She found out she’s an amazing ceramic sculptor. The more she works with it, the better she becomes.”
Mikko believes creativity owns you. “I think creativity is an obligation. It’s something you need to do, whether you can finish it or not, and if it happens to be successful in terms of satisfaction or profit, that’s just the whip cream on the top. You do it because you can’t not do it.”
Ideas are always the precursors of art. Process brings the ideas to fruition. Both ideas and process tends to evolve over time and with aging.
“I started out being very interested in music,” explains Mikko. “I’ve always loved to draw and paint, but for most of my life, music has been my creative refuge. In the early ‘90s I was pretty burned out on music, and took up painting almost seriously. I did a lot of galleries and art shows from the Uptown show in the Twin Cities to the Fargo-Moorhead area. I think I still have paintings on display in the Fergus area, and I recently saw a rather large collection of my paintings in a private home in rural Albany. But for the past couple decades my interest has returned to songwriting. I had made an LP album with country music legend Marvin Rainwater back in the early ‘80s featuring ten songs that I had written. I hadn’t recorded any more of my songs since then, until last year when I started working on a collection of original songs about or inspired by Minnesota.”
Neither of the brothers try to force creativity.
“Ideas always come to me as I’m doing something else. Frequently, the solution to a problem with something I’m working on will come to me while I’m sleeping. I could sit for a long time trying to brainstorm and nothing would happen,” says Brian.
Mikko agrees. “The ideas come rather easily. And then I have to sit down and work to finish up some of the ideas when they are already old.”
Brian says the only change in process for him is that he works faster, having had 40 years of practice.
Those ideas keep coming and neither of the brothers indicates the need for slowing down. Mikko acknowledges that life can throw curve balls that change your trajectory, but that they can also be sources of inspiration. “The current curtailment of gathering places (reference to the coronavirus) has inspired me to make a bunch of videos of my various musical offerings so my audiences can find them on the internet and play them on demand. That, of course, provides enough creative and technical challenge to keep me happy for years.”
Brian has worked with metal for many years and sees a new challenge and direction on the horizon. “I want to do some large kinetic metal sculpture, both indoor and outdoor. I now have a studio with an 8’x10’ overhead door, so that opens up lots of possibilities.”
Brian continues to make metal toys but no longer does custom work on cars or other vehicles. “I don’t do any work on those things anymore. I only create new pieces. The three years of working on our new house has relegated my commercial work to a part time situation, but that is changing. I’ve had work in three art museum shows here in Arkansas and expect to do more of that.”
Brian mentions the house project and its completion as one of his greatest sources of satisfaction. “I’ve had several metal miniature vehicle projects that were very satisfying, but the absolute most personal satisfaction has come from the designing and building of our final house over the past three years. Taking our ideas from basic drawings to models and finally to the finished, full-scale result has given both Marlene and me tremendous satisfaction. We’ve done everything ourselves and along the way have made some very innovative use of metal in the construction. We love our new home, and when a talented architect friend visited one day and said ‘Wow, this is great! How did you do that?’ as he gestured toward an unconventional feature, that was icing on the cake.
“The only work we hired on the new house was the concrete. Everything else was done by Marlene and me. It is about 1200 square feet on the main floor, 2/3 of which is a big kitchen/dining room/living room. At the right end, we have a 400 square foot basement under the bedroom/bath suite and laundry. We wanted a storm shelter and some storage space. Dry basements are difficult here, but we waterproofed and drain tiled the daylights out of it, and it is bone dry after three of the wettest years on record.”
Mikko agrees that living in an art project is a font of great fulfillment. Mikko lives with his wife, Tudy, in a quaint leprechaunish home in Osakis. The home was constructed by Jack Phelps right after World War II. Phelps was not of towering stature, nor was his wife, so they had no need for anything more than seven foot ceilings. He made the home of brick salvaged from the demolition of the old Osakis fire hall. Mikko acquired additional brick from the Pollard Mill and added a brick wall that appears to follow the contours of the land, a third floor tower, a sun-filled sleeping porch, and a wing-roofed ground floor entry. Unique furnishings make the home a work of art. Mike and Tudy’s home was also their business when they, for many years, were wholesaling Minnesota-made folk art items to retailers across the country.
“The Hobbit house I live in [is his greatest source of satisfaction]. It’s a pretty good example of environmental folk art, in the tradition of my aunt, Marie Stevens of Little Sauk, and her daughter, Glee Wiener, of Sauk Centre.”
Mikko shares a quick anecdote about this cousin. “One summer day she was visiting at our house when the UPS man showed up. He yelled, ‘Hello Glee, what the heck are you doing here?’ She said, ‘This is my cousin’s place.’ He glanced up, down, to the right and to the left, and said with a great big smile, ‘It figures.’”
Mikko is hopeful that his new recording with a “local” theme will bring some professional contentment. “The local interest starts with the name of the CD. We’re calling it Minnesota 13, like the famous Stearns County booze from the prohibition era. One of the verses says, ‘Back in Prohibition there wasn’t nothin’ slicker / than Minnesota 13, pure Stearns County liquor. / From Holdingford to Avon, Melrose to St. Joe, / they cooked a fine concoction that would set your heart aglow. / They called it Minnesota 13, Minnesota Moon / Doncha know we’re doin’ fine / doin’ what we’re doin’ / Feelin’ lazy, hazy, crazy as a loon (loon call) / Zippin’ down that Minnesota Moon.’
“The first song on the CD is called “Minnesota Memories.” It’s particularly meaningful, I think, to those of us old enough to remember farming before about 1960, when it was a way of life rather than a ‘profession.’
“The CD will also include “Bury My Heart in Minnesota” and “New York Mills, Minnesota” – reworking of a couple songs Marvin [Rainwater] recorded on that album, half a lifetime ago. Another tune with local interest is called “Roving the River.” The first verse says: “When I was a lad it was a dream that I had / To ride my raft down to the sea / But you know it takes two, that’s why I’m askin’ you / To come rovin’ the river with me. / The Long Prairie River flows down to the Crow Wing / Then down to the Mississippi / And every kid knows the great river flows / Forever, down to the sea.”
“The collection also includes songs inspired by my grandkids, a duet I recorded with a Jack Russell Terrier, entitled “My Dog Has Fleas” (a ukulele song, naturally), and a Gospel song I wrote for my mother, entitled “Heaven Bound.”
The CD features a lot of studio musicians and an assortment of talented friends like Cristina Seaborn, an amazing fiddler from St. Cloud, Chuck Wencl of Alexandria on alto sax, Anna Pastian of Osakis and Jake Hagedorn of St. Cloud on vocal harmonies, Doug Millaway of Avon on various stringed instruments, Gordon Lynch of Osakis on guitar, and “some other volunteers I’m probably forgetting.”
As a conclusion to the brothers’ discussion, they considered what advice they might have for young creatives.
Mikko goes first: “My advice to young people has been so consistent that it has almost become a cliché. I always tell them they might not actually enjoy being rich – but they probably would not like being poor. But my favorite contemporary poet, Mary Oliver attributes her success as a poet to her willingness to be, in fact, poor. And if her life’s work is her testimonial, she certainly makes her point.”
Brian’s advice: “I would probably encourage the young person to get a job they enjoyed and continue to follow their dreams on evenings and weekends. It also helps to have a working spouse to pay the bills as you begin creating art full time. Making a decent living with art is very difficult. We have several friends here in Hot Springs who have been doing it all their lives, one for over 50 years. She still has times when her budget is stretched pretty thin. This is a woman with paintings all over the world and 13 published art books to her credit. Her resilience is inspirational. If things slow down for a while she goes off in a new direction to keep the bills paid.”