Schoonering Through Nebraska

A Blog of Sorts

Filed under: Blog |

Kwame Dawes and Marianne Kunkel are embarking on a goodwill tour across Nebraska, from public library to public library to connect people with the journal and to celebrate the value of the literary arts in the states. Along the way, they are blogging about their journey. This is Kwame’s second blog entry after a visit to Potter, Nebraska.

Potter, NE
Pop. 337

The Potter Public Library opens on Wednesdays and Saturdays. It is an elegant former frontier bank transformed into a library in the 1920s by townspeople impressed by the spirit of the Carnegie library movement. Today, the librarian, Gail Dunkle, is a recent transplant from New Mexico whose enthusiasm and savvy have turned a space that was clogged to overflowing with stacks and stacks of cheap paperbacks and vintage rare first editions, organized with no discrimination for value, into a neatly organized, warmly decorated, compact library with its own vault for rare books, and a fascinating collection of western Nebraskan texts—a playpen for history buffs and curious children. And there is a lovely children’s reading room she has recently established.

She is proud of the library, and she has taken on this project with great gusto while her husband, a retired mechanic, has taken on the renovation of their home, a former Lutheran Church built well over a century ago.

Our audience was made up of her two adult children; her two smart and alert grandchildren; another neighbor who herself is a recent transplant; the brilliant New Mexico landscape artist Debra Salopek; a young man called Mark Anthony, recently transplanted from California with his passion for hip hop and taking startlingly dramatic photos of the western Nebraska sky on his phone; and his twenty-year-old girlfriend—a couple hungry for art and inspiration in a quiet, small town.

The theme of our trip thus far is that we can tell who each member of our audience is. We meet them, read at close quarters, and find out so much about their lives even as they ask us questions about life and art.

Some of the most insightful and thoughtful questions came from the artist, Debra, who had taken the time to go searching for our histories and to let that spark her curiosity. Never were the questions acts of politeness or good decorum. They grew out of a genuine desire to know, to discover, to affirm. It was an enriching conversation all around.

Afterwards she invited the whole party across the street to a splendidly laid out studio where she works. It was cozy. The walls were white and interrupted by square canvases of haunting landscape studies—the prairies laid out in shadow and light—alarming, muscular, and almost surrealistic and abstract when her focus became intense and tight. She moved around the work talking about what she was reaching for. There was in her the very familiar combination of confidence and dissatisfaction—a kind of productive impatience and hunger for perfection in her manner. The loft smelt bright with oils, and the space felt fecund with energy—creative energy.

Our little party had turned into an impromptu gallery visit with plastic cups of wine and great conversation. We left feeling enriched by the generosity of an artist, a librarian, a cook, a freestyle poet, a brilliant baker of cookies (the daughter of Gail), and above all folks who seemed to have learned from their own travels the value of hospitality to strangers.

Finally, a word of thanks to Maida who fed us in her restaurant, The Sundry, a former drugstore and soda fountain built nearly a hundred years ago, where she bakes the best pies each day and what she calls healthy and country food, meaning the kind of heavy fare that is hearty. And we had what I think is called a mess of mashed potatoes with white gravy and peas and a decidedly delicious salad. I worked hard on this meal since earlier that day I made the mistake of consuming the vegetarian plate at Bags’ Bar and Steak House, just a few feet down the road from The Sundry: corn nuggets, jalapeno bottle stoppers, onion rings, and fries. I decided to pass on the beer-battered mushrooms. While I eat them, I am not that fond of mushrooms.

And the next morning, after a breakfast highlighted by delicious wild plum and chokecherry preserves, my wife, Lorna, demanded a Dutch apple pie to go. Amazing!!

After taking shots of the library and sunrise, we headed out for Lexington and Broken Bow.