An American Journey

Curator Colleen Sheehy shares insight into the life of Minnesota legend Bob Dylan.


known to the world as Bob Dylan began his life as Robert Zimmerman in the small northern Minnesota town of Hibbing on May 24, 1941, and his story is explored in Bob Dylan’s American Journey, 1956-1966 at the University of Minnesota’s Weisman Art Museum. The exhibit, which originated at the Experience Music Project (EMP) in Seattle in November 2004, opened its doors at the Weisman in February. American Journey documents 10 influential years of Dylan’s life. Showcasing more than 150 historic artifacts such as handwritten lyrics, instruments and photographs, the exhibit also features four short films, a collage of rare television and concert footage, listening kiosks, and an audio tour with Dylan and other artists sharing stories of folk music during the ’60s. For the local run, Colleen Sheehy, director of education and the exhibit’s curator, spent three years researching the legendary musician’s formative years, adding Minnesota treasures that help trace Dylan’s time up north and in the Minneapolis neighborhood Dinkytown, near the University of Minnesota. The local touches include such items as a street sign from the corner where the Zimmermans lived in Hibbing, a large snapshot of Dylan posing with his guitar in his childhood home, photos of Dylan in his first teenage rock band and audio recordings of the young Dylan singing in his Hibbing living room and also in his Dinkytown apartment. A guitar student and music lover herself, Sheehy spoke about her experience creating this one-of-a-kind celebration of a local hero for the Weisman Art Museum.

What drew you to the Weisman and the Director of Education position?
I was hired to start the education program. It was a great opportunity to start something from scratch and to really make it innovative and in line with a lot of new ideas about museums, museum education and visitors. It also was a fantastic building. It was really exciting to be part of the creation of this incredible building that became such a landmark and an important part of Frank Gehry’s work. And I like the university setting. It’s really stimulating to be at a place where there are faculty working in every discipline and doing cutting-edge research.

What other exhibits have you worked on at the Weisman?
I organized an exhibit on Bruce Springsteen that opened here in 2002. It was called Springsteen: Troubadour of the Highway and it was the first major exhibit on Bruce Springsteen. It featured photography and video and looked at the relationship between his visual imagery and his lyrical imagery. That was a really great experience. It had very high attendance and people were excited about the show. Another one that I worked on in 2001 was called Mark Dion: Cabinet of Curiosities. For that we worked with students and created a Renaissance cabinet of curiosities that was filled with about 700 objects from the University of Minnesota collections around campus, everything from biological specimens to meteors and works of art.

How has your interest in music impacted your work?
I have been really involved with music since I was a kid. Over the past eight years or so I have been studying music more and bringing it into my professional work, both in exhibitions and in conference papers. It’s really interesting for me to think about the connections between music and the visual arts. My graduate training is in American studies and I was always interested in the connections between popular culture and high culture. It’s a long-standing focus of my work.

What was your role in the Bob Dylan exhibit?
I have been in charge of organizing the project here and that meant working with the EMP, which organized the main exhibition called Bob Dylan’s American Journey, 1956-1966, on how to present it here. But then I also did a lot of research and found objects, photographs, artwork, audio recordings and all kinds of materials to add to the exhibit and expand the section on Dylan in Minnesota.

How did the Weisman become involved with the Dylan exhibit?
The EMP in Seattle was one of the tour sites for the Springsteen exhibition and I got to know the staff and their director, Bob Santelli. Even before the Dylan exhibit opened there I knew they were working on it. We started talking pretty early on about trying to bring the show to Minneapolis and the Weisman Art Museum. We are always looking for innovative exhibitions that will tie into different aspects of life on campus and also bring people in from the community. With Bob Dylan’s ties to the university as a former student and because so many faculty really teach Bob Dylan (in the School of Music, in poetry classes in the English Department, in cultural history classes in American Studies and in looking at the era of the 1960s in the history department) he has become part of academic life. He has really kept people interested for 45 years. We also knew there would be a big audience more broadly in the Twin Cities and around the state, given that he grew up here and he still has family here. There is a whole network of people that he and his family have been connected to. I’ve found that everyone has a Dylan story.

