A lot of transplants to Minnesota are complainers. They complain about the stoic and inscrutable natives. They complain about the urban design and transportation options. And of course, they complain about the weather (OK, fair enough).
But there’s not much complaining about our top-notch arts scene, which is one of the things that attracted writer and artist Andy Sturdevant to pull up stakes and move from Louisville, Ky., to the Twin Cities in 2005. Once here, he may have made some quiet observations about things we maybe could do a little differently up here, but no complaining.
Instead, he threw himself into getting to know his new hometowns inside and out, present and past, and better than many a native. His writings about place are thoughtful, observant, and appreciative, as he explores a landscape defined by interesting old neighborhoods, many-storied buildings, characters that make this place memorable and the artistic legacy Minnesotans have left in many medium.
He writes MinnPost’s Stroll column, and his writings have appeared in Arts Review, Heavy Table and Mpls. St. Paul. He’s also the artists’ resources director for Springboard for the Arts. Somehow, he also fits in time to make visual art.
Sturdevant’s first book of essays, “Potluck Supper With Meeting to Follow,” is out now. Here’s our conversation about his book and his views:
MinnPost: You couldn’t have asked for a more beautiful presentation for your writing. Tell me about the process of getting your book out on Coffee House, and what you think of the finished package.
Andy Sturdevant: I certainly couldn’t. The way the book is designed and laid out [by Linda Koutsky] is gorgeous. Coffee House’s director, Chris Fischbach, had been interested in a collection of my writing initially, and after he’d approached me and I’d agreed, over the past year-and-a-half he really helped shape it. It was also a really important thing to him to have it in a beautiful package — I think having the hardcover books in boards was his idea. I really can’t believe how good it looks. I’d always figured if I ever had a publication out, the best-case scenario is it would be printed on standard Kinko’s fluorescent color stock and hand-stapled. Which would be fine, but this is much better.
MP: You seem to have wholly embraced life in Minnesota, and made a real study of it — in literature, history, music and art. From a newcomer’s perspective, what makes this place distinctive? Are you planning to stay for the long haul?
AS: It’s just a great American city. Or two great American cities, more accurately. Both of them have their peculiarities and obsessions and self-perceptions and identities, and I never get tired of talking to people about those things, and I never get tired of digging into them. There’s something about the place that encourages self-reflection and investigation — the historical and archival resources are so vast and so accessible — but there’s such a capacity for surprise and doubt, too, in the civic character.
All those things make it really enjoyable to write in, and write about. I hope to be around for a while. I really love writing about Minneapolis and St. Paul, and I’m not planning on going anywhere. Unless I say something really stupid and I’m run out of town on Highway 55 by a mob of angry Minnesotans with pitchforks. Even then, I’d try to plea bargain for occasional visits to my favorite restaurants once a month.
MP: Many people feel that writers age 40 and younger have been strongly shaped by the way writing is presented online. Yet your writing is clearly not a speed-read. What writers do you consider influences?
AS: That’s funny you should mention this, because quite a lot of the work in the book was originally written for an online audience, whether here on MinnPost or elsewhere. A lot of it has been reworked and extended and revised, but it’s still fairly short and punchy. In fact, some of the pieces people seem to like the most started their lives on my blog — as short and snarky a platform as you can get, isn’t it?
The Internet certainly shaped me as a writer, but not necessarily as a reader. That sense of writing in real-time, for an engaged, knowledgeable audience, and one that is able to talk back and correct your mistakes and add more background — that’s something from the Internet, and it’s certainly informed a lot of my writing.
When I was younger, most of the writers I admired and tried to emulate were local journalists and editorial cartoonists and rock critics and others banging out work on a deadline. These days, I am really at home with Bill Holm or Joseph Mitchell, who both feel like writers I should have known when I was younger but didn’t. Or Leanne Shapton, to name a contemporary example. The common thread with all of them is that they taught me to look carefully.
MP: There is such a strong sense of nostalgia in your work. And frankly, you aren’t quite old enough for all that. Do you disagree, or are you ahead of your time? Where does this come from?
AS: Hah! Which parts did you find nostalgic? I think you’re right. Part of it might have to do with growing up on a cultural diet that consisted so completely of old books, old art, old movies, and old music — all these things I loved passionately but could never really fully own or even access.
There’s a sense of feeling somewhat out of time. I mean, I remember when I was 14 or 15 how shocked and disappointed I was to learn Lester Bangs had been dead for years. But I should maybe invoke Paul Gruchow, a great Minnesota writer who wrote much more eloquently on the topic than I am able: “It is in fashion just now to disparage nostalgia. Nostalgia, we believe, is a cheap emotion. But we forget what it means … This desire need not imply the impulse to turn back the clock, which of course we cannot do. It recognizes, rather the truth — if home is a place in time — that we cannot know where we are now unless we can remember where we have come from.”
