Artist transforms I-35 bridge fragments into jewelry

Tragedy inspires art
Artist Linda Koutsky lives near the I-35W bridge that collapsed in August of 2007. On her frequent walks along the river she has collected small fragments of paint and metal, and turned them into necklaces.
Images courtesy of Linda Koutsky and MNDOT

At the Minnetonka Center for the Arts, artist Linda Koutsky looks over the work she's created during the past year courtesy of a scholarship program. Her collection is almost all necklaces, made with objects you might not normally associate with jewelry: pieces of bark, river stones, taconite pellets, and owl feathers.

Artist Linda Koutsky
Artist Linda Koutsky has devoted herself to documenting life in Minnesota, both through her art, and in her writing. She and her mother have written three books together: Minnesota Eats Out, Minnesota Vacation Days and Minnesota State Fair.
MPR Photo/Marianne Combs

"I kind of joke that I'm a pathological regionalist" laughed Koutsky. "I love Minnesota, and so it's just whatever I can do to document the state."

Koutsky has been capturing life in the land of ten thousand lakes for years. In addition to her art, she's co-authored three books with her mother: Minnesota Eats Out, Minnesota Vacation Days and Minnesota State Fair.

The cases of jewelry in the gallery are organized into categories: Lake Superior, Mississippi River, urban found objects, and MNDOT Bridge #9340. That's the I-35W bridge that collapsed two summers ago, killing thirteen people.

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Koutsky lives near the bridge and walks along the river regularly. It was on one of those walks that she started noticing things on the ground - small things, like dark green paint chips, rusted out washers, and bits of "do not Cross" police tape. She brought them back to her jewelry class, and started framing the pieces in silver and hanging them on chains.

Do Not Cross
Among the objects artist Linda Koutsky collected on her river walks was police tape. Cut into small fragments, the letters become abstract forms.
Photography by Linda Koutsky

"I made some pieces and I would wear them, and everything that I made that was 35W people would comment on," said Koutsky. "Strangers...I had people stop me on stairways, and they'd say 'oh I love your necklace!'"

Koutsky said at first she'd just say thank you, not explaining that she made them, or what they were. She worried people would react negatively. She still ponders whether she should make necklaces for the families of those who died, or if they wouldn't want to be reminded of the event. So far, her work has been well received.

"When I did start telling people what the pieces were, everyone thought that it was an amazing way to acknowledge what happened here in Minnesota," said Koutsky.

Gallery Opening
Artist Linda Koutsky's jewelry is on display at the Minnetonka Center for the Arts. Her necklaces are in cases along with other found objects from her walks.
MPR Photo/Marianne Combs

On opening night at the gallery a small crowd of friends, family and colleagues showed up to look at Koutsky's new work. True to form, Koutsky put out snacks with a Minnesota theme, including Pearson's Nut Goodies. Her display cases looked like they're from an archeological museum - her necklaces are set among rusted coils and rocks, representing the environment they originally came from.

Among those in attendance at the opening was Koutsky's friend, musician Charlie Maguire. Maguire and Koutsky often walk along the river together, and Maguire encouraged her to use the pieces from the bridge in her jewelry.

"During the first and second world wars you had - especially during the first world war you had trench art, where you were using bullet casings," said Maguire. "My dad, I remember making paperweights and stuff out of plexiglass from the airplanes that crashed on his airfield in England. There's something about history and people wanting to keep it close. And I don't think you can have it any closer than wearing it."

Rusted washer
Artist Linda Koutsky collected remnants of metal and paint around the collapsed I-35W bridge, including this rusted-out washer. She sorted through the items, rejecting those objects she wasn't sure came from the bridge.
Photograph by Linda Koutsky

Also at the reception was Koutsky's jewelry teacher, Sara Commers. Commers is a more traditional jeweler; she works with precious metals and gemstones to make engagement rings and other beautiful objects. Commers says Koutsky brought a whole different perspective to the classroom.

"Her coming to class with rocksalt in the middle of winter and bezel setting it into a ring was incredibly laughable and yet inspiring to me," said Commers.

Commers said she doesn't look at Koutsky as a jeweler, but rather an artist who has incorporated the tools of jeweler into her work.

Owl feather
Artist Linda Koutsky's jewelry takes inspiration from Minnesota nature, as well as its history. Here she created a necklace using an owl feather she picked up on a walk.
Photograph by Linda Koutsky

Linda Koutsky agreed. She said her necklaces are more like souvenirs; reminders of a time and place in Minnesota history. She said taking a found object - weather it's a piece of birch bark or a piece of paint from the I-35 bridge - and encasing it in silver changes the way we look at it.

"I don't think it necessarily makes it beautiful. Because a lot of these objects are not inherently beautiful," said Koutsky. "But it's acknowledging it."

And Koutsky said it's when you stop to look more closely at an ordinary object that you can find the beauty - and the story - within.

Linda Koutsky's jewelry exhibition is on display at the Minnetonka Center for the Arts through May 2.