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Minnesota State University, Mankato
Minnesota State University, Mankato

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David Murano's camera documents lives of 'average' southern Minnesotans

Historical museum exhibitions

Art faculty member David Morano has spent the last couple of decades photographing the landscapes, architecture and people of southern Minnesota. His latest project -- a documentary of life in Watonwan County -- will be displayed at the St. James historical society.

By Amanda Dyslin, Free Press Staff Writer [published in The Free Press, Mankato, MN, 6/13/2007]

Photo by Pat Christman
David Morano hanging photographs
David Morano is an art professor at Minnesota State University. An exhibit of his photographs of Watonwan County residents is on display at the Watonwan County Historical Society Museum.

MADELIA — In his late 80s, Emmett Witherspoon still climbs ladders to trim the tops of apple trees next to his house in Darfur.

He still gardens. He still puts his mechanical skills to good use by repairing lawn mowers. He's still living a full life, and he's happy to share all kinds of stories about how he got where he is with anyone who cares to listen.

David Morano cared. Out of all the people in all the towns in southern Minnesota, it was Witherspoon who Morano sat down with and documented parts of his life through photographs and interviews for a photography exhibit called "Getting Older, Getting Wiser" at the Watonwan County Historical Society in Madelia.

Witherspoon isn't an influential government figure. He didn't invent anything or write a best-selling novel.

But he's lived and seen things from his own unique perspective and his spirit has endured as he has grown older, just like the 20 or so other Watonwan County residents Morano photographed and interviewed for the exhibit. And those qualifications, alone, make him worthy of a place in the show.

"He's feisty, still kicking, still not going to give up and still doing his thing," said Morano, a professor of art at Minnesota State University.

All of those featured in the exhibit were selected with the help of the historical society and township representatives because they were simply regular people from all walks of life who make up the fabric of Watonwan County in so many different ways. They represent different ages, genders, cultures and backgrounds.

The show is a collection of stories, a way of documenting the cultural landscape of Watonwan County and reflecting the experiences and values of those who live there. As a photographer, documenting environments in such a way is something Morano has been passionate about for decades.

Originally from Los Angeles, Morano moved to southern Minnesota almost 25 years ago and was struck by the rural culture. He didn't even know there were such things as ice cream socials until he started wandering through small towns and talking to the people who lived there.

Over the years he has taken photographs of landscapes, architecture, annual celebrations and residents. In 1995 Morano worked with the people of Minnesota Lake to document the city during its 130th anniversary. "Paper Stories From Minnesota Lake" was featured in a regional Minnesota Historical Society workshop, and Minnesota Public Radio presented a "Main Street Minnesota" segment of stories from the collection.

The project was extended in 2000 to include Yellow Medicine County, which Morano did in collaboration with Minnesota's Machinery Museum in Hanley Falls.

All of the work produced from these projects were donated to the museums for their permanent collections. The same will be done with the Watonwan County exhibit after it travels to St. James' historical society in July.

The projects aren't profitable ventures for Morano. They're funded by grants. But money was never the incentive.

"I like to photograph. I especally like to look at photographs of people telling me their stories," he said. "I like what happens when I do this. I feel it's important, and I like the way people respond to it."

He also learns a lot. In Watonwan County, Morano learned about the experiences of a bus driver for handicap people, a superintendent, a postmaster and a Hispanic man who talked about how poorly Hispanics are treated in the area.

Tom Anderson of Sveadahl collects childhood toys, model cars, tools, flags, dolls and other memorabilia. Kun Hung grew up in Communist China and now raises gingko biloba trees and Chinese vegetables near Madelia after having owned restaurants in Fairmont, St. James and Windom.

"These are people who make up Watonwan County — the people who are the workers, the ones that stay in the background," said Wilma Wolner, director of the historical society. "We've tried to find people that represent every area."

All of the people featured in the exhibit are fascinating, Morano said. But Witherspoon was one who stood out.

"He's an amazing character," he said. "I had a ball out there with him ... sitting in his chair, holding this Louis L'Amour novel that he's waving in the air."

Witherspoon doesn't know what the fuss is all about. He thought Morano was writing a book, and he was happy to chat him up for a little while about his life.

He was born and raised in Kansas and came to Minnesota in 1938 to work. After moving back to Kansas briefly, Witherspoon served in the Army during World War II and later moved to Watonwan County to farm.

With a background as a mechanic, farming didn't last long. He rented out the land and worked as an auto mechanic. He also served as constable in Darfur, which Morano found quite interesting.

"It wasn't anything," Witherspoon said. "It was more of a nuisance."

He kept watch over dances on Saturday nights. He watched traffic and wrote speeding tickets.

"Didn't amount to anything," he said.

Except maybe for great stories about close friends who were surprised they couldn't get out of tickets, or when people would let the air out of his tires during his lunch break.

"You have no idea these people are out there and some of them have done incredible things in their lives," Morano said. "Everybody has a story."

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