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Making art imitate life

Hans Gilsdorf (above) is currently working on a mural that will be displayed at the new Sanford Heart Hospital in Sioux Falls, S.D. When finished, the piece will light up a landscape of the Big Sioux River and two types of high rises that capture the hospital and the city.

Detroit Lakes artist Hans Gilsdorf is once again making his mark on another Midwestern hospital and its patients in need of healing.

Gilsdorf was selected to create a mural for the Sanford Heart Hospital in Sioux Falls, S.D., slated to open next month.

Since getting the project just before Thanksgiving, the artist has been working under a tight deadline to come up with, design and construct a piece of art that showcases what the hospital is all about -- from the hospital builders to its workers to each patient that walks in the door.

"They wanted lights and glass and involvement with all the people," said Gilsdorf, "they're all one team taking care of that one person -- that was important."

The mural, which stands three feet by 11 and a half feet, was dreamt up by Gilsdorf himself, as he sketched the idea of two high rises split by the Big Sioux River.

"The right hand side of the mural shows downtown Sioux Falls, representing the high rise of that part of the world," explained Gilsdorf from his studio on Lake Sallie, "On the left hand side it represents the grain elevators, the high rise of the prairie and the agricultural area, and so it's all tied together with the big river, the prairies and the fields and agriculture.

Those fields are represented by hand-selected, hand-crafted pieces of wood similar to the look of a previous piece Gilsdorf created for Sanford in an effort to tie the hospitals together.

The woodwork, along with the physical construction of much of the actual mural, was put together by Gilsdorf's partner, Dwight Williams, a Fargo artist.

"He's the constructural magician ... the engineer who takes it from paper and makes it functional," said Gilsdorf, who knew he had to somehow also create a river made of glass.

The glass had to be hollow and backlit; it had to be bent, and it had to be clear, yet rippled. Gilsdorf knew it would take another artist to create the glass. Luckily, he also knew Becky Mitchell, the "Glass Lady" of Detroit Lakes, who works at the Holmes Theater.

"So I called her up and she said, 'Sure, I can do that,' and she was just great to work with," said Gilsdorf.

Twenty thousand colored glass beads will fill Mitchell's glass river, which will then light up a hallway somewhere near the lobby of the new hospital.

A Sanford marketing specialist and Indigo Signworks out of Fargo created some graphic work for the mural as well, highlighting photos of just some of the many people who helped make the Heart Hospital a reality.

"If somebody's never been to the city and has to come in for a major heart procedure, you have to have something that speaks to them, too," said Gilsdorf, who has also left those same, artistic fingerprints on the MeritCare Children's Hospital in Fargo, the Physical Therapy Department of St. Mary's Hospital in Detroit Lakes and Bismarck's Medcenter One Children's Hospital as part of Amber's Dream Project (a Peter Pan-inspired project that Gilsdorf helped create in honor of Amber Des Roches, a young girl who lost her life to leukemia.)

Gilsdorf's artistic talents, which began by doing special effects for movies, then bronze pieces for museums and galleries, took a magical twist of their own when his oldest daughter was born with a heart problem.

Weeks in a hospital with his wife and sick child gave him some inspiration of his own, and that's when he began creating the kind of art that works hand in hand with medicine to heal both the body and the soul.

He rallied his talents in film, his experience with gallery art and channeled it to create what he hopes is like a little Disneyland inside hospitals for the kids who need it the most.

"I'm very fortunate," said Gilsdorf, "I'm very excited and I'm very humble that people like my work and what I do, and that's the biggest thing that gets you up in the morning is to go out in your studio and see if you can make a difference in somebody else's life who's in a crummy situation."

Gilsdorf says they'll be moving the mural from his studio to Sioux Falls sometime around the middle of this month.