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History in watercolor: Local painter captures Litchfield's historic buildings
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Julie Rydberg didn’t start painting until February.

Less than nine months later, the Litchfield mother of three is already making history, in a sense, with her watercolors.

“It’s amazing. I’m just amazed,” Rydberg, 35, said. “I look (at her paintings) and think, ‘Did I do that?’ No, it can’t be that good. The brain hasn’t caught up yet. It’s been a fast ride.”

Indeed, for someone who was inspired to paint by the storybooks she read to her children, and who has never had formal training in painting, Rydberg’s initial forays into watercolors have been an unqualified success.

She already has accepted commissions to paint a number of buildings in Litchfield, as well as several homes from throughout the country. Included in her work are paintings of the Litchfield Opera House, Post Office, Hollywood Theater and Litchfield Woolen Mills.

“It’s fun. It’s a lot of fun,” Rydberg said of her new-found talent and the attention it has received. “I’ve been having a blast. It’s been a good outlet for me.”

Rydberg grew up in Alabama and attended a small Christian college in the South, where she earned a bachelor’s degree and master’s in secondary education. She and her husband, Andrew, moved to Litchfield 13 years ago, buying an older home with some history of its own and remodeling it.

Though a big change from the South, Rydberg said she enjoys Minnesota and especially the Litchfield area. As she has gotten to know it, much of that appreciation has focused on the many older, historic buildings and homes in the city.

Her interest in painting some of those structures, she says, grew from reading to her children.

“We read a lot, and a lot of these books are illustrated, and as an artistic person, I was inspired by those books and said, ‘I could do that,’” she said. “Some of my favorite (books) were illustrated with watercolor, and I thought those are the most eye-catching and beautiful to look at.”

Rydberg recalls taking some art lessons as a child, mostly working with acrylic and oil paints. But she says she had not done any real painting since then, and especially not watercolors

Still, the more she read to her children, the more she was encouraged to pick up a brush.

“I just thought, you know, I could do this, I could write and illustrate a book,” Rydberg said. “And that’s really what was the springboard for my watercolor adventure.

“And I thought I should get some practice in actually painting first, before I try to do illustrations for a book, and it’s led me to this,” she added, “my project for the historic buildings.”

Once she decided to give it a try, Rydberg chose the Litchfield Opera House as her first subject. Capturing the 120-year-old building’s stately appearance as a “first try” at watercolor painting might have been intimidating to some. Rydberg simply saw it as an opportunity.

“Oh, the Opera House was just a beautiful building. The restoration was so great, and it was just so eye catching. I think that’s what made me start with the Opera House,” Rydberg said. “My love for historic buildings started with my home. And it just grew from there. We started looking at historic buildings in town. There’s so many beautiful ones to choose from. And I just decided, you know, I should just do a series of historic buildings in Litchfield.”

Upon finishing the Opera House painting, Rydberg said, it was only natural to turn around and paint the Litchfield Post Office, a historic building in its own right — and just across the street from her first subject.

She shared her work on social media and was pleased with the reaction.

“I did the Post Office, and it was such a great reception from people in the community,” Rydberg said. “They were so excited.”

Among the enthusiastic supporters was Darlene Kotelnicki, a Litchfield City Council member and a member of the Greater Litchfield Opera House Association Inc., who shared with Rydberg the story of how a small group of volunteers worked to save and then revitalize the building that Rydberg had captured in watercolor.

“She told me how special that was for her,” Rydberg said. “I just loved hearing the stories about all the memories people had of the buildings that I’m painting. That’s special to me.”

As she got more into what she calls her historic building series, Rydberg solicited ideas from her social media followers, asking which buildings she should paint next. That led her to the Hollywood Theater and to the former Litchfield Woolen Mills building, current home of Integrated Power Services’ Litchfield Service Center, both of which she accepted a commissions for.

Most recently, followers urged her to paint the G.A.R. Hall, and Rydberg says she’s up for the challenge.

