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9 Questions with Artist Mariah Masilko

9 Questions with Artist Mariah Masilko

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?

mariah-masilko-webWell 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, 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

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Troy Larson is an author, photographer, gentleman adventurer (debatable) from Fargo, North Dakota, and co-founder of Ghosts of North Dakota. @NorthDakotaTroy
8 Questions with Photographer John Piepkorn

8 Questions with Photographer John Piepkorn

Ghosts of North Dakota has been lucky over the years to make the acquaintance of a number of talented artists and photographers who share our passion for the history and austere beauty of the prairie. One of those artists is John Piepkorn, who has contributed photos of Hanks, North Dakota (population one), the Hamlet School, and the Wheelock School, among others.

John took a few minutes from a busy schedule of photography, fat tire biking, and holiday festivities to answer a few questions for us.

Q: You’re in Minnesota now, correct? Where do you live, and what is your connection to North Dakota?

I live in Minnetonka, Minnesota. I went to college in the Fargo-Moorhead area where I met my wife Ann, who grew up in Fairview, Montana, which is literally on the state line with North Dakota. We would go to my in-law’s house one or two times a year, and as a result, I have driven across the state of North Dakota too many times to count. I have always been fascinated by the abandoned farmsteads, schools and churches that dot the landscape and wanted to know the stories behind them. North Dakota is really under appreciated. I think the scenery in some parts of the state, while sometimes stark, is still beautiful.

Q: What do you do for a living?

I am a photographer for a cataloging company in Minneapolis. Our company sells aftermarket products for motorcycles, ATVs, snowmobiles and personal watercraft.

john-piepkornQ: Tell us about some of the North Dakota places you’ve photographed. Do you have a favorite?

There are so many really interesting places in North Dakota. It’s tough to pick just one favorite, but I would say some of the one room schoolhouses in the SW part of the state, like Griffin, or Gascoyne or Nebo or Grand River. The landscape in that part of the state really gives the images a feeling of desolation. I think it really “fits” the subject matter. When you are out there, it’s hard to imagine being a kid and attending school in a place like that.

I’m also fascinated by the abandoned churches, they were the things that were often the center of the community and anchored people to the land. Of those, I would say Hurricane Lake Church in Pierce County is on of my favorites (maybe because it has such and interesting name).

Also, not to be too long winded, there are some really beautiful grain elevators, especially the faded wooden ones like in Charbonneau, ND.

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?

I’ve been across the state multiple times, but I haven’t been to the NE part of the state all that much. I enjoyed the western part of the state from a photographic standpoint simply because the lack of trees makes it easier to compose my photographs. There are too many spots I have mapped out to pick just one, I want to find all these abandoned places and capture these images before the structures fall down or are torn down.

Q: What is your process for finding out-of-the-way places? Do you use mapping software? Navigation? etc…

You will eventually find some interesting spots to photograph by driving down just about any gravel road in North Dakota, but since I have a limited amount of time to be out taking photos, I try to make the most of my time. I purchased some ND DOT maps which are pretty detailed, and show the old schools and churches that I like to shoot. I cross-reference those sites with Google maps to see if the structure on the map is still standing, then try to plan out an effective route to see as much as possible in as short a time as possible. Panoramio is also a great site to find some of these out of the way places. When you are out driving around, a GPS is a necessity. Sometimes you don’t get phone service, so a Garmin or Magellan system is invaluable.

Q: Artists frequently strive to monetize their craft and achieve the dream of making art for a living. Is that something you work toward? What do you do? Any exhibitions coming up?

My goal is make enough off my photos to fund my next North Dakota photo trip. I’ve had two photo exhibitions so far featuring images of these abandoned places. I’m working on my proposal for my next one. I’ve sold a number of photos and have had images published in a number of publications.

Q: Where can people see more of your work?


Q: Where can we follow you?

On Facebook at Abandoned North Dakota or Abandoned-South Dakota

Original content copyright © 2015 Sonic Tremor Media

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Troy Larson is an author, photographer, gentleman adventurer (debatable) from Fargo, North Dakota, and co-founder of Ghosts of North Dakota. @NorthDakotaTroy