What is your personal interest in Bob Dylan?
I have followed Dylan but I haven’t been really avid like so many people are, who are very obsessed and have listened to everything. In some ways I did kind of come to him again more recently through my work on Springsteen, because Springsteen was so enamored with Dylan and when he first was making a splash in music in the mid 1970s a lot of people called him “the new Dylan.” I ended up reading Dylan’s biography and listening to his music as part of my work on Springsteen and then when I heard the show was coming I started doing more reading and went back and listened more. I have to say I just became completely awed by Dylan.

What is special about these particular 10 years of Dylan history?
The exhibition covers the years 1956-1966, so his time as a teenager in Hibbing and then when he came to Minneapolis and when he went out to New York. From 1962-1966 he released seven albums. The last one was Blonde on Blonde, which was a double album, so basically he released the equivalent of eight albums in four years. Each one of them is phenomenal. It’s really stunning to think that at the age of 19 and 20 he was writing these songs that became classics and are still very powerful today: “Blowing in the Wind,” “Masters of War,” “With God on Our Side.” And then for me it became really interesting to think that at the age of 19 or 20 most of what you are drawing from is your upbringing. And so I knew that of course his life as a young man, as a boy in Minnesota, had to have really given him the tools to create the music that he did. It became a real interesting exploration to figure out what it was in Minnesota that shaped him and allowed him to become the artist that he did.

What do you think the exhibit says about the influence of Minnesota on Dylan?
What we have tried to do with the materials that we’ve added is to present to people the remarkable history of the town of Hibbing where he grew up, which was a place of grand ambition, I would say. He had some really important teachers, like B.J. Rolfzen, who was his English teacher and instilled in him a sense of the importance of literature and the power of words and the beauty of the sound of words. And there was a little rock ‘n’ roll scene up there that he was part of. It was in the 1950s, and they had seen Elvis on The Ed Sullivan Show and seen movies like Rock Around the Clock. They were tied into the national music scene and they taught themselves how to play rock guitar, like Dylan did. And then in Dinkytown near the University of Minnesota is where he learned folk music. It was a little subculture, a small group of people who were enamored of old folk music and brought people into town who were on the folk circuit. So his Minnesota years had everything to do with what he decided he wanted to do and getting the training to do it. No one really cut him any slack: He was booed off the stage of the Hibbing High School when he played rock ‘n’ roll and people in Dinkytown were pretty tough on him. They didn’t fall over themselves saying, “Aw, you are so great.” They really were very critical and I think all of that really toughened him up so that when he went to Greenwich Village he could hold his own and I think that really came across to people because he got a recording contract within about nine months of being in New York City.

What were the highlights of researching Dylan?
For me it was getting to know some of the people in Hibbing and getting the Hibbing history because I grew up in Minnesota and I have been up in that area of the state, but I didn’t really know the history of Hibbing. I have gotten to be really close friends with people like Bob and Linda Hawking, who have collection of Dylan material. They have a restaurant there that’s called Zimmy’s [Dylan’s nickname in high school]. And then B.J. Rolfzen and his wife, Leona; B.J. is 83 years old but he still is just burning with literature now like he did when he was a teacher. When I go up to Hibbing I visit him at his home and he sits and reads poetry to me and we talk. He gives me little quizzes. I like that. He has gotten me in touch with my background in literature.

Tell me about a few of your favorite items.
Well, I would say the things related to B.J. His desk that he graded papers on, one of his textbooks that he used for instruction that has all these notes that he wrote. It offers such a clue to how Dylan became such a literary and musical genius, that he had someone like that who was very influential. And the three photographs from Hibbing of Dylan: one when he is a 3-year-old boy and he is just a really, really cute and chubby little toddler; one of him in his living room holding his guitar where he’s dressed up and it looks like he’s going out to play a gig; and then there is one of him and his band mates from the Golden Chords onstage—he’s stomping his foot and looking very rock ‘n’ roll. And I think with those early photographs that show him as a boy you realize that he is just a human being that had a family and grew up here and in a really miraculous way became an international star and someone who will have an impact on world culture into the future.
What do you hope people take away from the exhibit?
I think it’s always interesting to have set out the artistic evolution of an artist and Dylan is such a superb example of how an artist takes all these ingredients of what they have been given in their upbringing, in their education, both formal and informal, and makes it into something new. He has done that in so many dramatic ways and shown how an artist is always developing and always changing. I think he’s a good lesson on artistic evolution and in that way I think he is an inspiration for all of us—that you never stop growing and evolving. You see that in his art.