“It’s wonderful. I love to see people, especially my historic buildings and homes I do for people, remember things through my paintings, knowing that that’s something they’ll treasure,” Rydberg said. “You know, a flower is beautiful. And, you know, landscapes are wonderful, but really for me, knowing that they can remember and have the joy, the joy that it brings back to them, that’s really special.”

Despite the attention her work has received, Rydberg’s creative process is relatively anonymous.

She doesn’t set up an easel across the street from her architectural subject. Rather, she takes photographs of the building — or has those who commission her work do so — and uses those as her models to do pencil sketches and then begin the painting process.

She’s a stickler for detail and driven to create paintings that accurately tell the history and architectural significance of a building, but Rydberg does not spend hours in a studio in pursuit of those goals.

After all, she’s a wife and mother of three young children, just one of school age, who demand attention. So she often does her painting in short snippets of time, all in a small office in her Litchfield home.

“Just here and there when the children are napping,” Rydberg said with a smile. “I fit it in a few minutes here and there, a little bit during rest time, a little bit after bedtime. That would be cool to paint (outside), but I just do it at home in my little nook off my room … and it works well for now.”

Painting in short sessions, regularly interrupted by her children, might seem less than ideal, but Rydberg finds the positive, saying those interruptions are often helpful to her creative process.

“It gives me time to think about it, you know,” she said. “I should add a little shadow here, or I need to change color a little bit … it gives me a little thinking time.”

As she continues to improve her skills, Rydberg has reached out to other creative people in Litchfield and beyond. She also became a member of the National Watercolor Society.

“Personally, I’ve been trying to discover more local artists, follow them and see their work,” she said. “And that’s what’s fun sometimes, to talk shop … what other people are doing is very interesting to me.”

She figures it’s all part of her learning process as an artist, a title she’s been wearing for only several months, and into which she wants to continue to grow.

“I’m a very creative person,” Rydberg said. “So my creativity is going to find an outlet somewhere. Right now, watercolor painting is just really what gives me a time to be creative and learn new things and new techniques and, you know, even be a blessing to other people, by painting something that’s dear to them.”

“I look forward to doing watercolor for a long time,” she added. “That will be something I can enjoy for the rest of my life. I’m hooked. I’m hooked now.”

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County auditor seeks to clear up voter confusion
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Despite changes in election law and procedures aimed at making voting easier in Minnesota in recent years, confusion and uncertainty have ruled the day among Meeker County voters the past couple of weeks.

“There is a tremendous amount of voter confusion,” County Auditor Barb Loch said. “I think some of it stems (from) everyone knowing the high stakes of this election, which is always the case in a presidential election.”

The COVID-19 pandemic has created additional worries for voters, as well as the “information and misinformation” from news and social media sources.

“When we listen, we need to be educated in when it applies to Minnesota and when it doesn’t,” she said, adding that her office has fielded numerous inquiries from voters reacting to something they have seen on Facebook or national television news.

Loch pointed to one example of the confusion created by social media posts that have “informed” voters to be sure they put two stamps on their mail-in ballot to ensure that it reaches the auditor’s office and is counted correctly.

“The ballot has postage prepaid,” Loch said, meaning no stamp is needed to return it. “This is the type of misinformation that is rampant.”

She suggested using the Secretary of State’s election information website — MNVotes.org — as the go-to source for questions about everything from how to register to vote to whether a mail-in ballot has reached its destination in the county auditor’s office.

Much has been written and said about voting by mail this year, as some states encourage the practice as one answer to the potential risk of visiting the polls on Election Day, because of the coronavirus. Meanwhile, others question the validity of voting by mail.

Meeker County has had voting by mail for years, under two forms. The first is absentee ballots, for which any voter can request a ballot because they will be “absent from the poll location on Election Day.” Voters used to have provide a reason for their inability to vote on Election Day, but the state now allows no-excuse absentee ballots.

