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The Minnesota State Fair’s Fine Arts Exhibition celebrates the art of the state

Fine-art photographer R.J. Kern has submitted three times and been accepted three times. For 2018, his photograph won the First Glance Award and the Great State of Minnesota Award.

Jill Whitney Birk, “Roller Girl”
Courtesy of the Minnesota State Fair

Each year, the Minnesota State Fair invites artists from around the state to submit work for consideration for the fair’s annual Fine Arts Exhibition. Participation is open to “all living residents of Minnesota,” so nix on sending work by talented dead relatives.

Each artist may submit only one work. There are eight classes of competition – oil, acrylic and mixed media; sculpture; watercolor, gouache, casein and tempera; drawings and pastels; prints; ceramics and glass; textiles and fiber; and photography – and eight jurors, one for each category. For Phase 1 of the jury process, artists submit digital images. Phase 2 is an in-person examination of the work by the jurors, which means prepping it and delivering it to the Fine Arts Center. For some artists, this can be a lot of work, not to mention anxiety.

The jury changes every year. And even if you’re an established, successful and well-known artist, there’s no guarantee you’ll get in. In 2012, photographer Alec Soth famously blogged his rejection email, which said, in part, “We regret to inform you that your piece titled Brooklyn Center, Minnesota, entered in Class 8 – Photography/Digital Process was not selected to move on to Phase 2 of the jury process … Thank you for your participation!”

In other words, this is Minnesota. Don’t put on any airs, buster.

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Fine-art photographer R.J. Kern is three for three. He has submitted three times and been accepted three times: in 2015, 2017 and again this year, 2018. He won an Honorable Mention in 2017. For 2018, his photograph won the First Glance Award from the Minnesota State Fair Foundation and the Great State of Minnesota Award from Minnesota Citizens for the Arts.

Kern doesn’t take any of this for granted. He has a solo show hanging now at Burnet Fine Art and Advisory in Minnetonka (he’s represented by Burnet), which is a pretty big deal. So was the article he wrote last year for National Geographic, which published six of his images. So is an award he just won in Germany. His first monograph, “The Sheep and the Goats,” was named Most Beautiful German Book 2018. Kern’s work has been featured in many solo and group exhibitions and is held in many collections.

But the fair is the fair. “When we moved to Minnesota [from Denver] in 2011, my wife told me all about the fair,” he said by phone on Tuesday. “If you win a blue ribbon at the Minnesota State Fair, that’s bragging rights. It’s big stuff. It’s something money can’t buy.”

And it’s exposure you can’t get anywhere else. Mia’s blockbuster “Martin Luther” show in 2017 was seen by 111,000 people. Guillermo del Toro’s “At Home With Monsters” drew 77,700.

R.J. Kern with “Kenzie and Hootie, Anoka County Fair, Minnesota, 2016”
MinnPost photo by John Whiting
R.J. Kern with “Kenzie and Hootie, Anoka County Fair, Minnesota, 2016”

Depending on overall fair attendance, between 220,000 and 260,000 people will visit the Fine Arts Exhibition. Some will run indoors to get out of a sudden rain. But most will go to see the art. For many fairgoers, the Fine Arts Center is an annual destination. So it’s highly possible that tens of thousands of people will pause before Kern’s “Kenzie and Hootie, Anoka County Fair, Minnesota, 2016.”

The large, lovely portrait of a young woman and her goat may stop you in your tracks. It’s an image from a series Kern calls “The Unchosen Ones.” Taken from the sidelines at 10 county fairs across Minnesota that lead up to the state fair, they show animals and their young handlers – but losers, not winners. These are not the pairs that will go on to glory at the big fair in the cities.

Photographed against a simple gray backdrop, the subjects – children and teenagers, sheep and goats – are lit like old masters. They are luminous and dignified. If this is what losing looks like, maybe it’s not so terrible after all.

Kern, who also teaches taekwondo (a fifth-degree black belt, he’s the owner and head instructor of Lakes Martial Arts), wants his portraits to send a positive message. “We live in a very competitive world. Fairs are competitive places. Not getting first place teaches life skills that can make adolescents and youth successful as career professionals. Even if you’re an unchosen one, really good things can happen.”

Kern is honored and humbled to be included in the Fine Arts Exhibition. “This is the biggest art show in the state,” he said. “Many of the people who see it do not experience art in galleries or museums. This may be their only art experience in a year. To be part of that is really special.”

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Tom Erickson, “Lift/Spiral,” winner of the St. Paul Saints Baseball Club Award
Courtesy of the Minnesota State Fair
Tom Erickson, “Lift/Spiral,” winner of the St. Paul Saints Baseball Club Award

The size and scope of the exhibition is a reminder of our richness in the arts as a state. “There’s a lot of great art in Minnesota, and it’s very competitive,” Kern said. “Several of my professors and mentors have submitted work and gotten rejected. There’s a little bit of luck involved. But we’re among a great community of artists, that’s for sure.”

With his three-for-three record, we asked Kern what advice he would give to first-time hopefuls. “It’s a numbers game,” he said. “The more you apply or submit your work, the better your chances. If you don’t submit any work, you don’t have any chances.”

Kern is the recipient of two Artist Initiative Grants from the Minnesota State Arts Board, the first in 2016 and the second in 2018. Playing with numbers, and he’s made a surprising discovery. “It’s actually easier to receive a Minnesota State Arts Board Arts Initiative Grant as a photographer than it is to get into the Fine Arts Exhibition as a photographer. The grant is about a one in four chance. The exhibition, about a one in 10 chance.

Leslie Ellen Barlow, “Stephen, Jeffrey and Twins”
Courtesy of the Minnesota State Fair
Leslie Ellen Barlow, “Stephen, Jeffrey and Twins,” winner of the Metropolitan Regional Arts Council Award

“If you don’t get into the fair, you still have a darned good chance to get $10,000 to do a grant project and create new work, which is exciting.”

Any advice for first-time visitors to the Fine Arts Exhibition? “Go early, when the crowds are less. Choose your favorites. Follow up with the artists and let them know how much you appreciated their work.”

Here’s a list of this year’s jury-chosen first place winners, if you want to start by finding them.

Oil/Acrylic/Mixed Media: Daren Henry (St. Paul), “Girl Wrapped in Gauze”
Sculpture: Mary Roberta Zubrzycki (St. Paul), “A ‘Bag Lady’ ”
Watercolor/Gouache/Casein/Tempera: Yudong Sheng (Shoreview), “Fall Trip to Boundary Waters”
Drawings/Pastel: Gene Williams Swain (Savage), “Bailing Hay in the 1960s, Meriden, MN”
Prints: Matthew Kunes (St. Anthony Village), “Bighorn”
Ceramics/Glass: Alan H. Honn (Shafer), “Splash”
Textiles/Fibers: Amy Usdin (Mendota Heights), “Horse to Water”
Photography: Andrew Chow (Hugo), “Inner Light”

Second and third prizes were also awarded, along with merit prizes. Many more awards  were bestowed by sponsors including the Minnesota Museum of American Art, the Weisman Art Museum, Banfill-Locke Center for the Arts, North Hennepin Community College, Northern Clay Center, the Textile Center, the Gordon Parks Gallery and the White Bear Center for the Arts. Look for labels with colored bands.

A catalog is available ($2) listing all of the art and artists, including awards and prizes. Most of the artwork is for sale. A 20 percent commission supports State Fair arts programs.

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The Fine Arts Center is open each day of the fair from 9 a.m. until 9 p.m. A different Minnesota artist is on site every day, all day, making art and fielding questions.