Thursday, July 31, 2014
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The moment before the storm
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Darwin Wolf's bronze sculpture shows the town of Spencer, South Dakota, moments before it was destroyed by an F-5 tornado. (MPR Photo/Cara Hetland)
Seven years ago, a tornado hit the small town of Spencer, South Dakota. Five people died and the F-5 tornado inspired many television weather documentaries. Now, one artist has captured an image no one saw -- the moment before the storm.

Sioux Falls, S.D. — It's become known as The Spencer Tornado, and it's a day many in South Dakota won't soon forget. Joe Christensen is one of them. Spencer lives on the northwest side of Spencer. He remembers that day as a hot and sticky one.

"I had cut some hay and then I raked it. Then after supper I said we was going to go out and pick those bales up," says Christensen. "Then I come in and took a shower and sat down, and was going to kind of watch TV a little bit. And (there was) no warning or nothing on TV about the tornado."

Joe Christensen says he grabbed his wife Alice. The next thing they remember they were still clinging to each other, but they were on the ground with rubble all around them. Alice had a broken leg. Their newly-sided house was gone as well as most everything it in.

In 1998, 300 families lived in Spencer. As Joe and Alice stand on their new front porch and look out at their former neighborhood, they don't see too many homes. Today, there are only 50 houses nearby.

"There was a vacant house right here," Christensen says, pointing across the street. "Then there was a neighbor right here east of us."

The Christensens remember how things were. Their memories helped sculptor Darwin Wolf get a picture of the town before the storm. Seven years ago, Wolf was an insurance agent, and was in Spencer the day before the tornado hit.

"I knew where the post office was, where Main Street was and where the Christensens lived. I never got a chance to get back in there and find out what really happened after the storm because of the traffic," says Wolf.

Wolf decided to use his art as a way to pay tribute to the tenacity of the people and the drama of the tornado. His sculpture is now part of the annual Sculpturewalk in downtown Sioux Falls.

"I wanted to show what this little town was like as the tornado was approaching. It looks like a David and Goliath situation, where this little town is about to be swallowed up," says Wolf.

That's what Darwin Wolf created in bronze, a bird's-eye view of a monster tornado approaching the tiny town. The funnel was as wide as the town and the tornado's aim was dead on. Above the town are swirling black clouds.

"The tornado itself was larger than the city. There's the cityscape and the surrounding countryside. The tornado (is) holding up the swirling clouds above, so it's like two levels of bronze. The landscape and above, the top of the clouds," says Wolf.

Wolf calls his piece "Knocking on Spencer's Door." He says his inspiration came from Bob Dylan's song, "Knocking on Heaven's Door."

"I was working from the perspective of, 'Nature came calling, nature came in, and sometimes not so welcome visitors come knocking on your door,'" says Wolf. "I was listening to the radio going down the road one day, and I was thinking about this sculpture and Bob Dylan's "Knocking on Heaven's Door" came on. And the whole song itself seemed to fit and I just tied that together."

Wolf says he's making copies of "Knocking on Spencer's Door" for other art shows around South Dakota.

This summer the town of Spencer will celebrate its 125th anniversary. The 50 remaining families will welcome back their friends and neighbors to celebrate the past and the future.

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