Meeker County also has 10 townships or municipalities that have vote by mail, for which every registered voter in the jurisdiction receives a ballot in the mail. Voters can return the ballot through the mail, or deliver it to a ballot box at the Meeker County Courthouse.

The 10 vote-by-mail townships and cities include the cities of Cedar Mills, Cosmos and Kingston, as well as the townships of Cedar Mills, Cosmos, Danielson, Darwin, Ellsworth, Forest City and Harvey.

Those 10 precincts account for more than 2,700 voters who will receive their ballots by mail. The auditor’s office planned to send all of those ballots to registered voters on Monday, according to Loch, so voters should already have begun to receive them. Any registered voter in one of the 10 cities or townships who has not received their ballot by next Monday should contact the auditor’s office.

It’s important to remember, Loch said, that the ballots are mailed only to registered voters in the 10 cities or townships. If someone is a new resident to one of the locations and have not registered at that new address, they will not receive a ballot there.

“We know there are missing people, and they will have to apply for a ballot,” Loch said.

Danielson and Harvey townships were the first in the county to transition to voting by mail, making the decision in 2016. Forest City and Darwin townships, meanwhile, just moved to vote by mail this year.

That transition often creates questions for residents, Loch said, as it did in Forest City and Darwin townships for the primary earlier this year.

“I don’t think we’ve ever had issues with mail-in,” Loch said. “But it’s an education piece with the voters, no doubt.”

While she understands the concern some voters have about fraud, Loch said she’s seen no evidence of it in Meeker County. The tracking provided through the Secretary of State’s office could help alleviate some of that worry, Loch said, as voters can see their own ballot advance through the process — or they can bring it in to the courthouse and see it put into the ballot box themselves.

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Football, volleyball seasons start next week
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High school football and volleyball will happen this fall after all, but they — like other fall sports — will look different.

For Litchfield High School athletes, the differences will include the length of the season and fans in the stands.

The Minnesota State High School League’s board of directors voted overwhelmingly on Sept. 21 to reinstate fall football and volleyball, reversing an earlier decision to push the two sports into an early spring 2021 schedule.

Litchfield will play six regular-season football games, opening the season Oct. 9 with a home game against Glencoe-Silver Lake and concluding Nov. 12. Meanwhile, the Dragons volleyball team will play 14 matches, beginning with a home contest against New London-Spicer Oct. 8 and closing Nov. 17.

“I want to thank you for your support and patience as we continue with our fall activities already in place, taking on the challenge of reinstating football and volleyball, and the obstacles of hybrid learning,” LHS Activities Director Justin Brown wrote in a letter sent to parents Friday, which also mentioned “several procedures and guidelines that have developed with that decision.”

Aside from the shortened seasons, the biggest change for both football and volleyball will be the spectators.

No spectators and “only essential workers” will be allowed at volleyball matches, Brown said in his letter. Instead of seeing the matches in person, fans will be able to watch live-streamed action. Links to those streams will be provided by the district through its social media accounts.

Football, meanwhile, will limit spectators to 250, with 75 of those tickets made available to the visiting team’s supporters. That means the home field advantage for the Dragons will be a cheering section of 175.

Tickets for football will be purchase or reserved through the LHS Activities Office.

In addition to some in-person fans, football games also will be live-streamed, with links provided through the district’s social media accounts before the games.

In addition to spelling out the football and volleyball seasons, Brown’s letter discussed the other fall sports teams that have been competing since the beginning of the school year.

“Each of the programs are doing an outstanding job of following the procedures and guidelines that have been given,” the letter read. “We are in the process of scheduling each Section Tournament.”

Minnesota State High School League will not have state tournaments for any of the fall sports this year, so the seasons will end at the section tournament level.

The league’s board of directors is scheduled to meet again on Thursday, Oct. 1, to decide a start date for winter sport. It’s certain to be later than usual, due to the reinstatement of football and volleyball. But that change also means that spring sports likely will being in early April, rather than the discussed mid-May start when the league initially set an early spring scheduled for football and volleyball.