Andrea Lekberg was an artist—trained in painting at the Art Institute of Chicago—long before she mastered pastry arts and opened the Artist Baker in Morristown in 2009. She still does both. Late this summer, her patterned, acrylic-on-linen paintings will be shown at two museums associated with the Oglala Sioux tribe—of which she is, by ancestry, a registered member. One of the museums is in South Dakota, the other in Montana.
Until the pandemic came along, she was going to close the bakery for its usual two-week summer vacation and drive the paintings out west at a leisurely pace. But in mid-March, when restaurants shut down or were reduced to takeout and delivery, her tiny bakery and cafe “was packed with people,” she says, “and that is exactly what we were not supposed to be doing.” So she decided to close, pay her seven-person staff for vacation and make the run now in just six days.
On Tuesday, March 17, St. Patrick’s Day, Lekberg, 54, and her mother, Frances, 78, who was visiting from Chicago, put her paintings into Lekberg’s Honda Element and headed west on what would amount to a nearly 3,000-mile roundtrip. Lekberg figures she did about 90 percent of the driving.
They drove 12 hours straight through to Chicago, taking turns at the wheel. They stayed overnight at her mother’s place and visited briefly with Lekberg’s brother, Tal. The next day, they drove 12 hours to South Dakota. As on the first leg, they stopped only for gas. “I put on gloves to pump gas,” she says, “because I didn’t want to touch anything. You always have to think about what if we’re infected?”
For edible fuel, they got by on coffee, popcorn and cake pops. “I had made a big batch of cake pops for St. Patrick’s Day, in two flavors—Irish coffee and chocolate Guinness,” she explains. “Before we left, I tried to donate them to the food missions. But no one was taking donations because of the virus. So I took all these cake pops on the road. I got pretty tired of cake pops.”
At the end of Wednesday’s 12-hour drive, they arrived at the Center for American Indian Research and Native Studies (CAIRNS) in Martin, South Dakota. They were greeted by Lekberg’s friend, Craig Howe, who runs the CAIRNS Center. He put them up for the night. The next day, Thursday, they packed up some of the art for shipment to the Museum of the Plains Indian in Browning, Montana.
“One of the reasons I work with [Craig],” she says, “is that he’s part of building up the Lakota community out there. Most of the artists live on the reservation, but a few of us are scattered around the country, in New Jersey, San Francisco and the Southwest. When I work with Craig I learn a lot about my heritage.”
“I’ve been going out there since I was a kid [in Chicago], so it’s part of me. New Jersey is a state of immigrants. A lot of my customers like to go back to Italy. I go back to South Dakota.”
Art, like baking, requires meticulousness and large inputs of time. “My art work is done on my baking schedule,” Lekberg says. “I knew I had a show in the summer of 2020. So in the fall of 2019 I had to do the work before our busy season—Thanksgiving, the winter holidays—began. I like to be able to take my time and think about the pieces, not wait till the last minute, because something could come up at work.”
On Friday morning, Lekberg and her mom got back in the car and drove three hours farther west, dropping off the rest of the pieces at the Heritage Center at Red Cloud Indian School on the Pine Ridge Reservation, and at the Sioux Indian Museum in Rapid City. Then they drove non-stop back to Chicago, arriving at 1:30am Saturday. Total car time that day: 18 hours.
They rested in Chicago the next two days, then on Monday the 23rd drove back to New Jersey in another 12-hour straight shot.
Driving out west, Lekberg says, “is different. The landscape is different, there are fewer cars on the road, the stress flows away. On the way home, by the time you get close to New Jersey the stress level is way up. It was good to go out there, get away from the news. It helped me get grounded and ready to move forward. “