Mahfood created beautiful works out of thread and glass and was a keystone in the Winona arts community.
Bernadette Mahfood (left) spearheaded the Blue Heron Project with Natalie Siderius (center) and Lynette Power (right). The landmark public art project raised funds and built connections that served as a foundation for future Winona art projects.
by CHRIS ROGERS
Naysayers never daunted Bernadette Mahfood. Today, thanks in no small part to her gumption, colorful blue heron statues dot Winona like jewels in a public art treasure hunt. The heads of the larger-than-life birds are turned down, so shy in their elegance, and their bodies are covered in symbols of life on the big river. They are a landmark public art project for Winona; one that dazzled visitors, gave residents pride, raised $44,000, and funded many other local art projects over the last eight years. But back in 2006, people told Mahfood: it cannot be done; that will never work here. She did not listen.
Over the years, public discourse in Winona has sometimes drawn a line between Winona, the hardworking center of business, and Winona, the mecca for arts and natural beauty. Mahfood did not split the place she loved into pieces. She worked quietly and successfully to unite them. She never did believe that artwork was something for only the elite, and she worked to build partnerships across the community to bring great art to all Winonans right up until she died.
Mahfood was an expert in ancient art forms. She was a pilot and a math teacher, an agricultural extension official and a great cook. She was a world-traveller who spent years in a country torn by violence. She was a inspiration and a dear friend to many Winonans. The list of organizations and projects she was involved with is seemingly endless: winning key grants and fundraising for the Frozen River Film Festival (FRFF), the Winona-Dakota Unity Alliance, and Theatre du Mississippi; helping to organize the Bluff Country Art Tour; helping to launch the Blue Heron Project, Winona Art Walk, Family Art Day, River Arts Alliance, and the HBC fence project; serving on Minnesota State Arts Board advisory committees; and working on the city of Winona Comprehensive Plan and the Levee Park plan, to name a few. Perhaps most of all though, Mahfood showed Winonans what could be done.
Bernadette the bold
Around two weeks before she passed away on December 22, Mahfood called up Frozen River Film Festival (FRFF) Executive Director Crystal Hegge to gush about how one the festival sponsors had decided to increase their donations — "Isn't that great?" — and plot about an upcoming grant application for the festival. Mahfood worked as the festival's chief fundraiser. Hegge had thought their team was not even going to try for that grant this year because there was not enough time and they did not stand a chance, but Hegge had grown accustomed to Mahfood's conviction that more was possible than people thought, a belief that was proven to be true time and time again.
"I told her, 'Bernadette, you can do more on chemo than most people can at the top of their game,'" Hegge said. "And she laughed that big-hearted Bernadette laugh and made me laugh."
Hegge was used to getting exuberant calls from Mahfood at odd hours with big ideas. "She would call me. 'I can see it now, Crystal, this is what we're going to do,'" Hegge remembered.
Mahfood was daring in the challenges she took on herself and she brought a lot of people along with her. Friends, fellow artists, and local leaders said she nudged them, gently, respectfully, toward doing more than they thought they could.
When the Mahfood and sculptor Lynette Power spearheaded the Blue Heron Project, Power had originally envisioned miniature, tabletop-sized sculptures. When former Winona City Manager Eric Sorensen encouraged them to make the statues bigger, Mahfood laid Power's original sketches on an old projector to blow them up. "That's seven feet, Bernadette!" Power remembered exclaiming. "It can't be that big!" They could. They are.
There are dreamers and there are doers. Mahfood was both. She had an artist's imagination, a farm girl's practicality, the organization of a mathematician, and a gift for diplomacy, her friends and family said.
"We have conversations all the time where she'd say, 'It shouldn't be this way. Let's fix it,' and she'd find ways to fix it," said her son, Brian Sharp.
Mahfood was terrified of asking people for money at the start of the Blue Heron Project, Power remembered, but when she tried it, she discovered a gift. "She would march right up to the most famous person and would say, 'Hey, I want to use your expertise to benefit our community," Hegge said. "She did not have time to be star struck. She did not have time to talk without action," Hegge continued. "She was able to do that," Sorensen said. "She had her quiet way, a very effective way of selling what art did for a community."
"She just saw the steps to how things could be done," Hegge said. "She didn't take the time to think about whether they could be done. She just took one step."
The verve that propelled Mahfood to do so much in Winona showed itself early in her life. Mahfood was just a teenager growing up in New Jersey when she decided she was going to get her pilot's license. At 18, she did, and tried to make use of it in the armed forces. She wanted to fly military aircraft in the early 1960s, as the Vietnam War was raging, but recruiters told her, "No women allowed." So she turned her attention to other adventurous dreams. "I'm sure if she had stayed at it she would have been the first female astronaut," said Mahfood's daughter-in-law, Ghislaine O'Hanley. Instead, Mahfood turned to the Peace Corps, President John F. Kennedy's newly formed international service program. She joined and went to Uganda to teach mathematics to school children at a time when the African country was racked by violence and ruled by the murderous dictator Idi Amin.
