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40 years in focus: Photographer looks back for MSUM retrospective

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Keri PIckett's photo of her grandparents from the book "Love in the 90s" became one of the photographer's best known images. Courtesy of the artist / Special to The Forum

MOORHEAD — Just hours after hanging her midcareer retrospective late into the night, Keri Pickett is back in the Minnesota State University Moorhead School of Art Gallery . She wanders through the sprawling exhibit, exhausted from the long hours she and students spent assembling over 250 items — photos, films, pastel drawings, awards and ephemera for the show.

Then a student strolls into the gallery and past the artist, not knowing who she is. He turns his head to take it all in and utters a low, but very audible, “Wow.”

Pickett’s eyes open wide and her mouth drops open in excitement.

“That’s what I wanted,” she says, suddenly animated. “I wanted to show students what a career looks like.”

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This iconic photo of Keri PIckett's grandparents from the series "Love in the 90s," seen in the background, welcomes visitors to the Minnesota State University Moorhead School of Art Gallery. Dave Arntson / MSUM / Special to The Forum

“Keri Pickett — Track Record: Film, Photos, Paper & Canvas,” made possible by the MSUM Alumni Foundation, is a sort of homecoming show for the artist, celebrating 40 years of photography dating back to her years studying the craft at MSUM. The show spans work she made as a student and culminates with a screening of her latest movie, “First Daughter and the Black Snake,” on Saturday, Oct. 5.

“It’s overwhelming,” she says a few minutes later, reflecting on the exhibit. “I feel very happy that this is where my roots are. It totally changed my life. It’s a great opportunity to check back in on what I wanted in life and actually, I did much more than I could have ever expected.”

Pickett grew up moving around, but her family settled down in Little Falls, Minn., when she was 12.

After graduating from MSUM in the early 1980s, she followed the advice of her photo teacher, Don McRaven, who told her she had “too much energy” for the Midwest and should move to New York. Once there, she sent her photos as postcards once a month to the photo chief of The Village Voice until he hired her.

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A student studies images Keri Pickett took of the music and art scene in New York in the early 1980s. Dave Arntson / MSUM / Special to The Forum

Using her new position, she set out to document the '80s arts scene. She shot concerts for The Voice, from Kool & The Gang and Run DMC to Minneapolis’ own The Replacements, Hüsker Dü and “Purple Rain”-era Prince, some shots she’d never exhibited before. She also trained her camera on the bar Tin Pan Alley, where punks, sex workers and artists, like employees Kiki Smith and Nan Goldin, all hung out.

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She stayed in New York for most of the decade until a cancer diagnosis prompted her to move back to Minneapolis for treatment. Therapy took its toll, but she was inspired by younger patients with life-threatening illnesses and began documenting their fights.

She balanced her time with the kids by visiting her grandparents, finishing up the ends of her film rolls documenting their long, touching relationship. A book on the young patients was shelved and instead in 1995 she published “Love in the 90s,” a bound collection of photos and love letters between her elders. The book was a huge success and images have been republished in a number of publications.

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Students study a section of photos from Keri Pickett's "Faerie" series at MSUM. Dave Arntson / MSUM / Special to The Forum

She followed up “Love in the 90s” five years later with “Faeries: Visions, Voices and Pretty Dresses,” a look at a rural Minnesota community of gay men who call themselves the Radical Faeries. Four years after that, she published “Saving Body and Soul: The Mission of Mary Jo Copeland.” Copeland founded the Minneapolis nonprofit Sharing & Caring Hands, which offers aid to the homeless.

Between publications, Pickett has documented trips to India, Africa and Burma and worked on other photo projects on American Indians, Tibetan resettlement in Minneapolis, organic farming and reviving a project on Tin Pan Alley. In 2013, she made her first feature-length documentary, “The Fabulous Ice Age,” about ice skating entertainers like Sonja Henie.

She has just returned from filming a female taiko drum troupe in Japan.

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Keri Pickett's photo of Sonja Holding Eagle became the image for the Honor the Earth nonprofit. Keri PIckett / Special to The Forum

Her second film, “First Daughter and the Black Snake,” follows Anishinaabe environmental activist Winona LaDuke's fight against oil pipelines coming through Minnesota, including the lakes some American Indians use for wild rice harvests.

Pickett first met LaDuke in 1983 when she was photographing American Indian gatherings and causes. The two have remained friends and the activist has been the subject of a few photo essays, including a recent one on industrial hemp.

LaDuke’s nonprofit, Honor the Earth, which raises awareness and funds to support environmental causes, uses a 1995 Pickett photo, “Indian Country: Sonja Holy Eagle,” as its main image.

“She’s a storyteller, but she tells them from the inside. She’s not a silent, outside observer. She really connects with her subjects,” says Anna Arnar, professor of art history and colloquium coordinator at MSUM. “She has a deep connection with her subjects. She’s not an impersonal observer.”

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Minnesota State University Moorhead students hang a section of the work Keri Pickett made at MSUM 40 years ago in the midcareer retrospective, "Track record: Film, Photos, Paper & Canvas." Wendy Fuglestad / MSUM / Special to The Forum

One thing is constant in the wide-ranging display: a strong sense of intimacy between the artist and her subjects.

“I feel lucky to be a people person, to care about people,” Pickett says, calling empathy her superpower. “A lot of people don’t have the opportunity to step outside of their lives. We learn about the world through others.”

Part of that was instilled by her own art history teacher at MSUM, Sister Virginia Barsch, who she said inspired Pickett with her passion for art.

“I feel like I’m hearing some good stories about our history. Artists are good historians. Sister Virginia Barsch taught me that. I feel like I’m a historian,” Pickett says. “I feel kind of fated to tell some of these stories, that’s my purpose”

If you go

What: Screening of “First Daughter and the Black Snake”

When: 3-5 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 5

Where: Glasrud Auditorium, Weld Hall, MSUM

If you go

What: Closing reception for “Keri Pickett — Track Record: Film, Photos, Paper & Canvas”

When: 5-7:30 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 5

Where: MSUM School of Art Gallery, Roland Dille Center for the Arts

For 20 years John Lamb has covered art, entertainment and lifestyle stories in the area for The Forum.
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