NISSWA, Minn. — Ellen Mueller, a Nisswa painter, sculptor, poet, fabric artist, photographer, instrumentalist, singer and dancer, doesn't use her gifts for her own profit.
Her only goal is making people happy, she says.
"My art is minor," she said in a recent interview at her home overlooking Gull Lake. "The greatest art is the art of loving people."
Right now, she's sending most of the proceeds from her artwork to a country pastor who lives in the mountains of Haiti in the Caribbean. Mueller lived in that oppressed country for nearly two years herself, helping Nobel Peace Prize winner Mother Teresa care for starving families.
A therapist on a medical leave from her job, Mueller spends most of her waking hours painting outdoor scenes on antique farm implements--especially saws, gaining the nickname "Sawlady."
She also does her acrylic paint designs on such unlikely items as skis, shoes, frypans, washboards, bedpans, canoe paddles and bowling balls. On commission, of course.
Her fees are nominal. "I don't believe in charging much for my work," she said. "I like to help the people who ordinarily wouldn't be able to buy expensive art."
The most unusual item she's ever painted, Mueller said, was a radiator frame from a 1929 Buick. That now hangs in an auto dealership in the Minneapolis-St. Paul area.
"I enjoy doing antiques, things you see at rummage sales or lying around in the weeds," she said.
"I find fantastic beauty in a junkyard. I say to myself, 'this stuff has got to be preserved--there's artistic value in this.' Then after I paint it, it's preserved for another 100 years.
"People say I have hungry eyes. It's a gift of the Lord. I see things a lot of people don't see--and I try to help people see beyond the surface. There's beauty in everything, if you only look for it. Especially in people."
Born and reared in Little Falls, Mueller traveled a long way before returning to the area.
In 1973, she moved to what she describes as a "Civil War cabin in Arkansas, in the Ozark Mountains." She was hired to tend goats at a ranch, through the Arkansas Tourism Department.
"I was known as the Goat Girl there," Mueller said. "Now I'm the Sawlady."
At night, she performed as a folk dancer and ballad singer at the Ozark Folk Center, along with several favorites from the musical television series "Hee Haw."
She noted that she fit right in and was accepted by the local folk, whom she calls hill people.
"They couldn't believe that I knew all their songs," she said. "I learned them first from my mother's little songbook right here in Minnesota. I was little--about 3 years old. She would sing, and I would follow along in the book with my finger.
"I love folk--40-year-old folk songs and stories of folk. They tell history. Nothing has really changed. We're just the latest folk."
Mueller lived in Haiti from 1981 to 1982. Since art materials were scarce there, she relied on her camera for creative fulfillment.
She has volumes of photographs which are not only striking in their technical excellence, but are poignant as well. Faces of bitterly hungry people, young and old, are captured in intense expressions.
Mueller also wrote a book of poetry from her Haitian experience, entitled "Ba Meve" (Give Me) in that country's language.
In 1983, she moved to a log cabin in Garrison, where she lived for a time, moving to her Nisswa home last year.