St. Paul photographer Nell Ytsma dies, known for her social activism, documentary and community projects

St. Paul photographer Nell Ytsma dies, known for her social activism, documentary and community projects


In the Twin Cities arts community, Petronella “Nell” J. Ytsma’s name is as synonymous with her epic Agent Orange project as it is with taking pictures of other artists’ work.

“Whether it was Agent Orange or in her personal work … if she was living it, breathing it, a lot of people liked to talk about it, and she could see it in a way that we often don’t see in today’s world,” said her husband, Mark Sauer. “She was compassionate. She was considerate. She was concerned — her moral comfort compass never deviated.”

Her dedication to social activism was evident in her work, from protesting the Vietnam War in her youth to visiting Vietnam and documenting the effects of Agent Orange using a Hasselblad camera for her “Legacy” series. She also took pictures of the Park Square Theater’s early years of productions as well as various political events.

Ytsma, who stood nearly 6 feet tall and was a regular swimmer, had just returned home from a workout Sept. 2 when she unexpectedly died of natural causes. She was 73.

Born in Haarlem, Netherlands, in 1948, at 7 years old she immigrated with her family to a Dutch colony in Grand Rapids, Mich. She was in social work until it burnt her out, and off she moved to Minneapolis in 1979 to pursue photography. She already had friends here, so it was a soft landing and a fast beginning.

She made a living as a photographer, and though she was a staff photographer at Mia for eight years and at the Park Square Theater, and did some university photo instruction, she was known for documenting other artists’ work.

“Everybody I knew who won a Bush Award or a McKnight Fellowship, she photographed them,” said artist Dan Bruggeman, whose work she photographed for decades. “It was a combination of the quality of the work but also that the presentation was always so excellent.”

She met Sauer in 1981 when she happened to be documenting his friend Jody Isaacson’s senior show at the Minneapolis Institute of Art. They married in 1992 and lived on the second floor of a former fire station in St. Paul. Sauer’s boat repair shop, St. Paul Shipwrights, and her studio are on the ground floor.

Ytsma’s has been included in exhibitions at St. Catherine University in St. Paul, Dubuque Museum of Fine Art, Augsburg College, and abroad in Berlin, to name a few. She was the recipient of a Percent for Arts grant from the Minnesota State Arts Board, and a CUE Award, among others.

Kathy Daniels, former director and curator of the St. Catherine University art gallery, curated Nell’s “Legacy” project and also organized a symposium around it. The two first met in 1993 when Ytsma was in a group show, “Women and Land,” at St. Catherine University and became fast friends.

“She spent a long time there and made friends and got into little villages and people’s homes,” said artist Tim Harding. “She was just deeply moved by the whole experience and she talked about it, you know, whenever you bring it up, she would not hold back.”

She also worked closely with people who were dying during the AIDS crisis. She would often invite the dying into her home and care for them, at a time when their families abandoned them.

“The kindness demonstrated by something like that affected I think everybody but especially, you know, I can only speak for me,” said Bruggerman, “But I thought, ‘I should emulate that.’ She was inspiring.”

Along with her husband Ytsma is survived by siblings Edward Ytsma of Shrevport La., Joyce Huizinga of Tuskaloosa Ala., Willamina Godec of Cleveland, Cathy Mahynski of Grand Rapids, Mich., and Theodore Ytsma of Seattle, Wash.

A public memorial is set for 1 p.m. Saturday at the Weisman Art Museum, 333 E. River Parkway, Minneapolis.


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