2024 SMAC Prairie Star

Brent Olson

Nicole and Brent pose with large check for $5,000

Photos courtesy of John White

SMAC Awards Local Artist $5,000 Award

The SW MN Arts Council is pleased to announce Brent Olson of Ortonville (Big Stone County) as the recipient of the 2024 Prairie Star Award!

The Prairie Star Award is given out every other year and it recognizes an individual artist whose body of work has made a significant contribution to the arts over an extended period of time, who has been recognized by their artistic peers, and who has best exemplified the highest quality of work in the SMAC region. In recognizing these individuals publicly, the awards will raise the profile of the arts in their communities and throughout the SMAC region. The public is invited to join SMAC in publicly honoring Brent Olson at our Annual Celebration of the arts and artists in our southwest Minnesota region. This Fall the celebration will be held in Worthington (Nobles County) on Saturday, October 26th (see the article at the end of this page for more details).

Brent and Nicole smiling

After the nominations were evaluated and scored by the SMAC Board of Directors it was determined that Brent Olson had the highest score for the Prairie Star Award. Brent’s nominator Judy Beckman and supporters planned a private surprise presentation of the award with friends and family at the OMG offices in Ortonville on June 19th. SMAC Executive Director, Nicole DeBoer, presented Brent with the check and letters of support for the nomination.


In her nomination, Beckman wrote, “As a columnist, author, essayist, and blogger, Brent Olson has spent 25 years entertaining, enlightening, challenging and prodding his readers to think more globally while also giving residents of southwestern Minnesota the words to express pride in living rural.” Olson has served as a Big Stone County Commissioner for nearly 20 years. Over those many years he has served on a multitude of committee assignments. Not the least of those has been his work with the arts. He served on the Southwest Minnesota Arts and Humanities Council (as SMAC was called at the time) and made the motion to approve their very first grant request.


Brent Olson has taught writing classes in nine states and six countries. He is a Bush Foundation Fellow, and the keynote speaker for the National Association of Rural Mental Health Professionals College Theological Convocation in Portland, OR. He has also been the keynote speaker for many other organizations and events, including the Saskatchewan Pork Producers.

Brent walks into surprise ceremony
Brent shaking hands with guest
Brent hugging a supporter
Brent and Nicole looking over letters of support

Additional to the nominator’s support of Brent Olson receiving the Prairie Star award, he also had 10 letters of support from community members! One was from Janelle Atyeo who said, “As Regional Editor of publications that serve much of the area that encompasses the 18 counties of Southwest Minnesota, I can attest to the impact Brent Olson’s ‘Independently Speaking’ column has on this broad community…His words reach nearly 8,000 Minnesota subscribers and nearly 24, 600 reads across our coverage area”. Cheri Zagurski, Editor of the DTN/The Progressive Farmer wrote, “He writes about farm work, government work, family work and other work in a friendly, entertaining and, often, sneakily educational way. He has written about topics near and dear to all of our hearts without stirring up too many tempers and without becoming maudlin…Brent’s column is also moving. So many times after editing it I have responded to him, ‘OK, you made me cry; again.’ His insights are balm for the soul…He’s the reason I want to visit Ortonville.”


Cheryl Rainford worked with Olson during her time as News and Features Editor at Successful Farming (Agriculture.com) and as a freelance editor and designer for two of his anthologies. She wrote, “Over the past two decades, Olson has been repeatedly recognized by the American Agricultural Editors Association (AAEA) and the International Federation of Agricultural Journalists (IIFJA) for his workmanlike excellence and his humor. I consider him to be unusually disciplined in his craft. I can attest that unlike most writers, he never missed a deadline in the ten or more years I edited his work. Efficient, elegant and deceptively simple at first glance, Olson’s writing delivers a fresh, deeply honest, and authentic take on whatever topic is at hand. Further, his heart always seems to be in the right place, whether he is providing insight into the latest news, or trying to right all the wrongs of the world in his complex and ambitious novels.”


Lois Torgerson, Columnist and Retired Editor with The Northern Star Newspaper wrote, “I recall when Brent brought in some samples of his anticipated column to our office – many years ago – and we made an agreement to publish them weekly. This was a fortunate experience as our readers many times mention enjoying his column, ‘Independently Speaking’ when sending in their renewal to the newspaper.”


In Alexander Wallace’s review of Olson’s book “Between the Helpless and The Darkness” for Sea Lion Press, Wallace praises: “I finished this novel with the distinct and pleasant impression that not a scene was unnecessary, and not a word was wasted. It is a fantastically paced book….’Between the Helpless and the Darkness’ is one of the best alternate history novels I have ever read. Olson shows craftsmanship beyond most work in the genre, and the end result is a compelling story while never sacrificing the benefits of an explicitly alternate history work. It should be read by anyone who wants to write in this genre.”