Friends said that, later in life, Mahfood would often share stories from her time in Peace Corps. Sharp shared one — possibly apocryphal, he said — a tale about a conflict between the students and the administrators at the all-boys school where she taught that turned so tense the headmaster prepared to call in the military, Amin's military. Mahfood, the story goes, jumped in the middle of that confrontation, and managed to talk the headmaster down and convince him that she, not the army, could diffuse the situation.
Mahfood's family also said that her marriage to Sharp's father was the first-ever marriage of Peace Corps volunteers and that Sharp's birth in a dirt-floored building made him the first-ever "Peace Corps baby." Today, he is a filmmaker with his mother's bright eyes.
"The Peace Corps really formed who she was as a person," O'Hanley said. "The ideals she developed in the Peace Corps carried through the rest of her life — that sense of community and capacity and being a little bit of a rabble rouser and wanting to right injustices in the world and stir people to action." Mahfood was "an instigator," O'Hanley said — a title to be worn with pride.
Bernadette the pragmatist
She was daring, but Mahfood was also pragmatic, her friends said. She challenged people, but she was also diplomatic.
In recent years, as a Levee Park project committee member, Mahfood dreamed big and rallied behind an earlier, bolder version of the Levee Park plan that was criticized as being impractical. As an individual, she worked for years with quiet pragmatism to set the stage for one of a handful of significant improvements to the park area since the city adopted the current plan: the HBC fence.
The HBC fence is a partnership with a trio of homegrown businesses including HBC, We-no-nah Canoe, and Fastenal. The artwork's themes pay homage to the history of communication and Winona's connection to the river, with big panels painted by average citizens and sculptures formed from We-no-nah Canoe scraps, all of it attached to HBC's fence with Fastenal bolts.
"We're all connected and we may be creating art here, but we're doing it with our manufacturers," River Arts Alliance leader Vicki Englich said.
The fence surrounds an array of HBC satellite dishes and borders what the city hopes to make the park's grant entrance: Main Street. For years, some supporters of park beautification lobbied for HBC to relocate the array complex entirely, but that was just asking too much, said friends and fellow Levee Park Committee members Mike Kennedy and Eric Sorensen. Mahfood, however, took a different approach, working with HBC leaders for years to find out what could be done, developing a vision for a community art project to beautify the park entrance, and developing the partnerships to get it done.
"[Bernadette was] just doing a lot of grunt work of listening to the concerns HBC had about their property … and she was the one who was capable of saying, 'OK, I understand you. I get you. What can we do together?'" said Sorensen. She stuck with it for years, he said. "I hope we remember," Sorensen continued, "as part of the Levee [Park] project, to remember Bernadette's relationship and her efforts behind the scenes. She was probably one of the best in the community at getting things done behind the scenes."
Crozier and several colleagues are carrying Mahfood's project to completion. River Arts Alliance organizers recently hung several murals and are making plans to add sculptural elements in the near future, which will complete the first phase of the project. River Arts Alliance hopes to raise money to add many more sections of artwork to fence, lining Main Street and the park border.
In both the Levee Park project and the big, important project to update the city's comprehensive plan in 2007 and lay out a vision for the future of Winona, Mahfood represented fellow citizens and the arts community.
"She was the respected arts person," Kennedy said. Mahfood was recognized as a creative, artistic person, but also as a voice of reason and as someone who could reach out to all kinds of people with a message about the value of art that others could get behind and that made projects seem very doable, he explained. "That's really what she was good at — blending the arts community with the rest of the community. She could cross those lines," Kennedy explained.
"In any business and certainly in the arts business, we need people who can not only think really creative and interesting thoughts but also get them done," said the Executive Director of the Minnesota State Arts Board, Sue Gens. "Her ability to get those programs funded means that those ideas are not just alive in her head but alive in the community," Gens said of Mahfood.
"Her legacy is the things we see that have happened in the community," Sorensen said. "It's the way that she, behind the scenes, was so effective at working through arguments, through differences of opinion to get things done," he added.
Mahfood's warmth helped in that regard. "[I'll remember] how kindhearted Bernadette was and how she aways had time for people," Jeanine Sorensen reflected.
Bernadette the artist
After returning from Ugunda, Mahfood later went back to Africa, to Tunisia, with the humanitarian group Project Hope. There Mahfood fell in love with two very old art forms: bead making and macrame. She was struck by the intricately knotted macrame pieces village women made in Tunisia and she became an expert in the fabric art form and in the history of ancient, Mediterranean bead making, and the art of working with glass. While living in Missouri in the 1970s and 80s and working as agricultural economics with Missouri Cooperative Extension Service, Mahfood practiced her art and then, finally took the leap of faith to become a full-time artist, according to 1984 news article from the Show Me State. A working artist, she supported herself selling handmade jewelry and glass pieces at art fairs across the country. After moving to the Winona area in 1990, she won state grants for her artwork and launched herself into the world of public art, winning grants for FRFF and the Dakota Gathering. Pieces of her delicate work are held at the Minnesota Historical Society Museum, and she was asked to serve on advisory committees for state arts board grant makers.
