A long, winding road to New Ulm

Pelican diving into the waterfalls, Granite Falls.

Although the distance from Willmar to New Ulm is approximately 95 miles depending on what route you take, for new New Ulm resident John Kellen, the path here has encompassed several million miles and has taken him quite literally around the world.

Kellen recently became the new executive director at The Grand Center for Arts & Culture.

Receiving his first camera as a teenager, Kellen has been taking photographs his whole life.

Born in Marshall and living the first few years of his life on the banks of the South Fork, Yellow Medicine River in Minneota, John spent his formative years in Willmar.

After high school he attended Gustavus Adolphus College and graduated with a Bachelor of Arts in Economics and German, he eyeing a career in international business.

White-tailed Deer and Bald Sunflower near Willmar

“I wanted to get paid to travel the world. This was a means to do so.” said Kellen after his economic advisor suggested the Thunderbird School of Global Management in Glendale, Az. was one of the best international grad schools in the world.

His interest in travel began at a very young age.

“Summers were filled with adventures growing up with our family taking camping trips across the country and into Canada and Mexico often times taking in the sights of state and national parks such as Glacier, Grand Canyon, Sequoia and Yellowstone National Parks,” Kellen said. These experiences shaped Kellen’s worldview and would lead to future career choices.

Another pivotal moment was on a three-week high school language club trip to England, Germany, Austria, and France.

“It was amazing to see the cathedrals like Notre Dam and the Kölner Dom and visit museums such as the Louvre in Paris. Although the Mona Lisa wasn’t particularly my favorite, it was inspiring to take in so much art and culture,” he added.

Bald eagle at Sibley State Park

Photography opened new opportunities including his position at the Grand Center for Arts & Culture.

“I always considered myself artistic yet never an artist” he explained.

Kellen said he became interested in photography at a young age.

“My dad always had cameras and took Super 8 movies which he would show the family and friends documenting our travels. I got my first camera when I was in junior high and started taking photographs of my friends and our family trips,” Kellen said.

“In High School I purchased a Yashika 35mm SLR Camera and got more serious about working on my photography including taking color slides of our German Club trip to Europe,” he added.

At Gustavus he took his first photography class, Field Photography, and learned how to develop film and negatives in the darkroom.

“It was magical seeing the images appear before my very eyes. I also started shooting sporting events for the Gustavian like hockey games and gymnastics meets. I also took an art history class which opened my mind to the world of art and I’ve never looked back,” Kellen said.

Coming full circle back to Minnesota to care for my folks has allowed him to pursue my passions as an artist. He said joining the staff at the Grand New Ulm is a manifestation of those desires to be involved in the arts and culture.

When returned to Willmar to care for aging parents in recent years. He took a number of photographs while touring many Minnesota state parks with his mother.

Kellen said he found Minnesota to be a very captivating place to take photos and travel with his mother in her later years.

hummingbird photographed at Cardiff by the Sea, San Diego County, California.

“What I discovered is that there are many great organizations that support artists and the arts here in our state,” Kellen said.

He said Minnesota is second only to New York in terms of arts funding thanks to the voters and state legislators approving the Arts and Cultural Heritage Fund (Legacy.) Grant opportunities through Regional Arts Councils including Prairie Lakes RAC have in part been instrumental to support music programming at the Grand Kabaret and Kellen has received several regional artist grants and two Minnesota State Arts Board Grants.

This has allowed him to pursue his photography documentary filmmaking as a professional. “Without the support and encouragement of the Southwest Minnesota Arts Council and other organizations like Springboard for the Arts, none of this would have happened. I’m honored and humbled to have joined the ranks of talented artists here in Minnesota,” he added.

What’s his favorite place to visit?

“There are so many beautiful places in the world including 75 Minnesota State Parks and the Minnesota River Valley right here in New Ulm. I’ve been fortunate in my life having traveled to more than 60 countries,” he added.

Gumtree blossom

“Each has their own unique beauty. Some favorites do stick out such as Australia, Thailand, Indonesia, Greece, and Germany of course where I spent nine months as an exchange student in graduate school,” said Kellen.

“There are so many places to explore across the globe and at the same time there is beauty right around the corner. All you need to do is just take a moment and observe your surroundings,” he said.

Cascades State Park, Minnesota.


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