SMAC’s 2023 Prairie Disciple, Lee Kanten, also voiced his support of Olson, “For 25+ years, Brent has used his considerable writing skills to help create a better world.” He writes “of the people and the land around him, in a way that reveals hidden, simple truths; truths that bridge the divisions we so easily feel. He invites his readers to see a new perspective, using gentle humor to get through built-in defenses. He continues to ask his readers, ‘Can’t we do better?’ Readers like me recognize his wisdom and talk about it in the coffee shops and garages of his community. And, his skill with words has a very practical application in his role as a County Commissioner. He is very often that calm voice of reason, even when his opinion is unpopular. He has a knack for revealing simple truths behind complex issues and articulating them. It is difficult to overstate the impact this one man has here on ‘The Bump’ of Minnesota. He has been contributing his skills for decades. He is truly deserving of any recognition and honor we can bestow upon him.”


Collectively, the Big Stone Arts Council also wrote a letter of support for Olson, “The Council is of the mind that the time is overdue to consider an artist of words for this award…Brent Olson, columnist, journalist, and author, represents all areas of consideration for this award, including longevity, audience reach, versatility, recognition and purpose.”


John White, previous SMAC Board Member and Prairie Impressionist Photographer, wrote “Olson has a rather unique gift of making otherwise mundane observations and quirks of history into thoughts and lessons many of us mostly miss…Olson has stayed home on his Clinton farm raising pigs and penning thoughts, although he has traveled extensively as a writer and author, including numerous trips to his beloved Norway for research. Oh, he also taught writing classes in nine states and six countries, and has his essays published in six continents. Impressive reaches for a ‘pig farmer who writes.’ This artist of words.” White continues with more of Olson’s accomplishments: “Along the way he was a Bush Foundation Fellow in 2012, and has won numerous awards for his editorial opinions and humorous columns. This past year he was awarded the top honor in the American Agricultural Editors Association (AAEA) National Writing Awards. His 2001 book, ‘Letters from a Peasant’ won the Best Regional Book Award from the Midwest Independent Publishers Association.”


Don Sherman, hand-made paper artist and past SMAC grantee and Artist Retreat instructor, also supported Olson’s nomination, writing “He is blessed with a strong memory, attentiveness to detail, disciplined passion, inquisitiveness, and openness to new thought. His subject matter is based on an overriding fondness for history, neighborly environments and homeplaces. Brent’s independent spirit survives in a state of perpetual self-development, with little need for formal instruction beyond high school.”


Maureen Stores, a member of the Big Stone Arts Council, wrote that Olson “raises awareness of such issues as agricultural, environmental, and natural resources concerns. He writes about rural taxa on, wildlife conservation, public library access for everyone, and the continual need for strong leaders in rural America. Olson creates that awareness while writing of his own foibles, making us laugh and convincing us that we should quit sitting around and take on those projects that we thought of while driving down the road, or just before we slipped into sleep. I have known Brent for almost 20 years, and I have read several of his books including poetry, memoir, and his book about building community with his Inadvertent Café. That book is my favorite because it speaks to us of how he took a risk and created the café for the community, and how writing the book encourages readers to also consider ways to be part of a community. As a retired educator and a supporter of the arts, I think Brent is the epitome of the person deserving of this award.”


The nominator, Judy Beckman, also wrote that she knows of no one else in the Southwest portion of Minnesota who is so widely recognized in the written arts: “Brent Olson’s body of work wins hands down with respect to longevity, reach, versatility and purpose. His weekly column has been running since 1995 and the first of his eight books came out in 1997. His readership stretches around the world.” Just recently, Olson was the subject of a podcast originating in Manchester, England, and the following day on a podcast based in Hong Kong. He has spoken about writing in classrooms from Uganda to China, Iceland and Haiti. His books include a memoir, four collections of essays and three novels with wide ranging topics such as a thriller, an alternative history, and a post-apocalyptic primer. “Having won awards for humor, editorial opinion and journalism, Olson expects that there is immense value for other artists to have an example of someone who refuses to be typecast, either by what he writes or where he lives.”


Beckman concluded with, “Brent Olson believes that art should seek to change the world in the ways that Picasso’s Guemica warned of the evils of fascism, John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath changed the way people felt about migrants, and James Blunts Monsters could break a reader’s heart. Sometimes, Olson muses, he’d just like to make people laugh, but more often, Olson seeks to have them see.”  


We thank all the nominators and individuals who wrote letters of support, including for the nominees that were not able to be awarded this year; we had many exceptional and deserving candidates. We encourage nominators to try again in future rounds-the Prairie Star award will be awarded again in 2026 as it is given out every other year. Learn more about SMAC’s Prairie Star Award. Brent will be publicly awarded and celebrated at Southwest Minnesota Arts Council’s Annual Celebration in the fall (more information below).

Bright flowers and decorated skulls for Dia Day Los Muertos

Please save the date and plan to attend SMAC’s 2024 Annual Celebration of Arts & Artists!


This year our event will be in partnership and support of the Día de Muertos Catrinas Community Art project, which received a SMAC Art Project grant, taking place on Saturday, October 26th. As always, the celebration will include supporting local food establishments, public tours/visits of arts spaces, SMAC’s Annual Meeting plus Prairie Star Brent Olson of Ortonville & Prairie Disciple honoring ceremony (Prairie Disciple still be be announced), an arts performance, and our “Spirit of the Region” Raffle Drawings! Details are currently being worked out, but keep an eye out on our website and social media for more (Facebook & Instagram).


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