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Burger creating Think-Off medals; Muirhead finalist in annual debate

Local artisan and jeweler Cindy Burger is pictured at work in her Turtle River studio. Pioneer Photo/Patt Rall

Local artisan Cindy Burger knows that one of the prize medals she is preparing will make it back to Bemidji via Marsh Muirhead, and she is hoping it will be the gold.

The Great American Think-Off 2011 debate question, "Does Poetry Matter?" will be defended by four finalists who were chosen by a blind selection process to present the pros and cons of the question on June 11 in New York Mills, Minn., at the James Mann Performing Arts Center, 209 Hayes Ave.

A nationally recognized poet, Muirhead will defend his position that poetry does, in fact, matter. Another Minnesota author and writer Doug Wilhide will also present pro arguments. Bob Levine of New York City and Mahmood Tabadoor from Rochester, Mich., will deny that poetry matters. For a link to see their biographies online and to read some of the past winning essays, see The audience will vote for the winner of the first (gold), second (silver), third and fourth place (bronze) medals. The four finalists will each receive a $500 honorarium plus travel, food and lodging expenses. The winner will be declared "America's Greatest Thinker for 2011."

Applicants from around the country submit their 750-word essays for consideration in this amateur philosophy contest conceived 20 years ago by John Davis. The first debate was held 19 years ago at the fledging arts organization, the New York Mills Regional Cultural Center. Davis and his group felt that philosophy was an intellectual pursuit not exclusive to the classroom or the halls of higher learning, but also for the "common man." Debates held in the past have considered "Is the Pen Mightier than the Sword?" (2002), "Is the Death Penalty Ethical in a Civilized Society? (1997) and in 1998, the contestants considered "Is Honesty Always the Best Policy?" Perhaps not some of the deepest philosophical questions, but certainly those we wrestle with on a daily basis. The audiences have long outgrown the arts center and the event was moved to the New York Mill High School auditorium and now to the performing arts center.

At the start, Davis and his colleagues, all members of the Finnish farming communities of Sebeka, Menahga and New York Mills, were able to purchase an old brick building in disrepair from a local business owner with the dream of establishing a regional cultural center.

"We bought the building for $1," said Burger as she showed pictures of the original rooms used for storage over the years. "Davis was a wonderful man, just look him up, he wanted to bring the arts to rural America."

In 1991, in this small town of fewer than 2,000 people, the city council made the decision to contribute $35,000 to the newly organized non-profit arts organization to convert the building into a multi-use arts and cultural center. The gamble has paid off as the New York Mills Regional Cultural Center is now recognized as a national model. It has proven that the arts can be used for the economic development of an area.

From the start, artisan Cindy Linda Burger designed and hand fabricated the medals: Auguste Rodin's "The Thinker," which is a bronze statue of a man sitting upon a rock, right hand under his chin, staring down and presumably thinking. For the medals, "The Thinker" sits on a tractor.

"I made the medals by hand for the first five years, but now they are fabricated using a loss wax casting method using a rubber mold by a firm in upstate New York," said Burger. "I get them back and begin the finishing process by cutting off the sprue (the waste piece of metal left over from the pouring process), and then burnish and finish them up with a new red-white and blue ribbon. Then I place them into a box and this year will send them off to New York Mills as the courier has already left this area."

Each year the Great American Think-Off is made possible through the generosity of its sponsors. Sponsors for 2011 include the New York Mills Farmers and Merchants State Bank, Farmers and Merchants Insurance Agency, Mid-State Auto Auction, the McKnight Foundation, and the Minnesota State Arts Board with funding appropriated by the Minnesota State Legislature.

Tickets in advance cost $12 for adults and $5 for students. At the door, tickets cost $15. Philosopher Tickets for the first few rows cost $50; all other seats are not reserved. Tickets orders can be sent to The New York Mills Regional Cultural Center, 24 North Main Ave., Box 246, NYM MN 56567. Credit card orders will only be placed for multiple ticket orders. The phone number to purchase tickets is 218-385-3339, which is the number for the arts center gift shop.