Introducing Su Legatt, artist-in-residence

A mass of fine, white sand with bits of short green stems and shredded yellow flowers forms the background. Hand-drawn dark blue waves overlap the sand in the top and bottom left. The right side of the image has a circular photo frame, and in that frame is a farmer standing near a grassy field in the daytime. They lean over, picking plants with a wide-brimmed hat shading their eyes.

The Source Water Protection Collaborative is a Minnesota-based partnership dedicated to promoting land usage that safeguards drinking water sources. Artist, educator, and community organizer Su Legatt was recently commissioned by Environmental Initiative and the Source Water Protection Collaborative to creatively engage Little Falls, Minnesota residents on issues of drinking water and environmental health. We recently met with Su to learn more about her plans for the project and her approach to creative engagement. This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.

What first interested you in working with the Source Water Protection Collaborative, personally or professionally?

For me, I have a growing education and interest in land use and land rights, how it relates to my family, how land rights relate to the state, and the history of the land and water. For me, water and land are two in the same really. Water is a direct consumption that affects us and becomes, unfortunately, hugely political, especially in Minnesota.

The histories of the land and water are so fascinating to me. It’s something I’m thinking about in this project. I was also equally interested in working in Little Falls again. I was born in Little Falls, and for the first four years of my life, was in the country on a farm outside of Little Falls by Flensburg, Minnesota. We moved away, but my grandparents lived there, so we come back all the time. I have three aunts in the area on both sides of my family.

Last summer, I was brought on to help wrap up the Our Town grant project in Little Falls, so I was really interested in coming back, working in Little Falls some more, expanding my own practice around water and land, and continuing the goal of creative education.

What can you tell us about early art concepts you’re thinking through?

The crux of the project is a series of digital prints inspired by traditional broadsides and printmaking technique known as chine collé. Broadsides are sort of an artistic poster, combining visuals with text. Chine collé is the process of layering extremely thin sheets of paper, each with visual information. My background is in photography and digital media, and printing on alternative surfaces is a technique I have developed over the past 20 years.

What excites you about this project? I know you’re in the early stages of planning, but do you see initial opportunities?

Yes! I’m excited to expand on the relationships I made last year. From working on the Our Town grant, I know there’s an interest from the community to continue developing our goals and community engagement conversations. I’m excited to continue that because one of the goals is to foster collaboration. I love to work collaboratively and share ownership and create situations where anybody can or cannot choose to be involved in whatever capacity they feel comfortable.

Additionally, the project has very clear goals. But the method and achieving those goals is pretty open to interpretation, and that rarely comes along in my practice. So as an artist working in community, please be patient with me! I am not used to having these resources. Many public artists or community engagement artists, like myself, are a little like MacGyver—having to piece things together.  Even as I was sitting down to make the budget, I was thinking, “I think I can borrow that from somebody, and I think I can find this resource here…” I have to stop myself because I have what I need. I don’t have to fix anything. All the resources and the openness of the project is very exciting, which is exciting and rare.

Along those lines, part of this project is proving that a community engagement and artist-based model can work. We know that if you give the experts the resources they need, they can do meaningful community engagement work on important issues. Do you have kind of an early sense of what more you’ll be able to accomplish with the people of Little Falls?

I’m having conversations with the host team right now. There are so many layers already developing in this project. The first one is collaboration between the various organizations and entities, and then expand to work with the community as well.

There’s this shifting mentality about what public art can be, especially in a city like Little Falls, which has a lot of murals. And murals are great, but they can be problematic and exclusive. And on the flip side, if the mural is fantastic and everybody loves it, folks can become incredibly attached to it. However, many years down the road when it starts to deteriorate, what happens? How do you preserve something that is not meant to be permanent? There can be a lot of challenging conversations around sustainability.

Instead, there’s opportunity to expand the definition of public art into being an experience, event, or conversation. Public art can be more than just what we see, it can be how we feel and what we do. And a lot of times, that can have more of an impact and more of a ripple effect in terms of changing or strengthening a community.

In terms of engagement opportunities, one of the goals of this project is to cast a wide, wide net. I tried to design the project in a way where there’s lots of ways to engage. Whether they can do it physically in person, or they want to do something at home in their own comfort. I’m trying to make this project as broad and inclusive as possible to meet people where they’re at, and in whatever way they feel comfortable engaging, even if it’s to not engage at all.

Lastly, what’s been one surprising thing that you’ve learned so far?

Yes! I just learned this, but every water utility in the state of Minnesota must do a complete inventory of every single pipe in their system, even inside the home. That means the city of Little Falls maps out all the pipes and categorizes them into one of four types: contains lead, may contain lead, doesn’t contain lead, and unknown. So there is opportunity to reach out into the community and ask for pipe information through this work as well. There’s much more room to incorporate other goals into the public-benefit work.

Also, I’ve learned a little bit about Crane Meadows. I was surprised by the fact that this is one of the only wildlife reserves that was established to protect the water, and not the animals, as it’s a major source for the Mississippi and many communities further down river.

A note from Environmental Initiative:

In April 2023, the Source Water Protection Collaborative announced artists-in-residence Sharon and Shirley Nordrum and welcomed their art and community engagement expertise into Little Falls. Sadly, Shirley Nordrum passed away shortly thereafter. Following Shirley’s passing, Sharon made the decision to step back from the work. Since then, Sharon and Su Legatt have spent time together discussing the project and transitioning the effort to Su.

Shirley Nordrum leaves behind a rich legacy. We encourage you to learn more about her generous spirit and impact in the Red Lake Nation.

Correction: On August 30, 2023, a quote in this blog post was updated to reflect that the service line inventory for the city of Little Falls refers to lead instead of iron.