Welcome to Agincourt, Iowa

Home » 2011 » November (Page 2)

Monthly Archives: November 2011

The Walden Folio

When I was young (was I ever thus?), there were several written languages deemed forever lost. I haven’t lived forever but I have lived long enough to see those skeptics called on the carpet. Nyah!

Maya hieroglyphs—those feathered and be-jewelled staypuff marshmallow guys—turned out to be syllables, consonant-vowel pairs that string into words, not unlike Japanese phonemes. 

I still laugh at an old library catalogue card (remember those?) for a new book about Frank Lloyd Wright: There beneath a string of characters I could never hope to read were their English translation: Fu Ran Ku Roi Do Rai To. Say it aloud and smile at the way a native Japanese ear hears a Western name and makes Japanese sense of it. So we can now read what the Maya wrote and find them revealed as genealogical time freaks. And not a moment too soon. Makes December 20, 2012 all the more poignant. 

The Walden Folio 

The Walden Folio (as it’s called) came to light about 1970. [I’d like to say the same for myself.] This time capsule of oil paintings by a resident at Walden Retreat is the only known example of Reinhold Kölb’s art therapy exercises from the mid-1940s. Aggressively painted but hesitantly signed, these dozen works want to speak. They plead to tell of a world seen by only one of us, presumably a changing world, shifting from darkness to light as a fellow creature rejoins the Company of Man. I think Howard is beginning to see them—in all their incompleteness—as a graphic novel, a story without words from an author who may have had none.


Art Therapy

There was a time when I understood or thought I did or pretended to. I was wrong.

Howard is helping to catalogue the Memorial Gallery Collection, one hundred fifty artworks, more or less, acquired since the GAR exhibit of 1912. Next year will mark its centennial. Howard has shared a few images with me but I think he’s holding back the best, a surprise for the travelling show next fall. 

When the Book Club organized an art exhibit in September 1912, no one imagined much more than a month of polite gawking until the two dozen works were safely back with their anxious owners. The level of public taste elevated ever so slightly, we could return to our little lives in small-town America. But the collection became permanent—as permanent as anything can be—and evolved into something unexpected. Evolution often works that way.

Each of these one hundred fifty works prompts a story—obtuse, convex, arcane—but a story nonetheless of its link with Agincourt’s past. Each work becomes a little lens—telescope, microscope, periscope, proctoscope—aids to the naked eye, helping us see farther, closer, overhead, round the bend, and deep within. Jean-Willy Mestach was right: We are what we collect.

“A few figs from thistles…”

by Howard A. Tabor

Just what is normal, anyway?

When television succeeds, it gives us archetypes. “Cheers” did with Sam Malone; “WKRP in Cincinnati” gave us Dr Johnny Fever. “Star Wars” may be the most archetypically-driven story in entertainment history. Google “Carl Jung” and “archetypes” some time (but watch out for more New Age sites than even Jung could have imagined!) and explore the range of types you’ll find there. On a good day, I’m the Fool.

Remember, there’s a not-so-fine line betwixt character and caricature.

Writing about Agincourt as often as I do—some have said I write about nothing else—archetypes leap from our community narrative. Rev Frances Manning, for example, was our Guide (albeit a wounded one); Anson Tennant (great-uncle Anson) our Wanderer. The late Abel Kane was Mystic or Magus. And then there was Reinhold Kölb, a born Healer if there ever was one among us.


It’s not strange that Kölb’s name should come up in the Memorial Collection context. His sister and brother-in-law, the Wassermans, gave two pieces from their family still living in Austria. But Kölb’s contributions came in a more obtuse way, not even directly from him.

Herr Dr Reinhold Kölb opened a private clinic here in 1925, Walden Retreat located appropriately at the east end of Thoreau Avenue. As a disciple of Jacob Levy Moreno, Kölb used drama therapy and produced the remarkable Puppet Theatre in The Commons until the early 1940s—another link with the innovative mental health treatment at our sister city Geel, Belgium. But by the mid-40s Kölb had begun to explore art therapy as an alternative—with the help of his nephew Carl.

