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State Fair’s Creative Activities collections best capture our craft traditions

As craft and folk traditions become less a part of everyday life, a class of devoted, rigorous artists have stepped up to preserve them.

MinnPost illustration by Andy Sturdevant

The State Fair ended on Monday, as you are no doubt aware. I don’t know why I even bothered to type that sentence; of course you were aware of that. You were probably there. Most people were. The State Fair is the one all-consuming, inescapable fact of life in Minnesota. For the 12 days it runs, no matter who you are or what you’re doing, it’s always on your periphery. Anything you’re doing — driving across town, watching TV, talking to people at work you don’t have anything in common with, waiting for buses, checking Facebook, making weekend plans to go anywhere — is done in relation to the State Fair; it’s a perfect model of psychic heliocentricity where the Twin Cities revolves in elliptical orbit around the stationary sun at Como and Snelling.

Which is why one week here is not enough to cover the Fair’s aesthetic highlights. The State Fair seeps into the aesthetic life of the Twin Cities as surely as it seeps into the other sectors. Especially if a good part of your aesthetic awareness is online. The writers in your RSS feed take all sorts of approaches, from the urbanists at (David Levinson’s meditation on the Fair as temporary city) to the youth cultists at MPLS.TV (Kari Schuster’s hilarious photo essay on post-Fair uses for Sweet Martha’s cookies).

And of course, the photographers. Every end of August, you’re guaranteed a stream of high-quality street photography of the often confounding, amazing sights at the Fair from local photographers. The work of Carrie Thompson and Steven Lang are two particular favorites, in terms of capturing the touching vernacular weirdness of the scenes you pass on foot while walking down Judson Avenue. The godfather of Fair photography, perhaps, is Tom Arndt, whose black-and-white scenes of the Fair in the 1970s remain some of my favorites images of Minnesota.

I was talking to a friend who’s a St. Paul native this weekend — as I mention, any conversation with anyone in late August will contain a section devoted to the Fair — and he was bemoaning what he called the event’s gradually sanitized “MPR-ization.” Back in the ’70 and ’80s, he said, the Fair was less self-consciously quirky, and scarier, dirtier and weirder. Arndt’s photos capture some of that griminess, while still retaining a sense of familiarity. That’s what the best written and visual accounts of the Fair do — make the experience seem deeply familiar and profoundly bizarre at the same time.

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Unfortunately, as far as visuals go, you’re going to have to deal with my notably lousy photography here as we investigate some more aesthetic highlights. I could devote a whole column just to the hand-painted signage, but that’ll have to wait until next year. Instead, we’ll focus on the Creative Activities area.

creative activities
MinnPost photo by Andy Sturdevant
The “Creative Activities” Building, nee “Women’s Activities”

The Creative Activities were known as the “Women’s Activities” section until a lot later than you would think. (In fact, the old Women’s Activities bust remains on display in the hall, and is worth a look — a comely fin de siècle harvest goddess with a gear of industry behind her as a sort of halo.)

Womens activities bust
MinnPost photo by Andy Sturdevant
The old Women’s Activities bust

It includes all of the categories thought of more as traditional crafts, such as needlecraft, garments, handcrafts and collections, along with the baked, canned and preserved food categories. As far as the craft items go, the line between art and craft is pretty blurry in this context. Some of the pieces in the Fine Arts exhibition showcase a great deal of traditionalist handicraft, and many of the pieces in the Creative Activities showcase a great deal of conceptual rigor.

This is an area where the Fair has become a more egalitarian enterprise over the last century. At one time, the fine arts seemed more the exclusive province of professional artists, and the craft categories were where one would find the work of hobbyists and amateurs. As these craft and folk traditions become less a part of everyday life, however, a class of devoted, rigorous artists have stepped up to preserve them. The State Fair is the best place to see this sort of work.

Somehow I’d missed the collections category every year until this year. I don’t know how, because it is the sort of thing that is right up my alley. It is almost literally up my alley, in some cases — this display of postcards of the old theaters of downtown Minneapolis by Thomas Gessner comes with a lovely hand-drawn map that a few friends emailed me photos of.

map and postcards
MinnPost photo by Andy Sturdevant
“It’s like a Stroll!”

“Look,” they said. “It’s like a Stroll!” Indeed it is (except Gessner’s map pictured here is much better drawn than what I usually do). Unfortunately, the didactics in this section are a mess. The individual displays don’t seem to be labeled, and in order to figure out whose work you’re looking at, you have to refer back to a kiosk with dozens of 8.5- by 11-inch sheets of paper stapled together. Not very helpful.

A new addition to the Fine Arts display I neglected to mention last week is the attractive new catalogs, designed by Joseph O’Leary. They’re beautifully illustrated, notated, and designed with photos, lists of artists, and other relevant materials. The Creative Activities section could use a similar guide.

A favorite in the handcraft category that skirts the invisible line between art and craft is this suite of totally brilliant quilt-themed collage postcards by Sharon Sawyer. I missed her name the first time around, which is why I think the category would be better served by clearer didactics. Sawyer should consider self-publishing these cards into a zine. I’d buy it! I’d buy two!

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quilt postcard collage
MinnPost photo by Andy Sturdevant
A charming collage of quilt-themed postcards.

Finally, the seed art. I’m not sure when this happened, exactly, but there’s probably a really good pictorial history book in here for someone willing to take the time and effort: the seed art category is the premier venue for political art in the entire state. Not screen-printed posters, not Brechtian plays, not broadsides, but seed art.

paul ryan seed art
MinnPost photo by Andy Sturdevant
Kimberly Cope’s Paul Ryan-themed seed art

This particular category always gets a great deal of positive coverage, so I don’t have too much to add that you haven’t read already, other than to mention that my personal favorite of the politically themed pieces was Kimberly Cope’s Paul Ryan-themed piece. It incorporates fair use, caricature, Ayn Rand references, a pun, typography, social commentary and regional specificity into one agreeable agitprop package.

Actually, on this note, I do have one more thing to add: I’m always annoyed at coverage of the seed art category that takes the oh my, look how outspoken all these nice Minnesota people are about the issues of the day! and using such a traditional rural craft technique to convey that outspokenness! angle.

That’s ridiculous. Crop art is indeed a traditional rural technique, but traditional rural folks in Minnesota have not historically been a homogenously quiet-spoken, non-confrontational lot. Meridel Le Sueur, the Nonpartisan League, the Farmer-Labor Party, the Work People’s College? There is a hearty tradition of heartland populism in the state, using song, craft, poetry, writing, and art to convey social and political messages.

The political seed art one sees at the Fair isn’t some weird late-period hipster aberration, but a century-old form of wry political engagement using traditional folkways. And if you missed it this year, it’ll be around next year, too.