artwork created during artists stroke rehabilitation
Minn. Art is a healing thing, said sculptor Gordon
Van Wert. Sculpting carried the 56-year-old member of the Red Lake
Band of Chippewa Indians through his tedious recovery from a paralyzing
stroke. Forty years earlier, the chance to take art classes had
whisked him off the South Minneapolis streets that were leading
to a dead end.
the four-foot carving that took shape during his stroke rehabilitation,
Medicine Bag is an inspirational centerpiece at North
Country Health Services in Bemidji, Minn. Not only does it stand
for determination, but both sides of the sculpture hold symbolism
that was meaningful to his healing journey. He hopes it will lift
the spirits of others.
from tribal and health organizations funded the purchase of the
artwork, which was dedicated earlier this fall at the hospitals
care at North Country Regional Hospital and the renewing powers
of art, Gordon found a unique path to healing through his artistry.
His inspiring story speaks to the compelling combination of art
and medicine, said Linnea Papke-Larson, chairperson of the
NCHS Art Committee.
was three years ago Sept. 22 that Van Wert suffered an embolic stroke
while traveling on business near Washington, D.C. Fortunately, he
was close enough to get to a Maryland hospital where emergency treatment
cleared the blood clot that had deprived oxygen to the right side
of his brain. But the stroke left his entire left side paralyzed.
The next step would be rehabilitation back home at NCHSs Acute
journey was difficult and long, said Van Wert, but I
looked and found a unique path through this challenge through my
art. The exercise was a physical, emotional and spiritual
logic would say a left-handed sculptor might never work again, determination
pushed Van Wert to reclaim his strength and mobility.
art has always been my emotional therapy and it became my physical
therapy, he said. Its such a demanding job carving
stone, so that really helped me out with my motor skills.
enough, the vibrating force of his pneumatic tools helped stimulate
his damaged nerve endings, he said.
realized I could move my toes a little bit and my fingers, so I
just kept doing that. After a few weeks of working at it, I was
able to raise my arm and open and close my hand. After three
months, he picked up his tools again.
stimulated me and kept me working, he recalls. I got
tired real quick when I first started carving again after the stroke,
but I just kept at it and it just started really helping a lot.
design of Medicine Bag speaks symbolically of spiritual
healing processes. One side of the limestone work is carved into
an eagle feather with a medicine wheel. The reverse side is a medicine
bag with an eagle rising from it.
eagle feather has been so powerful in all spiritual healing in almost
every Native tribe on this continent, Van Wert explained.
That was the symbol of the strength of the medicine.
comes from the medicine bag, representing purification, among other
symbols. The medicine bag may contain roots, leaves, tobacco representing
the natural medicines of the Indigenous peoples. There is strength
in this kind of medicine.
Van Wert often gives pep talks to patients in NCHS Acute Recovery
Unit, he tells them they can do it, too.
can heal yourself from within. After what happened to me, I realize
that the mind is such an incredible, powerful thing for your body.
appreciation to NCHS for their excellent therapy that
helped inspire the piece, Van Wert made the sculpture
available for $10,000, where it normally would sell for $25,000.
NCHS has committed $5,000 towards the purchase. Also making the
installation possible were The Anishinaabe Arts Initiative, a program
supported by the Region 2 Arts Council with funding from the McKnight
Foundation; Red Lake Gaming on behalf of the Red Lake Band of Chippewa
Indians; Bemidji Medical Equipment; the North Country Health Services
Auxiliary and the NCHS Art Committee.
Wert keeps on sculpting and sculpting keeps him going, but every
day is still a challenge, he said. With the weirdness of the
nerve damage, the muscles are always trying to atrophy, so its
an ongoing battle every day trying to keep your muscles stretched
and trying to keep them moving, he said. He is grateful to
his wife, Mary, for running the business side so he is now free
to just create.
first sculpture after he got out of the hospital was on a big scale.
The 11-foot-tall Our Generations was commissioned for
the Midtown Exchange in the old Sears building in South Minneapolis,
Van Werts boyhood summer home.
dad left the family when Gordon was 10 and his mother had to raise
seven children by herself. Gordon was starting to find trouble in
South Minneapolis, but art got him out of it. I got sent away
to art school in New Mexico when I was 14. The judge told my mom
either I was going to reform school or a boarding school. It just
so happened they were recruiting students in Red Lake for that school
in Santa Fe (Institute of American Indian Arts.)
Army service, he returned to the school for a postgraduate program
and really got into sculpture when he was taught by Alan Houser,
known as the patriarch of Native American sculpture. Then Housers
student Doug Hyde opened up the power of air hammers, Dremel tools
Wert will be teaching some classes in Red Lake to try and inspire
some of the talented young people there. Ill tell them
the stories of how I was able to make it this far after art school,
because I was in some pretty bad situations when I was young.
was really a haphazard kind of way that I even got to be an artist,
he said. It turned out to be a good thing.