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How to understand, enjoy the new downtown Peace Plaza without getting hit by a car

The work connects the land's earliest origins to the current times.

Peace Plaza
Details of the bricks under the fountain are seen on Monday, June 20, 2022, at Peace Plaza in Rochester.
Traci Westcott / Post Bulletin
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Dear Answer Man: A question for your marquee local knowledge. The downtown Peace Plaza has all those words on the ground, but I wasn’t able to read much of them – I didn’t want to get hit by a car on First Avenue, nor get wet in the pool. Is there a website that provides what all the words there, so I can just read the words online. Please provide your words of wisdom. — Jallen

Well, Jallen, you’ll be glad to know that we didn’t lose one Post-Bulletin employee in running down the answer to your question.

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The first thing you need to know is this: The words in the pavers are not meant to be read from left to right and top to bottom like a book. Many of the phrases carved into the pavement are from Dakota historian Dr. Gwen Westerman’s poem, “ Song for the Mississippi River .”

And one of the major themes of her poem and carved into the artwork, “A Song for Water,” part of the new-look Peace Plaza, is that before there was a Father Hennepin, a Hernando de Soto or a Mayo Clinic, this was Dakota land.

“In Gwen’s view as a Dakota poet, what she wanted to reinforce and share in the poem is that this was first a Dakota place,” said Hesse McGraw, who worked as an art curator on the project.

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Westerman’s phrases and themes run along the spine of the artwork, from the Peace Fountain at one end through the water scrim to the 26-foot tall sculpture dubbed “Not So Private Sky” at the other end. "A Song for Water" is a collaborative work between Westerman and Ann Hamilton, who designed the piece.

Westerman’s poem is part of a broader text inscribed in the pavers that speak to earliest origins before there was a Rochester, before there was a human history – “The first rays of the day” and “The glimmering world became fruitful.”

Another prominent theme found in Westerman’s poem — and echoed in fragments inscribed in the pavers — centers on water and its roles as “our first medicine.” Water and healing abound throughout the work. And those evocations connect to our current times and Mayo Clinic as an institution of healing, bonding our earliest origins to our current times.

But the point is not to tell people how to experience it, but to have people experience it themselves. Two million people visit Rochester each year. There are 150,000 people who live in Olmsted County, McGraw notes.

“In many cases, someone may be coming into the plaza for a social event or celebration,” McGraw said.

They may be there as a Mayo patient or as a friend or family member of a Mayo patient. The artists wanted visitors to draw their own meaning from their interactions with words in the pavers at Peace Plaza.

“It’s very important for the artists that the meaning of the work is open in the sense that the day you’re moving across the paving, it’s about your experience, as much as it is about the words that are engraved,” McGraw said.

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