2023 Prairie Disciple: Lee Kanten

by SMAC
Lee and Jeanie Kanten pose with large SMAC check for $1,000

SW MN Arts Council Awards $1,000 Award to local arts advocate

The SW MN Arts Council is pleased to announce Lee Kanten of Ortonville (Big Stone County) as the recipient of the 2023 Prairie Disciple Award!

The Prairie Disciple Award provides awareness and recognition of one individual per year from southwest Minnesota whose activities and involvement have substantially contributed to the arts over an extended period of time. The accomplishments of arts advocates working in the region are often not widely known or appreciated. In recognizing these individuals publicly, SMAC believes these awards raise the profile of the arts in their community and throughout the 18-county SMAC region. The public is invited to join SMAC in publicly honoring Lee Kanten at our Annual Celebration of the arts and artists in our southwest Minnesota region. This Fall the celebration will be held in Tyler (Lincolon County) on Saturday, October 14th. Please watch the SMAC WebsiteSMAC Facebook and SMAC Instagram for more details!

After the nominations were evaluated and scored by the SMAC Board of Directors it was determined that Lee Kanten had the highest score for the Prairie Disciple Award. Lee’s nominator and supportors planned a surprise presentation of the award with SMAC Executive Director, Nicole DeBoer, on Thursday, May 11th at the Big Stone County Historical Museum (pictured below).

Lee Kanten and Nicole DeBoer pose with large check from SMAC for $1,000

Lee’s nominator, Jeanie Kanten (pictured with Lee at the top of this article), explained that Lee is an international and award-winning director and producer who made his career in the Twin Cities creating motivational and communications films for Fortune 500 companies, but it is in Ortonville and the surrounding region where musician and filmmaker Lee Kanten has made the most impact. Donating film production to organizations and artists began in 2015 when he produced “I Love Ortonville” for the hospital and chamber to showcase the features of their rural town. The hospital could not accept the work as pro bono, so Lee’s company donated their profits back to their foundation. Since then, Lee has given his production services willingly to create videos for area arts councils and other nonprofits, like the local food co-op. He uses his voice on KDIO radio co-hosting a weekly morning show where he grasps every opportunity to promote arts in our region. He frequently submits stories to the local newspaper for the Big Stone Art Council’s column, “Opening Doors.”

Lee received many letters of recommendation for this award from his community members; Sue Lockwood, coordinator for the Big Stone Lake Regional Art Crawl, said that Lee has organized many open mic opportunities for local musicians where it is evident that he learns “with joy from what other musicians bring to the stage, while also sharing his experience, skill and knowledge in a fun, lively and entertaining manner”. She also shared that he teaches song-writing with younger generations, encouraging them to tap into their musical and writing abilities. He frequently volunteers his time to help organizations and events set up sound equipment, as well as volunteers his time to the Big Stone Arts Council as a member of their board. She said the non-profit likely would not have survived through the pandemic without Lee, but is surviving and thriving with new interest today because of his efforts in 2020 through 2022.

John White, local artist and photojournalist (and past Big Stone Board representative for the SMAC Board), wrote “It seems improbable that anyone can leave unhappy after hearing Lee play and sing”. He continued, “there is no audience too small or too large…he brings joy to Care Centers, area schools, parties and places too numerous to count”. While hosting a regular Wednesday night music in the park series, he attracted and encouraged area musicians throughout the Minnesota River Valley to join him on stage. With his professional filmmaking skills, Lee has helped John in making videos of his photography for presentations in college classrooms, the Minnesota Master Naturalist’s Annual Gatherings, and more. John said of Lee, “he never seems to turn down an opportunity to help other artists.” John recounted a slow art fair without much of a crowd, that is, until Lee came with a few friends to play music: “He can turn a slow afternoon into one of pure joy and jubilation!” John said, “if SMAC wants to honor someone who has lived and breathed the arts and arts support, Lee Kanten would truly be an Arts Disciple.”

Maureen and Dan Stores of Ortonville wrote in a letter of support as well. They shared that during the pandemic, Lee invited friends to outdoor concerts outside in his front yard. The Stores said, after the enjoyment and success of performing at the local memory support group, Lee helped organize an adult Glee Club and the group now meets to sing and enjoy music and camaraderie. After learning to to write songs, Lee not only shared and performed the music, but taught the audience the process of writing songs. They said, “Lee is both a teacher and a student of the arts. He tirelessly promotes the regional arts with articles in the newspaper, radio, and on social media. He uses all his skills to promote arts events for local artists.” They also agreed that Lee kept the Big Stone Arts Council alive through the pandemic (as many of the letters of support shared). Lee kept the group going with zoom meetings, made sure the organization kept their non-profit status by introducing a new rotating leadership model, and nudging a newly developing Ortonville Art for Kids group through the school to join in a partnership with the arts council to bridge generations of support.

Wanda Berry of Ortonville also wrote in with a letter of support for Lee’s nomination. She said, “I have a special place in my heart for the singing he does at the nursing home and have been lucky enough to sing with him there. He has a heart for these seniors and brings music they know and can sing along with, as well as fun quizzes and much needed silliness. The smiles they wear make you know he has touched them, too!”

Jeanie Kanten ended her nomination by saying, “Arts advocacy is embedded in the heart of this ‘Troubadour of the Prairie,’ (as some of the locals have dubbed him) and he intends to provide outlets for the arts with jam sessions for musicians, variety shows, and more outdoor concerts this summer, all in an attempt to help spread creativity and support arts in our community”.

4 people pose together
Pictured from left to right: SMAC Big Stone County Board Representative Judy Beckman, SMAC Executive Director Nicole DeBoer, Nominator Jeanie Kanten and supporter Maureen Stores.

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