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Uruguyan art rediscovered

By Tom Cherveny

The West Central Tribune of Willmar

MONTEVIDEO, Minn. -- Travelers to Minnesota expect to find statues of Paul Bunyan's blue ox Babe, Big Ole, and even the Jolly Green Giant, but there's one that still catches them by surprise.

In the midst of downtown Montevideo towers a larger-than-life, bronze statue of Jos Artigas, the liberator of South America.

There are even bigger surprises waiting inside Montevideo's City Hall. The city is putting on display its recently rediscovered collection of Uruguayan art and memorabilia.

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"I think we've got the biggest collection in the U.S.," said City Manager Steve Jones.

Most of the collection had been stored in the city's little-used Carnegie building. For too long it had been out of sight and out of mind, he explained. Now that it has been moved to the City Hall, it is in sight, and well worth the viewing.

There are bronze and ceramic sculptures, oil and watercolor paintings, framed photographs, hand-crafted leather works, Spanish language books, homemade movie reels, pendants, and all sorts of one-of-a-kind items. The collection even includes unrelated donations, including a Picasso lithograph.

A ceramic work on display is one of only two in the world. The people of Uruguay presented one to President Franklin Roosevelt, and the other to the U.S. ambassador, William Dawson.

The longtime ambassador to Uruguay made much of this collection possible. In 1973, he willed his lifetime collection of Uruguayan art and memorabilia to the City. He also provided the city with $20,000 for its display. That fund has now grown to $40,000 and could easily be put to work, said Jones. The city does not have the space to put all of the collection on display at one time.

Like the Artigas statue downtown, many of the items in the collection are also gifts from the people of Montevideo, Uruguay. The two Montevideos share a sister city relationship that dates back to 1905, when they exchanged flags.

The relationship really took off in 1946. That's when Mayor Roland Aaker of Montevideo, Minn., started the city's annual tradition of holding Fiesta Days to celebrate Uruguayan culture.

Honored by the gesture, school children in Montevideo, Uruguay, collected their pennies and had an 11-foot statue of Jos Artigas cast in bronze and shipped more than 5,000 miles to western Minnesota. The 3,000-pound statue was dedicated in 1949 during a ceremony attended by Jos Mora, Uruguayan ambassador to the U.S., and Sen. Hubert H. Humphrey.

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It was followed by visits and exchanges for many years. A letter in the collection from President Dwight Eisenhower in 1953 praises Fiesta Queen Cathy Beal for how well she represented her country while in Uruguay.

Former Mayor John "Jack" Mills, currently of Starbuck, donated gifts to the collection from two separate trips he made to Uruguay in the 1970s.

It is hard to overstate the importance that the people of Montevideo, Uruguay, placed on the relationship, according to Mills. He said that he and his wife, Norma, were treated like royalty and "overwhelmed" by the attention. Chauffeured limousine rides, meetings with national dignitaries, and national newspaper coverage were part and parcel of both visits.

"It was almost embarrassing," said the former mayor.

The two cities have a relationship more like cousins than sisters today, said Jones. He hopes that the display will help renew interest in it.

That the two cities on opposite sides of the equator share the same name is probably no more than coincidence, according to June Lynne, director of the Chippewa County Historical Society. Cornelius J. Nelson gave the community, which lies at the confluence of the Chippewa and Minnesota rivers, its name in 1879. He called it Montevideo using the Latin "from the Mount I see."

There's no evidence that he was at all acquainted with Montevideo, Uruguay, according to historical society records.

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