FERGUS FALLS, Minn. — A pale road cuts through an orange desert backdrop on a large, round plate that sits on display in Thorson Memorial Library. To many Iraq war veterans, the scene may be familiar.
For Joseph Hjelmstad, the “road plate” is one of many pieces of art his hands have molded since his return from overseas after three deployments to Iraq.
“As a returning veteran, I was definitely bringing some of that back with me. It can be real challenge,” Hjelmstad said. “Pottery allowed me to focus on something that was a positive. I felt it was very therapeutic.”
Hjelmstad’s connection with pottery came after returning to school at M State Fergus Falls in 2008. Dealing with the difficulties of returning home, he signed up for a ceramics class; something he was eager to try, even though his college advisors didn’t neccesarily think he would take to it.
But after getting his hands dirty in the clay for the first time, Hjelmstad’s interest was piqued and hasn’t come down since.
“I became kind of a studio rat. I was in there probably more than I was in other classes,” he said. “As soon as I started working on the wheel more than anything else, I knew it.”
Now as the Veterans Service Officer for Grant County and Command Sgt. Major in Brigade Special Troops Battalion, Hjelmstad sees other veterans returning home and facing many of the same issues he dealt with. While needs are different for each individual, he hopes what he found in pottery can be found for those who come home and have trouble.
“Friends and family need to have the understanding that it takes time. More often than not a returning veteran is a changed person,” Hjelmstad said. “Each persons’ trip is different. Just be understanding.”
Throwing clay, painting scenes and scoring designs all gave Hjelmstad a release from frustration while readjusting to home life. The repetition, focus and practice also gave him a way to continue what he learned in the military, except on a different level.
“It was a positive outlet that I could focus my energy on, that I didn’t have to worry about how it was going to react or what was going to happen,” he said. “It’s also a physical activity, where you focus mind and body on all that effort and work towards something.”
Through a couple grants he has received, Hjelmstad is in the process of creating a dedicated studio at home to work in, but still does most of his work in a garage on his property. Still an active member of the National Guard, he gets many of his ideas while on the road and looks to try new things whenever he can get his hands on clay.
Inspired by history, other works of art, unique shapes and different approaches, Hjelmstad’s work shows a variety of different styles and angles. It has also made its way into the arts community. A number of Hjelmstad’s pieces, from plates to teapots, are on display at the Elbow Lake Public Library. A reception will be held on Thursday from 4 to 6 p.m. and will include a meet and greet and artist talk.
Continued support from old teachers and friends in the pottery community keeps Hjelmstad working when he can. The positive reinforcement he found after returning, however, still fuels his drive to create.
“There’s a challenge in always working on a new area to expand what you’re doing,” he said. “It’s just fun to push your limits and learn to do other things well.”