America: Jeffersonian inventiveness in Minnesota woods

BEMIDJI, Minnesota. In Paul Bunyan country between the headwaters of the Mississippi River and the Red Lake Indian Reservation, people told us to visit contemporary builder, artist, scholar and all-around Jeffersonian community builder Albert Belleveau. He’s the guy who put a huge metal dinosaur in front of the Headwaters Science Center in downtown Bemidji, built new bike racks to encourage muscle-powered transportation in the city of 13,000, and also helps out at the reservation with useful gifts like new metal railings for the entrance to a homeless shelter.

“Albert gives and gives and gives, and then he gives some more,” Minnesota author Kent Nerburn, who has written a series of books about Native American life, said. “And what’s most amazing is that Albert creates his best works from materials we all consider junk.”

We tracked down Belleveau’s sprawling outdoor studio deep in the woods and found him amid acres of metal, wood, glass and stone debris applying a final coat of paint to a newly welded-together “Toolbox.”

“America’s problem? We can’t see the tools around us. We need a new kind of toolbox,” he said, grinning at his metal box literally constructed of tools. “Our cities can come back. We just have to think about all the stuff piled around us, right now, in new ways. If we’ve lost anything as Americans, it’s creativity and the value of service to our communities. That’s how the karma of the world turns: To keep what we have, we have to keep giving it away by being in service to each other in the community.”

A few years ago, Belleveau built the dinosaur as a landmark to lure visitors into the non-profit hands-on museum in downtown Bimidji. But he didn’t simply manufacture the T-Rex in his woodland, open-air studio. Instead, he hauled a flat-bed trailer heaped with discarded auto parts to a local elementary school, where he had enlisted teachers and students in a dramatic arts-and-crafts project. Belleveau invited children to help him find the skeleton of the city’s new T-Rex in the heap of debris. As each “bone,” “tooth” and “claw” was discovered among the shapes in the heap, he welded it into place.

When the Red Lake Reservation needed new railings for a homeless shelter, Belleveau volunteered, adding an inset of a large, cheery stone-and-steel sunburst to the framework. He’s a few weeks away from installing his blend of utility and hopeful symbolism.

“I’m not unique,” he insisted. “If you look closely in communities that work, you’ll find hundreds and hundreds of people like me behind the scenes. But this does take ideas and vision. You may see just a big vacant lot in your city, but I see an opportunity for permaculture gardening with berries and fruit trees that could be self sustaining and a source of community pride if someone knows how to plan and plant the empty lots. Then, people can get together, plant those trees and bushes, maybe add sculpture and a civic problem becomes a place of unity.

“There’s hope for this country if more of us realize that we actually can help each other.”

(Story and photos reported by as Editor David Crumm and his son Benjamin Crumm, a senior at Eastern Michigan University make a 40-day, 9,000-mile circle of the continental United States.)

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