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Franconia Sculpture Park prepares a party for 40 new pieces of art outdoors

The park is more than doubling in size this year, having taken over an adjacent cornfield and its first woodland patch, bringing its acreage to about 45.

Freya Gabie's red cornstalk, in Franconia's new expansion space, recently succumbed to the combine.
Courtesy of Franconia Sculpture Park

Because I can’t attend Franconia Sculpture Park‘s big annual event this Saturday, I drove up the other day to see what’s new at this remarkable crossroads of art and environment.

Franconia has been a favorite place almost since its founding, 17 years ago now, on a different and much smaller patch of former farmland in Chisago County, several miles to the Twin Cities side of Taylors Falls and a 45-minute drive from either downtown.

There aren’t that many places hereabouts, still, to see genuinely fine art outdoors. Also, pausing at Franconia eased the pangs of returning from a paddle or camping trip to the settled world. It was quirkier then, even whimsical, and most everything about the sculptures and the overall project seemed more aspirational and less, I guess, accomplished than the offerings today.

Seven years ago the park moved to its current location, which includes a farmhouse and workshops that allow Franconia to offer what John Hock, artistic director and CEO, says is Franconia’s unique three-part offering among the nation’s sculpture parks: residency, studios and exhibition space on a single site. The others have just one or two.

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And the park is more than doubling in size this year, having taken over an adjacent cornfield and its first little woodland patch, which Hock says will bring total acreage to about 45.

Native prairie plants are growing on big swaths of what was lawn just a few years ago, creating soft divisions that give some of the smaller works, especially, a sort of roofless gallery to themselves. As always, there are plenty of monumental works that might be difficult to show anyplace but outdoors.

Too big for indoors

“Parade,” in the photo below, stands 40 feet tall from the bottom of the wood ring to the top, and would have stood several feet taller, Hock said, but for some problems encountered during construction and installation (pictures of that process here).

MinnPost photo by Ron Meador
“Parade” by Mike Rathbun of Portland, Ore.

Not shown is a glade of tall pylons fitted with solar-powered light and sound generators that bring the sculpture’s overall depth to 77 feet, which I think is fairly near the depth of the standard city lot I used to occupy in Minneapolis. But it seems much smaller.

“A lot of great artists don’t want to work outdoors,” Hock told me. “It takes a certain kind of person to be challenged by this environment.

“Here you’re competing with the scale of the sky. That piece over there” — gesturing to a sculpture that seemed perhaps abstracted from a centrifuge ride on the state-fair midway — “is over 60 feet tall. But you can’t tell it.”

“Parade” is one of about 40 sculptures that are new to Franconia this year, which brings to mind another thing I never really grasped until walking the grounds with Hock on Tuesday: Of the park’s 100 or so sculptures that are on view at any given time, about 40 percent are new each year.

Some other arrivals for 2013:

Tiger Lily” reimagines landscape with forms of painted steel suggesting fallen flower petals, with a blue birdbath at the center.

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Nearby and in a similar shade of blue is a large and anatomically incorrect breast made of swimming-pool liner and silicone, among other things, with a large, milky nipple that rises and falls in a reversed response to environmental conditions. Hock explained that the piece is derived from skateboarding in a way that I didn’t quite follow. So is the title: “Oobie Boobie Double Loobie, Ollies are Hard, Shred the Gnar.”

MinnPost photo by Ron Meador
“Oobie Boobie Double Loobie, Ollies are Hard, Shred the Gnar” by Sanford Mirling of Middlebury, Vt.

I liked the simplicity of “Pillar of Salt: To be Eaten by the Rain and Fed to the Earth,” but wished I’d visited in time to see the artist’s other piece — a single living cornstalk painted red — before the farmer now finishing out the season on Franconia’s new expansion space came by with his combine.

I had never seen an actual Vietnamese pedicab, or xich lo, except in pictures, but that was only one part of the draw to “All that is Solid Melts Into Air (or, Making Ourselves at Home in this Modern World).