"When we choose artists to serve on panels for the state arts grants, we seek known experts, so she was highly regard by the arts community," explained Minnesota State Arts Board member and Saint Mary's University School of Arts Dean Michael Charron.
As a grant writer, her explanations were remarkable clear, Mahfood's long-time partner, Walken Ratajczyk, recalled. He described filling out a state government application with Mahfood's help and turning it in to a county official who laughed. "'This is going to confuse them because it's so well-written,'" Ratajczyk recalled him saying. The application was approved right away.
Over time, Mahfood's stature as a public arts leader in Winona and in the state grew. Public art was important to her because it brought the power of art to everyone. "She believed in the importance of creating public art that everyone could enjoy, and of making art accessible to people of all levels of wealth," Kennedy said. "She was a kindred spirit in that. We both truly believed in the importance of public art and how it can affect people in a positive way," Englich added.
"Everything she did was art," said Walken. "It would be like the thread that held it all together."
Bernadette the friend
Mahfood had a certain look — that "Bernadette look," her friends said — that she would sometimes employ. With her head inclined, she would peer out skeptically over her glasses. O'Hanley tipped her glasses down and mimicked the trademark glance over Power's kitchen table.
Then there was that Bernadette grin, said friend and fellow artist Julia Crozier. "She had this funny look that she would give people if she was being sarcastic about something — this really goofy grin," Crozier said. What did it mean? It is hard to put into words, but it was something like, "Yeah, I'll take that comment with a grain of salt," Crozier explained.
Mahfood was not afraid to put funny looking things on her head. A lover of bees and the environment and a supporter of the Winona Area Pollinators, Mahfood once took the stage at FRFF with a pair of fuzzy, faux bee antennae perched above her wavy hair. She was introducing a film on bees. One year, at Family Art Day — an event that invites average people of all ages let out their inner artist, which Mahfood helped launch — Mahfood ran a hat-making station. She strutted around the crowd wearing a ridiculous, baby blue, papier mâché bowler with ribbons and fake leaves and bright-colored pipe cleaners sticking out, as if to make everyone so envious they would have to make their own fantastic hat.
"She wasn't afraid to be playful and silly," said Englich. "To me, I think of her in one of these goofy hats that she would make," Englich added.
Mahfood was a great cook. Her entire backyard was a garden, and at home, she was a talented garden-to-kitchen grower and cook, Ratajczyk said. Each year when the FRFF team went out to Telluride, Colo., to scout movies at FRFF's partner festival, Mountainfilm, Mahfood would do the cooking. She spent the first day just grocery shopping and preparing, Kennedy and Hegge recalled, and she would make handmade pasta, terrific salads, and soups and chicken stews from scratch. "Oh my God, unbelievable food," Kennedy reported.
Though she travelled the country and the world, Mahfood fell deeply in love with Winona.
"When she came to us, she talked about how much she loved Winona, almost like a person," O'Hanley said.
She never complained about Winona, Hegge remembered. "When someone said there weren't enough restaurants, she would say, 'What are you talking about? We're working on that everyday,'" Hegge said.
Crozier mentioned a speech Mahfood gave at a City Council meeting about meeting a German tourist on the train. He was astounded that Mahfood was privileged to live in a place as beautiful as Winona. "You live here? You mean you get to live here?" he asked, incredulous. "I think she felt comfortable here, where she could be herself and you could be in nature and still have a stimulating life here," Crozier said.
Mahfood let some people know she had cancer this fall — an advanced stage of one of the worst forms: pancreatic cancer. She put up a spirited fight. Energetic and youthful in a way that made her age, 71, seem unbelievable, friends expected Mahfood to live for years to come. "She went so fast," Kennedy said.
"It's hard for everyone to come to grips with life without her," Crozier admitted.
"A lot of it has to do with her physical touch," Ratajczyk said, when asked what he would miss. He will miss rubbing her feet and her shoulders, helping her unwind after her days filled with so much doing. "I was the one who sat with her at night after all that," he said.
Of course Mahfood's family and many friends will miss the woman they knew and loved, but Winona arts organizations — and, perhaps, the city as a whole — may feel her absence in a less emotional way, too. "A lot of us are going to be scrambling because she was either our grant writer or our fiscal person," Englich explained. "There's so many things that she's done that would not have happened without that one individual, that one person. You think about that and it's almost paralyzing for those of us who have to move forward," Hegge said.
"She is going to be hard to replace," Charron acknowledged. "Hopefully, there will be others in this community that she mentored that will pick up the torch that she carried as an advocate."
"It was an unbelievable range of talents — that's why we're going to miss her," Kennedy said. "I've heard people say we're going to need many people to fill that gap. I don't look at it that way," he continued. "I think she built a higher level that people can begin to operate from. We don't have to fall back. We don't have to fill any holes. We just continue to operate from the platform that Bernadette and others built."
"She was fearless and she was optimistic and she had great energy," Englich stated. "I'm going to have to summon her to me in order to keep moving forward here with all of these things that we've been involved with."