by Deb Seminary

Joanne Luger is an artist in many forms. You may be familiar with her drawings or pottery, but you may also have been the recipient of the work of one of her other crafts – dentistry!

Joanne Luger was born and raised in the Yukon Territory, Canada. She is a member of the Northern Tutchone, a First Nations Tribe. She left home when she was eighteen and went into the Northwest Territories where she attended the School of Dental Therapy. “It was a three year program that trained us to do fillings and some extractions,” said Joanne. “The dental therapy program was designed to increase access to dental care to remote areas of northern Canada that did not have a dentist.”

“The dental equipment was a mobile unit,” she noted. “We would fly into remote communities on float planes or, in the winter, go by snowmobiles. I have worked in areas as far north as Inuvik, NWT as well as numerous communities of Northern Manitoba. I provided dental care to these remote areas for two years but decided that living in the middle of nowhere with no family and few friends was not for me. I couldn’t see myself doing that for the rest of my life.”

At the time, the University of Manitoba was looking for students that were from Northern communities to enter their medical/dental program. The idea was to educate professionals from these areas in a hope they would some day return. Joanne took the opportunity and started the journey toward dental school. While on this journey, she met someone from North Dakota and moved to Bismarck. “When I first moved to Bismarck I had to find something to do until I transferred to a US dental school so I decided to try something fun for a change. I had always been interested in art but never had the opportunity to participate, so I started going to Bismarck State College,” she said. “I didn’t even know I could draw!”

“I have this hand-eye coordination that I now realize is a God-given talent,” she continued. “I enjoy working with my hands, I like to make stuff. People often ask me how I do it and I find it difficult to explain because sometimes it feels like the drawing simply comes out of the paper. Most people think drawing is mostly about your hands but it’s not. It’s about what you see and how you interpret what you see. It is the ability to transfer what your eye sees onto paper.”

She noted, despite her strong hand-eye coordination, one of her other artistic passions didn’t come as easily. “Pottery is more difficult. I have to work harder at it because there are so many things that can go wrong. Clay can be fickle and difficult to handle. There are many variables that can affect the final outcome. The clay may be too wet, too dry or not aged enough. Most of the time I have a mental plan about what I want to make but rarely, if ever, does it turn out the way I intended. Glazing pottery is unpredictable in most cases because the glaze can vary depending on how thick or thin the pot is, how thick or thin the mixture is, where the pot is placed in the kiln or how the planets are alined. I think that’s why I like it, I can’t control it. The process of creating pottery is all part of the art.”

Learning pottery took a little more effort and, at first, she didn’t really like the craft . “I was curious about pottery when I first started doing it but I also hated it,” she said. “It is not as easy as it looks. After dental school, I returned to Bismarck and decided to give pottery another chance. I went back to BSC and started doing pottery. This time it all clicked into place. Pottery has evolved into a form of meditation for me. It helps me center my awareness and stay connected to the earth both literally and figuratively.”

Joanne said she works with a group of ladies that get together to “throw clay around.” “These women are my support group,” she said. “There are about ten of us ranging in age from 28 to 75 and we are all potters. We all have our own studios, with wheels and kilns, but we prefer to do pottery at the BSC art department.”

The potters enjoy a good relationship with Brian Hushagen, an associate professor of art at BSC. “It is a nice communal place where we can try different glazes, different types of clay, and different ways of firing,” said Joanne. “He is very dynamic and always trying different things. It keeps us up to date on new techniques. We help him, too by sharing what we have learned with other students. The advantage of being in this kind of studio is we teach and inspire each other.”

Joanne has also artistically influenced her daughters in the same way her mother and aunts had influenced her. “I come from a long line of incredibly talented women. Both of my daughters are unbelievably talented,” she said. “They both draw and specialize in anime. My thirteen-year-old does comic strips. My nineteen-year-old is very interested in cinematography.”

However, she has yet to convince them to market their artistic abilities and take advantage of their talents. “I grew up in a place where access to professional careers was unreachable,” she said. “How I got to this place in my life feels like a dream. As a child I was ecomonically disadvantaged and lived in a shack with no running water and a wood stove. If someone had said to me that I was going to be a dentist someday, I would have laughed because that was too far beyond the realm of possibility. As my life evolved, however, I happened to be in the right place at the right time and had enouph sense to take advantage of the opportunities that came my way.”

Joanne is now the Clinical Director of Bridging the Dental Gap, a public health dental clinic based in Bismarck. “As a child I was a public health recipient and now I am a public health provider and have been my entire adult life,” she said.

In 1998 she became involved with a group of like-minded individuals, and they started talking about a public health dental clinic in Bismarck, ND. It took until 2004 before they were finally able to put the clinic together. “It is a very unique dental program,” explained Joanne. “Most public health facilities offer medical, dental and mental health services. These facilities qualify for Federal and State funding. We are an independent Public Health Dental Clinic, therefore we do not receive any State or Federal assistance.”
The clinic does qualify for a few grants, but mainly operates on funds it can generate and donations. The clinic opened in August 2004 with several volunteers and Joanne as the only dentist.

“I am very proud of this clinic,” she said. “There are two dentists working with me right now, a business manager, two hygienists and four dental assistants. I am concerned that with the expanding population in the Bismarck/Mandan area we will not have the staff or funding to accommodate the number of people that will need dental care in the near future. We purchased two mobile dental units and now provide care in local nursing homes two days a month. We also oversee the Ronald McDonald Care Mobile that travels around the state offering free dental services to children. We are committed to increasing access to dental care for everyone.”

The clinic, located on south 12th street in Bismarck, is open to anyone. The clientele consists primarily of Medicaid Recipients since it is difficult for them to obtain dental service in other places, but they also see people with private insurance as well as self pay. The only advantage for the latter population is the Payment Plan option. For individuals that have no insurance and a low income, the clinic offers dental services on a sliding fee scale using the National Poverty Guidelines. The clinic offers comprehensive dental care including cleanings, fillings, extractions, dentures, crowns, and root canals. They also provide emergency care for tooth pain.

In addition to working at the clinic, Joanne is the North Dakota State Dental Consultant for Medicaid, Workforce Safety Dental Consultant and does Peer Review for the North Dakota State Prison. She has also worked for Indian Health Services on the Standing Rock Reservation in Fort Yates ND for 10 years. “I keep myself busy,” she agreed. “Sometimes it is hard to squeeze time in for art. I also try to stay physically fit. As my elders reach a more advanced age, I have become increasingly aware of how important it is to keep your body strong so when you get to be 80 and 90 years of age your body can still have mobility.”

Joanne also travels back to the Yukon at least once a year to visit her family. “I grew up with very strong women,” she said. “The kind that shoot moose, process the meat, tan the hide and make moccassins, hats, mittens and jackets out of it. My mom and aunties still do beadwork and tan the hides. They sell their wares at local festivals, so I try to coordinate my visits around those events. These women taught me to work hard and to help take care of others that are less fortunate.”

Joanne’s prints and pottery are for sale at Five Nations Arts, 401 West Main in Mandan.

Donations to help support Bridging the Dental Gap can be sent to 1223 South 12th Street, Bismarck 58504.