MinnPost photo by Ron Meador
“All that is Solid Melts Into Air (or, Making Ourselves at Home in This Modern World)” by Hong-An Truong of Brooklyn, N.Y.

And if I were going up to Franconia this Saturday, I would surely spend some time watching last year’s “Poetry Studio” — a riot of steel and bright paint that seems sort of like a surrealistic take on those awful plastic backyard playground structures — get put through the paces of various readings and writing events. 

I would try to stay into the twilight to see the lights come on at various solar-power-illuminated works, like “Sapling,” which tops an uprooted tree trunk with an oversized streetlamp.

‘Are You Down?’

And I would hope against all odds to find some quiet, uncrowded time to spend with the park’s single permanent installation: “Are You Down?

This piece grew out of the artist Michael Richards’ work with imagery of the Tuskegee airmen, using molds made from his own body. He created the piece while a fellow at Franconia in 2000, and the following year was working in his studio in the World Trade Center when the planes hit the buildings.

MinnPost photo by Ron Meador
“Are You Down?” by Michael Richards.

The restored piece was installed at Franconia and dedicated to Richards’ memory last Sept. 11.

I can’t begin to tell you how moving it is — even without the back story — or how complicated, despite its formal simplicity. Especially in Franconia’s outdoor setting.

Although part of the fun of this sculpture park is watching all kinds of people respond to the art in their own ways, “Are You Down?” is perhaps best visited in solitude. So it’s a good thing the park is open dawn to dusk every day of the year.

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Works in progress

I’ve already marked my calendar to get up to Franconia at least one more time before winter to see if Alex Lindsay has finished the piece I saw him working on this week, which combines a salvaged truck box, a huge iron rail, multiple mechanical systems and advanced electronics into a piece that doesn’t yet have a name (and may never).

Lindsay told me his plan is to mount the truck box, which is missing its back end, atop the rail and have it move very slowly down the track, an inch every three minutes, a full one-way trip every 24 hours. Inside, rear-projection video will show a highway passing by at highway speed, with additional images to be added over time in another of Franconia’s ever-changing installations.

When finished, the whole thing will sit in one of the newly planted prairie areas so the truck box will seem to float above the grasses.

Which goes to say that you won’t be able to see this piece complete on Saturday, although you may well get to talk with Lindsay or one of the other artists who will be on hand. (A complete guide to the day’s activities — music, hot-metal pouring, theater performances, sculpture hunt and more — is here.)

Not ‘about’ environment

Although I am always on the lookout for interesting ways in which people interact with environment, I don’t want to leave any impression that the art at Franconia is somehow “about” its cornfield location (although some pieces may be) or nature and natural materials (although many are made from these), or even about being outdoors (although all of them necessarily are).

On this trip, actually, I would say I found that sculptures most directly about natural places and materials a little less interesting than the others, but that’s just my taste and may not be yours.

One of the park’s major miracles, I think, is its ability to speak to all kinds of tastes and interests and, especially, both to people who spend a fair amount of time looking at art and also to  people who have never set foot in the Walker or Weisman and never will.

The higher-than-average humor quotient of the work at Franconia helps with that latter group. Time after time I’ve seen young people and families start through the grounds, mocking one piece or another, and then become genuinely engaged with an unfunny piece, and then another and another.

“Subversive education,” Hock calls it, and I suppose the end result is another way of seeing environment and perhaps caring for it.

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Art along the road

Here are some things I saw afresh on the way back home:

A shed of rotting gray boards collapsing toward a cornfield. An empty cylindrical corn crib overgrown with vines.

A hemorrhage of scarlet sumac splashing the greenery in a roadside ditch. Two battered bikes at the mouth of a gravel driveway, offered for sale or maybe giveaway.

An abandoned farm wagon missing two sides and all sense of purpose. A high-voltage transmission tower against the bright blue sky, common as dirt but suddenly art.

An old Aermotor-style windmill rising from a little copse of trees, and turning for a change.