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Sculptor finds inspiration in 1931 roadside discovery

Pelican Rapids artist Marcella Rose never met the subject of her “Spirit Rising” bronze sculpture. Meeting her was, in fact, impossible since the central character of the artwork, a young Native American maiden, lived more than 10,000 years ago. But Marcella, inspired by “Minnesota Woman,” created a four-foot high statue which embodies the strength and confidence Marcella feels the maiden possessed.

Artist Marcella Rose learned of the story of “Minnesota Woman,” whose remains were discovered in 1931 during a Highway 59 road construction project near their house. This story inspired her to create the sculpture “Spirit Rising” (pictured to right of Rose). Photo by Carol Stender

Marcella’s story of creating the piece started when she and her husband, Don, moved to Prairie Lake near Pelican Rapids. They knew nothing about the maiden or her story yet Marcella says she felt a connection to the area.

She describes herself as a “very spiritual person” who reflects that trait in all of her fine art.

“As a visionary person, images, native chants and messages began flooding my heart and mind,” she said. “…Unbeknownst to her existence when I moved here, the messages I received coincided with actual facts I learned from Phletus and Sally Williams, scientists researching facts about the ‘Minnesota Woman.’”

She learned the discovery of the remains were a happenstance that drew attention to the area. It was 1931 and a road crew, constructing U.S. Highway 59, was working on “frost boil five” when a grader hit soft earth. Road crew worker Carl Steffens was following the heavy equipment and noticed something in the earth. It was a skull.

Crew members removed the rest of the remains and laid it out anatomically in the ditch, according to news accounts. Today such an event would halt construction, but not in 1931, The workers resumed construction and a district highway supervisor eventually collected the remains, bringing them to Dr. Albert Jenks at the University of Minnesota.

The skeletal remains were declared to be of a prehistoric male and soon a roadside marker was erected noting the significant find of “Minnesota Man.” But, upon closer inspection of the remains, Dr. Jenks noted the pelvis to be that of a young woman who hadn’t borne children. Officials changed the marker to “Minnesota Woman.”

Dr. Jenks surmised the young maiden may have fallen through ice and drowned. Her body went to the bottom of what was then Glacial Lake Pelican, a large body of water that included all the lakes in the Pelican River chain and covered a considerable amount of high ground. The bones had been covered by a layer of deteriorated clam or mussel shells.

Among the artifacts found at the site was a conch shell pendant “Minnesota Woman” was wearing and a dagger made from an elk’s horn.

Marcella combined her visions with facts of the young maiden as she began sketching.

“I became inundated day and night for nearly three years by her,” Marcella said. “I created an icon symbolizing the message of ‘listen to your intuition,’ it reflects the position she was found, with her hand held high.”

She started with a charcoal drawing and then made a painting. Eventually she turned to sculpting an image of “Minnesota Woman.”

“When I became obsessed with sculpting her, I initially made a small clay sketch of how I saw her with her hand held high and her hair flowing upward as if when she drowned,” Marcella said. “The piece, ‘Spirit Rising,’ evolved from my vision of her calling to us, making harmonious music with a pelican by her side. The left swirl whelk she blows into, her turtle carapace, wolf tooth, elk bone tools and feathers are all items I learned were also discovered with her.”

Her work was cast in bronze and the four-foot high statue debuted in 2016.

While it took her three years to complete the physical piece, the entire process, from concept and design, takes longer.

Marcella Rose works on a painting in her studio. A few of her works, including the “Spirit Rising” sculpture are pictured in the background. Photo by Carol Stender

“Do I count the years honing my skills, begin timing when an idea surfaces, mull on it for years or hours?” she said. “All of my paintings and sculptures are different, as some can be completed in an hour after 10 years of inner development and some can pop into my being and yet take six months to sculpt or paint. I have had “Minnesota Woman” working through me for decades. The evolution of an artist begins within.”

Her overall interest in art started as a youngster growing up near Ortonville.

“I remember I was always sketching, painting, making things like dolls, sewing and whatever I could get my hands on,” she said. “Whether it was rocks, wood, sticks, straw, fabrics, watercolors, pencils, paints or crayons, I was always creating something with the tools I had around me.”

It was clear Marcella had a gift. Her assignments often had a two- or three-dimensional illustrations or sculptures to express her point of view visually. She helped teachers with bulletin boards, worked with other students to create illustrations and made church banners and illustrated cookbooks.

After attending commercial art school, she worked as an illustrator in the Fargo area first at the Fargo Forum, then illustrating for clothing stores. She was an illustrator for North Dakota Horizons magazine and other publications before moving to Phoenix, Ariz., where she worked as a designer and illustrator for an outdoor advertising company. Through those projects and, later, freelance work, she’s designed illustrations for Hallmark Cards, Kansas City Royals, Applause Toys and for licensing companies like Disney, Warner Brothers, Paramount and Mattel.

Today her work, including “Spirit Rising,” is on display at her Rose Gallery, Lady of the Lake Studio in Pelican Rapids. Her work includes cards, prints, jewelry and more.

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