My Summer at the Sandhills Institute

posted by – 09/15/17 @ 12:18pm

It’s so wonderful to finally be back in the gallery after a long summer of travel.  For a majority of the summer, I had the pleasure of interning with Mel Ziegler at his Sandhills Institute, an artist residency program.

Having grown up on a dairy farm, artist Mel Ziegler did not leave agricultural life behind.  His career has taken him all over the world, from New York to Brazil, but he prefers his newfound home in the Sandhills of Nebraska…


Ziegler recently purchased the Historic Davis Pine Creek Ranch in Rushville, Nebraska and launched the Sandhills Institute. This organization focuses on the creation of community engaging art in and around the community of Rushville.  Ziegler invites artists to a residency program that encourages the creation of civically engaged artwork.  The fellows are required to visit the institute a minimum of three times in order to become acquainted with the community before proposing a project. They are then encouraged to utilize the vast skillset of Rushville’s population and work together to produce artwork.  The program truly forges strong bonds between leading artists from around the world and the community of local ranchers.

As an intern for the summer 2017 Artist Residency program, I had the privilege to work with returning artists Russell Bauer, David Brooks, and Kayla Meyer, and the first international artist, Jorge Menna Barreto.  Russell is the furthest along in his fellowship, already working with a local rancher/self-taught engineer to create a kinetic sculpture. I’ve included an article I wrote for the Sheridan County Journal Star below, featuring a photo of Russell and Bob planning their project.


David spent his time exploring the community, meeting new people, and conducting research.  David actually spent a day with just the interns, where we all took a road trip up to South Dakota.  Our first stop was the site of the Wounded Knee Massacre at the Lakota Pine Ridge Indian Reservation.  There, we visited the grave site and met a woman who directed us to visit an informational sign on the historic event.  More information can be found HERE.  After our history lesson, we piled back in the car and watched the landscape change from rolling grasslands to breathtaking layered rock formations, spires, and canyons. We found the badlands!  The interns hiked to the tallest peak, while David wandered off on a bird-watching mission.  After we ran out of water, we decided it was a good time to get back in the car and head to our next stop: Mount Rushmore.  On the way, we drove through the Black Hills National forest, surrounded by massive pine trees. Suddenly, Mount Rushmore was no longer a legend from my third grade history textbook – it was a real sculpture in the side of a mountain standing before me! David even brought binoculars so we could examine the fine lines and details of the rock monument.  After a long drive home, we marveled at all of the potential adventures around the Sandhills, and our newly fostered friendship with a professional artist.

We were afforded many opportunities to explore the “wild west” with the artists.  We saw national monuments, natural wonders, and even Car Henge!


Kayla Meyer, a landscape architect, was working on a design for the empty lots next to the Main St. Grocery Store in Rushville.  Mel actually purchased the old grocery store with the intention of creating a cultural arts center for the city of Rushville! Kayla spent her time this summer exploring a local greenhouse. Russ Finch created a greenhouse that relies solely on geothermal energy that allows the growth of tropical plants in harsh climates at a low cost.  Kayla also attended Chamber of Commerce meetings and intends on helping to design new welcome signs for the city of Rushville.  Having spent most of the summer with male artists, the female interns especially appreciated having “girl time” with Kayla.  She even taught me how to use Adobe Illustrator, which gave me opportunities to create graphic designs for later projects in the summer!


Brazilian artist, Jorge Menna Barreto, immediately showed an interest in food ecology at the Institute.  He initially hoped to create a Sandhills smoothie, utilizing the local grasses, but instead produced a Stinging Nettle Powder.  Inspired by a Robert Smithson quote, Jorge said he “would let the site determine what [he] would build,” and focused on the abundant Nettle surrounding the institute.  Stinging Nettle is an abundant local plant that has been used to treat joint pain, eczema, urinary issues, anemia, and more. With the help of the interns and the Ziegler family, Jorge dried the nettle, blended and powdered it in order to make it edible, and bottled and labeled the product.  I helped design a label for the project, and was inspired by Jorge’s desire for hand drawn and intimate packaging, and how that echoed his connection with the landscape.  He intends for this project, titled Urtica Dioica, to conceptualized wild edible food to teach our bodies how to reconnect with nature around us through our digestive systems.



Between learning how to operate a ranch, fixing barbed wire fence, paperwork, cooking, cleaning, and designing, I also had the wonderful opportunity of living and working alongside Mel’s family.  They work tirelessly to operate the Sandhills Institute. Both his wife and his sons lend a helping hand to both artists and interns with day to day tasks, and they make sure everyone feels like they’re part of the family.  It was truly a unique experience, having all of the interns, artists, and family living under the same roof and sitting down together for dinner at the end of each day. I will forever be thankful for such an incredible experience.


I even made the front page of the website – Check it out!

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