I hope that when I’m invoking the past, it’s not in the service of wallowing in the “ah, man, weren’t those ‘Star Wars’ action figures we had as kids cool?” type of nostalgia, but as a way to connect the present to what’s come before. I find the present is fuller and more satisfying when there’s a deeper understanding of the past.
MP: You’re an artist and a writer. Do these disciplines play well together? Which takes priority? And, are you doubly tortured?
AS: Actually, I think they cancel each other out. Or maybe they complement one another — I’ve found artists and writers are tortured in slightly different, non-overlapping ways. Artists tend to be tortured about power, money, drugs and sex, in that order. For writers it’s more like money, sex, drugs, and power.
But one discipline certainly informs the other. I like writing about art, and I like making art that relates somehow to themes that come up in my writing. I feel reasonably comfortable with both, which I know is a very non-tortured thing to say. But it is a weird thing. I have a very conventional art school background, and I still feel more like I came from the art world, and speak the secret language of contemporary art better than I speak the secret language of literature.
I feel like the art people will all secretly think I’m actually a lit person that is occasionally able to do art things, and that the lit people will all secretly think I’m actually an art person that is occasionally able to do some writing, and maybe I’m not really either. Maybe I’m tortured about that, and then the power, sex, money, and drugs.
MP: I was struck, in your piece on the old Warehouse District art scene, by your observation that all the great old galleries have been replaced by bars with stupid one-word names (Envy, Drink, etc.). Are you saying something larger about local culture, or is this just one neighborhood?
AS: Oof, there’s always the risk when you complain about new things — even playfully — you’re going to sound like a Jonathan Franzen. I mean, those are really dumb names for clubs! But I’m not really a fun-hater, and those clubs serve their purpose.
I really do like the walking through downtown at 1 a.m. on a Saturday night in February when it’s 20 below and seeing all these people staggering around outside wearing the skimpiest clothing anyway. It’s so admirably nature-defying.
Besides that, the galleries that were displaced didn’t completely vanish. There are still plenty of galleries around town I like attending that carry some of that Warehouse District-era DNA, in spirit if not in name. A city is always changing, which is what makes it a city. Sometimes you like the changes, other times less so. But I don’t know if you can draw any sweeping, substantial conclusions about an entire culture from those changes. That’s just the way a city is.
MP: This is a great town for the arts. You came from one that I presume was slightly less so? Yet you’ll observe we’re always fighting about whether or not we should spend money on the arts. What can you tell Minnesotans about what the arts do for us, that we perhaps might not realize?
AS: Oh, no, Louisville, where I grew up, was a perfectly good place for the arts. There were free art classes for children, and we had well-regarded rock bands and a great newspaper and lots of kids making zines. All of those things shaped me, just as the arts resources in Minneapolis-St. Paul continue to shape me.
Among many other things, art is a way to tell the story of a place. What’s the greatest piece of art to come out of the Cities? There are plenty to choose from, but maybe — to just pick one — let’s say it’s the Replacements’ “Let It Be.” People still talk about that album, and I think it’s because it told some aspect of the story of this place beautifully. Not in a literal way, like, “ooh, it’s cold, and there’s the Foshay Tower,” or something like that. But in saying, here’s a place with androgynous guys and sadistic dentists and people leaving lonely messages on answering machines.
And that emotional specificity resonates with people in such a direct way that they connect it to geographic specificity. Obviously there’s nothing specifically Minneapolitan about any one of those things. But take them together, and it seems like, yeah, there is something very Minneapolis about this. That’s a powerful thing.
MP: Despite being a great arts town, and one of the very best literary towns in the country, you write about our need for a definitive Minnesota writer, who gets this place from the inside out — “our Studs Terkel.” In the time since you first wrote those words and now, have you reconsidered that? Haven’t you found someone or someones whose writing explains this place?
AS: Well, I don’t want anyone to think I’m suggesting there aren’t any good Minnesota writers, because that’s obviously not at all true — two I’ve mentioned in this interview, Gruchow and especially Holm, are as good or better than anyone at explaining the mental, physical, spiritual and emotional contours of the state of Minnesota.
What I meant is that I sometimes feel as if there’s a shortage of people writing specifically Minneapolis-St. Paul stories. Urban stories, city stories, stories about old buildings and local characters and new immigrants and family histories and life in stucco apartments and alleyways and skyway-adjacent offices in the contemporary Twin Cities.
That’s what I loved about Studs Terkel, that sense of being not an Illinoisian, but a Chicagoan, so connected to the city itself and the people that lived in that city. There are lots of smart people out there writing these Minneapolis and St. Paul stories. But I want to keep seeing more of them. No one’s written a piece about the 21A bus since Kevin Kling 20 years ago! I’d like more 21A stories!
Nov. 4, 6:30 p.m., Rum River Library, Anoka
Nov. 9, 4 p.m., Micawber’s Books, St. Paul
Nov. 30, noon, Magers & Quinn, Minneapolis
Dec. 8, 2 p.m., Magers & Quinn, Minneapolis