Mariah (MJ) Masilko is a talented artist and photographer, a kindred spirit who has shared a number of places with us over the years, including ghost town Stady, North Dakota, the end of the Masonic Lodge in Calvin, and others. We caught up with Mariah in between artist and mom activities, and she was kind enough to give us some insight on her work.
Q: Where do you live, and what is your connection to North Dakota?
I’m currently in South St. Paul, MN. I was born in Grand Forks, and my parents still live there. I also lived in Fargo for a short time when my first son was born in 2004, and my husband managed the Red Bear restaurant in Moorhead.
Q: What do you do for a living?
I’m a KeyCite Analyst at Thomson Reuters, the former West Publishing. I determine relationships between court cases and hook them together to help legal researchers.
Q: If I’m not mistaken, you have a connection to some places in Grand Forks that no longer exist, correct? Can you tell us about that? Does your personal connection to a place that’s gone now inspire your art?
Well I grew up in the Riverside neighborhood, and my street and the houses that were on it are now gone. I think growing up in an old neighborhood like that may have helped shape my love for old buildings, but the most important building to me was the old St. Anne’s Guest Home. It was just a few blocks from my house, a former old folks’ home and before that, a hospital. It was abandoned around 1982, and walking past this big abandoned building every day made me curious. I was 13 when I first got up the courage to go inside, and my life has never been the same since! I have always been drawn to old things and historical things, but this was when I became addicted to abandoned things. St. Anne’s isn’t technically gone – it was threatened a few times but luckily it was saved. It is no longer abandoned, and while it’s great that they’re using it and it lives on, I still miss the days of exploration and adventure, walking down those long dusty halls and finding something new every time. I look for St. Anne’s in all the places I photograph. Sometimes I see an arch or a color of paint on a wall, and it will bring me back to those old hallways and all the excitement I felt back when I was an 8th grader, poking around St. Anne’s with my Kodak Instamatic 126 camera.
Q: Tell us about some of the North Dakota places you’ve photographed. Do you have a favorite?
San Haven would have to be my favorite! I’ve been there 5 or 6 times. It’s the most creepy place I’ve ever been (and I’ve been to some creepy places!) Sadly every time I’ve gone, more things have fallen down. I last was there in 2011, and most of the buildings were in bad shape. I’d love to go again some time!
Another place I love is Sarles, because my grandparents lived there and I spent so much of my childhood in that town. So there’s an emotional connection I have to the abandoned school because my mother and all her brothers and sisters went there. That’s another building that’s in bad shape. I find it beautiful, but also sad. When I explored it with my mother she walked through the rooms, telling me about an amazing teacher who made the school more than just bricks and glass and plaster. The materials that go into a place are only part of what makes buildings – they are built for humans and the things humans do inside them shape their character as much as their physical form.
The ghost town of Charbonneau was another favorite of mine, along with Brantford, Temple, Antler, and the radar base at Fortuna. Really I have many favorites – there are so many beautiful lonely places in North Dakota! Abandoned schools, churches, and hospitals are my favorite subjects.
Q: You have an affinity for Kirkbrides. Can you explain what a Kirkbride is and tell us why you love them?
“Kirkbride” refers to a style of asylum architecture and mental health treatment that was popular in the mid to late 19th century. It was based on the ideas of Dr. Thomas Kirkbride, who believed the mentally ill were human beings suffering from an illness which could be cured. Before then the mentally ill were kept in prisons and chained up in basements. Doctor Kirkbride came up with his design based on his theory that such illness could be cured through beauty, rational order of architecture, fresh air, sunlight, and being far away from urban centers. The building itself was part of the treatment. The Kirkbride Plan called for a central administration building with wings set back at regular intervals. Of course the moral treatment Dr. Kirkbride had envisioned never really worked out. Mental health is much more complex than that, and the institutions were victims of their own success. By the mid 20th century, overcrowding and underfunding had led to patient neglect and abuse. About 75 Kirkbride buildings were built – some are still in use today, but many were abandoned due to shifting attitudes about mental health care, the deinstitutionalization movement, and new drug treatments. They fell into disrepair and because of their size have often been deemed by cities and states to be too expensive to reuse, and most of those have been demolished. Only 34 still stand today. Many people know the negative history of mental institutions, but few also take into account the history and positive intentions of their design, and the sad fact that we’ve come full circle and ironically, more of the mentally ill are in prisons again today than are being cared for in psychiatric hospitals.
I never thought I’d get into such a thing, but when I stood next to my first Kirkbride (the one in Fergus Falls, MN, which I visited for the first time in 2006), I couldn’t put into words the intense feelings I felt next to such an immense structure with such a complicated history. I rarely have words, but I do have a camera! It’s how I say the things I don’t know how to say.
In May of 2013 I was part of a group of photographers who took on the entire Fergus Falls State Hospital in an event called “Project Kirkbride.” Now I’m involved with a new advocacy group, “Preservationworks,” which is committed to preserving the remaining Kirkbride asylums.
Q: Is there a place you want to photograph, in North Dakota or beyond, that you haven’t been to yet? Why do you want to shoot it?
In North Dakota I haven’t explored the southeast corner, so I’d love to check that area out sometime. I don’t have any specific places in mind yet. Outside of North Dakota my dream is to shoot in Pripyat and the exclusion zone around Chernobyl. It seems like the ultimate in abandoned places! A place that was vibrant and full of life one day, and a couple days later was empty, with everything left behind. A haunting reminder of a terrible tragedy.
Q: Your artistic pursuits extend beyond photography. What do you do? Any exhibitions coming up?
I paint some of the lonely, abandoned things that I photograph. I sometimes work with oils, and more recently I’ve been mostly doing watercolor. I have four young children and finding time to paint is a challenge! I’m looking for a place to exhibit at Art-A-Whirl in Northeast Minneapolis in May (editor’s note: 2016), and am considering applying for the Grand Cities Art Fest in June.
Q: Where can people see more of your work?
My website, www.mjmasilko.com is mostly my paintings and drawings, but has some of my photography as well. It is a work in progress, and I hope to get some more blog posts up soon about various places I’ve photographed!
Q: Where can we follow you?
The best place is my Facebook page.
Photo by Mariah Masilko. Original content copyright © 2017 Sonic Tremor Media
Troy Larson is an author, photographer, gentleman adventurer (debatable) from Fargo, North Dakota, and co-founder of Ghosts of North Dakota. @NorthDakotaTroy