The People Brothers Band performed at Mid West Music Fest in 2017.

Winona honors local artists


The festival and Winona filmmaker Mary Farrell (below       were among recent award winners.
The festival and Winona filmmaker Mary Farrell (below were among recent award winners.


Music, photography, filmmaking and food were among the areas represented by this year’s Winona Fine Arts Commission award winners. Local musical festival Mid West Music Fest (MWMF), area photographer and filmmaker Mary Farrell and Colleen and Larry Wolner of the Blue Heron Coffeehouse were each honored with an award from the commission.

“All of this year’s awardees were chosen for their long-standing support or contributions to arts and culture in our city,” said Theresa Remick, Fine Arts Commission chair. “This year, we have two timely awards — Mid West Music Fest just celebrated the milestone of 10 years, and Mary Farrell recently completed the maximum number of years/terms allowed as a fine arts commission, and we felt that this service deserved recognition … Larry and Colleen Wolner have been discussed for several years for their contributions to our community, so it was natural that they were nominated this year.”

Mid West Music Fest

MWMF began in 2009 when Sam Brown, an AmeriCorps volunteer stationed in Winona, had an idea about bringing an event loosely based on Austin’s South by Southwest to his new community.

Parker Forsell, MWMF creative director, said MWMF retains the multi-stage, multi-genre format of its origin and remains centered on up-and-coming and established Midwestern artists. Over time, the festival has started to include up-and-coming artists from the rest of the country.

“Part of the draw for artists to the fest is the community and networking available with so many musicians in town,” Forsell said of the over 200 musicians who attend each year. “Friendships are made or enhanced at the fest, and this often leads to gigs together in the future.”

Forsell stated that he got involved with MWMF when he was working with a few musicians in the area and became friends with Brown as Brown initially launched the festival.

“I had been working in nonprofits for years and was also focused on helping small businesses with planning, so Sam asked me to help the organization gain nonprofit status back in 2014,” Forsell shared. “I had also been promoting shows for years and have had a lifelong passion for music. Through the process of establishing the nonprofit, the new Board of Directors asked me to come on as director.”

Over 1,000 artists have played MWMF, Forsell stated, adding that many played before they became popular.

“Most recently, Lizzo has become an international name,” Forsell said. “She actually played MWMF in 2014 when her star was just starting to rise.”

Forsell explained regionally popular acts who tour nationally and internationally as well, including Dessa, Charlie Parr and People Brothers Band, have also played the festival.

“One of the true charms of the festival is seeing acts in intimate settings, and then being able to share in the ‘remember when’ with others who have been attendees,” Forsell said.

MWMF has held more programming throughout the year since incorporating as a nonprofit, Forsell stated. The programming includes MWMF Presents shows, educational ties to local students with a journalism program, Teen Press, and a new initiative regarding musicians’ mental health and self-care.

Working with enthusiastic people who are passionate about the arts and collaborating with musicians is one of Forsell’s favorite things about MWMF, he explained.

“Ultimately, I enjoy seeing people having positive and transformative experiences through engaging in live music,” Forsell said. “Music has been an intrinsic part of my life. I really don’t know where I would be without my deep connections to music and musicians. I do believe that music can change the world.”

Forsell stated that he believes MWMF and other groups have helped revive downtown Winona.

“I definitely feel that Mid West Music Fest has been part of the current revitalization of downtown, and actually part of a whole wave of other art organizations and outdoor recreation programming that has helped to make Winona an important destination,” Forsell said.

Forsell said MWMF leaders are grateful to have won a Fine Arts Commission award. 


“We are fortunate to have a town that values the arts, that has a Fine Arts Commission and employs an arts and culture coordinator and a City Council that values investing in the old Masonic Theatre,” Forsell explained. “It’s a great group that won the awards this year, so we are honored to be amongst them.”

Mary Farrell

Farrell explained that her interest in photography was sparked when she was young. She said she enjoyed being behind the camera as she took photos of friends and family. She attended Winona State University and studied history and photographic arts.

At the 2013 Frozen River Film Festival, she saw a documentary about conservationist and writer Aldo Leopold, and she became intrigued by filmmaking, she said. The first film she made is about John Latsch, whom she described as “Winona’s own conservationist,” and the second film she made focuses on Anne Pellowski, whom she shared has traveled the world to give workshops on cloth book making that help children have access to books in their native language.

“My first two films were about people who made a difference by making a personal sacrifice to benefit other people,” Farrell stated.

Farrell said she went to Africa with Pellowski and a Nikon point-and-shoot camera that could also shoot video in 2014 to capture Pellowski’s workshops. She shared that she decided to make a documentary centering on Pellowski after returning home.

Farrell has also worked on a documentary about the Masonic Temple Theatre’s historic backdrops, she said. John Durfey, a local artist who worked on the project, asked her if she would like to film the restoration process, and she immediately agreed to do so, she explained. She added that she has “been very drawn to the scenic beauty of the drops over the years.”

She also had a photography exhibit called “Photographs of People and a Cat” last year. She noted that it had been some time since she had compiled a work of portraits.

“I always wanted to have a show at the public library, so I decided to spend a year taking portraits of people in the community. I enjoy capturing people, their personalities and details of their character,” Farrell said. “I have a cat named Lily and she is very photogenic, so I thought she should be included in the show as well.”

Farrell shared that going from photography to filmmaking was an interesting change. “Documentary film making is a process that involves more research, coordination, production and editing in order to properly tell a good story,” Farrell said. “I find that I enjoy delving into archival material and learning about a subject’s history and background. As a visual artist, it is gratifying to see all the pieces come together visually to produce an engaging documentary.”

Farrell said she was glad about being named a Fine Arts Commission award winner.

“I was delighted to receive the FAC award,” Farrell stated. “I remember well my photography classes in college and discussing photography as art. This award helps recognize that photography is considered an art form.”

Colleen and Larry Wolner

Larry Wolner said Blue Heron Coffeehouse began in 1998 when he and Colleen Wolner bought the Natural Habitat, which was located on Huff and King streets. He explained that they have found their spot in the Winona market over time by trying various things, from live music to extended hours to special dinners.

The Blue Heron opened in its current location in 2006. Wolner added that the location provides more space and opportunities for experimenting with different things for the Winona market.

“While doing all this we tried not to stray from our core values of promoting good food that is local, seasonal and organically grown … advocat[ing] for sustainability and biodiversity and cultivat[ing] a sense of community with a gathering space to support local growers, artists and musicians,” Wolner shared. “The driving force behind the Blue Heron Coffeehouse has always been our passion for providing good food and service to our community.”

Wolner said they have long appreciated art and have been grateful to have people who are artists in their lives. “Using our space for artistic endeavors is part of our service to the community, and displaying art adds a dimension of beauty in what we are attempting,” Wolner shared. “This echoes, in a way, what the greater community is promoting with various art displays and events downtown.”

Wolner said they were thankful to have earned a Fine Arts Commission award. “Receiving the Fine Arts Commission award was a surprise and an honor,” Wolner shared.


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