Kölb’s clinic closed in 1953, became a retirement home and then simply apartments. And we would have known little of his art therapy until a remodelling project of 1970: carpenters removed a wall and found a storage closet sealed for almost twenty years. Inside? Mops, brooms, buckets, and a folio of art! More than a dozen small paintings on scraps of unstretched canvas. It’s tempting to wonder about their meaning and how they fit into a community collection. Anonymous, troubled and troubling works; visceral yet compelling for that very reason.

I am certainly no art historian. Neither am I qualified to offer psychological insight or advice. But I am prepared to say these cast-offs belong exactly where they are. I’ll tell you more about them next week.

In the meantime, normalcy can take a hike.

And when the exhibit travels to Fargo next year, they may well become the show-within-the-show-within-the-show.

Sister Cities

Thirty-five years ago or thereabouts, I was the fourth for an intimate dinner party. The guests were the mayor of Fargo’s sister city, Hamar, Norway, and his wife; the campaign manager for Fargo’s then mayor was our host. Do you suppose I supplied local color?

Conversation remained fairly stiff for the first hour—pleasantries, weather, that sort of thing—so it was time to break the ice. I shared with Mrs Moe an observation about the arts in Fargo-Moorhead: why the arts (music, fine art, etc) were habitually at the short and smelly end of the funding stick; why they were the last activities to be funded when times were flush, the first to be cut when money was tight. I asked specifically about Hans Nielsen Hauge, a Norwegian cleric whose theology had served his nation’s situation when it was alternately a protectorate of Sweden or Denmark.

Hauge preached a theology of deprivation: excess, in Hauge’s view, was of the Devil, while simplicity of design and economy of means situated one nearer to God. Hauge’s beliefs would have resonated with Shakers, Quakers and Mennonites here in America. His theology worked well when Nowary was simply a province of another power; it helped her people in periods of deprivation. But when conditions improved and former luxuries became more widely available, Hauge’s preaching struck a sour chord with the mainstream church and his followers were encouraged to emigrate elsewhere. Why does it not surprise me that the vast majority of them came to the Red River Valley of the North—the valley that stradles the border between North Dakota and Minnesota. They came here and brought with them a distaste for luxury and showy display.

The conversational ice had broken and the Moes shared an observation that confirmed my suspicion: “You know,” she said, “when our American cousins come ‘home’ to Norway, they actually ask for lutefisk! No native Norwegian would admit to having eaten it, because it would confirm they had been desperately poor at some time. Our American cousins have raised lutefisk to cult status.” That night I learned something important about the place that I had lived for five years and would live another thirty-five.

Agincourt’s sister city also helps explain its character.

“A few figs from thistles…”

by Howard A. Tabor


Sister City programs are out of fashion these days, I suspect. Suggestions that we may be more alike than different—despite language, culture and politics—don’t sit well with those intent on closing borders, marginalizing the poor or disenfranchising those on the edges of society. Agincourt has had a sister-city relationship since the mid 1980s: Geel, located in the Vlaams-speaking area of northern Belgium, not far from the Dutch border.

Our connection with Geel seems to have grown from an agricultural exchange program between our own Fennimore Farms and a comparable agribusiness there. But that chance encounter opened other doors for cultural comparison and reflection on the shrinking planet we all call home.

Geel, for example, is the site of an innovative mental health program, where the afflicted aren’t institutionalized. Instead, they live with families throughout the city, mainstreamed into the rhythm of its daily life. In a similar way, our own Dr Reinhold Kolb encouraged the residents of his Walden Retreat to venture outside its gemütlich safety and interact with Agincourt’s “normal” citizens. Their puppet theater in The Commons is still the stuff of legend.


Geel’s remarkable program grew from the city’s equally legendary saint—Dymphna, virgin and martyr—an Irish princess who sought sanctuary there to escape her father’s unwanted sexual advances. Murdered and then buried in Belgium, Dymphna’s tomb became linked with miraculous cures of the mentally ill. Do you suppose there’s another place in Christendom with a church bearing her name? I’ll bet Saint Ahab registers about as high on that scale, another unexpected link with Geel.

As we approach the twenty-fifth anniverary of sister-city status, I wonder what other parallels exist between us and those highly suspect Europeans. And just what is normal, anyway? Damned if I know.