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Enjoying bouja and arts reciprocity in and around St. Joseph

Anne Meyer and Domonique Venzant are rehabbing a Depression-era dairy barn into a community art and ceramics center.

One thing that has always impressed me about Minnesota is the sense of reciprocity between the urban and rural areas.
MinnPost illustration by Andy Sturdevant

This past weekend, I was able to get out of town for a few hours to eat bouja in an American Legion Hall and see an ambitious new art project by two ceramic artists named Anne Meyer and Domonique Venzant. Meyer lives on her family’s ancestral farm, just south of St. Joseph in Stearns County, where she and Venzant are rehabilitating a Depression-era dairy barn, with the final goal of making it into a community art and ceramics center. Meyer grew up on the farm, and her collaborator Venzant is from West St. Paul and teaches at the Minneapolis Community and Technical College; he commutes between the Twin Cities and St. Joe. Sometimes I live in the country, sometimes I live in the town, as the old song goes. 

One thing that has always impressed me about Minnesota is the sense of reciprocity between the urban and rural areas. Sure, city people and rural people often grouse about each other, most often in the political arena. But for the most part, there is an extraordinary sense of shared experience between town and country that you don’t see in many other parts of the country. People who live in the cities – pardon me, the Cities – have cabins and lakes up north. People who live up north come down to the Cities for football and baseball games. The Minnesota Twins and Vikings, in fact, were the first two teams in the annals of professional sports to be named for a whole state, and not merely the city where they were located. There is a shared sense of ownership.

This reciprocity is true of artists, in particular. Many of the artists around here came from small towns to attend MCAD or the U. When they graduate, there is the choice to make of staying in the city and making a career the traditional way, or moving back to their hometowns. Advantages of the former: more artists around, better access to resources, and a traditional arts infrastructure in place. Advantages of the latter: cheap, sparsely regulated, family nearby, and plenty of land and space available.

Which to choose? Increasingly, many choose both. All across the state, there are rural projects and initiatives headed by artists who’ve also lived in the city at one time or another, and whose work draws on the best aspects and experiences of both environments. Outside Mankato, there’s painter Brian Frink’s Poor Farm, and the very active Rural American Contemporary Art group. In Montevideo, there’s artist multi-hyphenates like Patrick Moore and Malena Handeen.

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In St. Joseph, there’s the Meyer Farm Project. Meyer was faced with the city-or-country choice after graduating from the University of Minnesota-Morris, and then moving to Minneapolis to make ceramic work for several years. She’d grown up on a dairy farm, and the barn itself had largely fallen out of disuse. A barn is obviously well-suited for the craft of ceramics, which among the studio arts is perhaps the messiest and requiring the most space. The obvious thing to do was to rehab the barn as a ceramic studio and community gathering place for art lessons, film screenings, barn dances, and anything else. In 2008, she returned to St. Joseph, and began work on the barn last January.

empty space
MinnPost photo by Andy Sturdevant
Nothing thrills the soul like empty real estate.

Imagining inert spaces transformed into active spaces is the artist’s prerogative – nothing thrills the soul like empty real estate – and walking through the hayloft of a dairy barn, it’s easy to set the mind reeling with possibility. I don’t know when you were last inside a real barn (I suspect the answer for me is probably “on a field trip in elementary school”) but they’re very large. They are, in fact, almost like cathedrals from the inside, with the interior ridge and supporting beams forming something very much like a nave. Meyer and Venzant have begun the process of emptying the building of hundreds of bales of hay, and demolishing old fixtures, such as the concrete feeding trough. The largest job they’ve accomplished so far is replacing the roof, which they did, astoundingly, with little more than donated metal and safety pulleys, which they used to rappel from the roof. The cedar shingle that made up the old roof were burnt, and the ashes were used to make a ceramic glaze. The new roof is a very handsome two-color pattern.

Ceramic bowls
MinnPost photo by Andy Sturdevant
Glazed ceramic bowls

The glazes they’ve made have been used for creating thousands of bowls – this is the part where the bouja comes in. Bouja (or booyah, or boulyah, or any other number of variant spellings) is the thick, meaty kettle-made stew of French-Canadian origin served in communal settings in the Upper Midwest, as well as the name of the mass supper that happens around them. In the tradition of community gathering (and, actually, in the vein of contemporary Kickstarter-ish crowdsourcing) Meyer and Venzant are raising funds for the project by throwing a series of boujas. You show up at the American Legion Lodge in downtown St. Joe (the farm isn’t yet ready to host such events), buy one of their gorgeous ceramic bowls for $20 each, and you get a helping of stew, some bread and some beer, and the knowledge that you’ve helped the project along. Looking now at my blue and brown bowl from the bouja – made not only with a glaze that came in part from the ash of the barn’s wooden shingles, but also from clay dug up from the earth behind the same barn – it seems like a pretty great tradeoff.

The bouja is a lively mix of people from in town and from the Twin Cities, both young and old alike, mingling and chatting. After the event has wound down for the evening, Meyer and Venzant take a few people out to see the site. It’s dark and it’s cold out on the farm, befitting a late October in Minnesota, but even in these adverse conditions, the barn is remarkable. They show our little group where the new support posts are being set into the ground, where the new windows will go, where the stairway will sit. It’s easy to imagine a barn dance and a ceramics workshop, maybe even happening at the same time – it’s that big. Meyer and Venzant plan to begin seasonal programming this coming summer, and year-round programming by fall of 2014. The best part about this part of the state is its easy accessibility from the Cities, so you don’t have an excuse for not seeing the space yourself. It’s a quick hour-and-a-half drive, or an easy three-pronged Northstar rail/bus link/cab ride for those of you hardcore urbanites without a car. 

Before heading back to the Cities, I stopped by to see a few other great sights in the area. In nearby Collegeville, there’s Patrick Dougherty’s new sculpture Lean On Me, a twisty suite of outdoor building made from bent and molded saplings. And of course, there’s also Marcel Breuer’s St. John’s Abbey nearby, one of the most remarkable pieces of architecture in the state. I’ve never been crazy about the Brutalist era in modern architecture, but the cast concrete in the abbey’s interior swoops and folds in on itself in a way that is utterly unlike anything else around. It’s an active, awe-inspring space, and even after dusk, the sanctuary remained open and quite lively; monks silently move through the space, lighting incense and leading small groups of visitors. As I sat in the upper balcony and looked down out onto the sanctuary, it seemed utterly improbable that such a breathtaking, almost science fiction-ish place could exist anywhere, let alone on the campus of a tiny Benedictine college on the outskirts of St. Cloud. 

Marcel Brueur’s St. John’s Abbey
MinnPost photo by Andy Sturdevant
Marcel Breuer’s St. John’s Abbey

Marcel Breuer himself was almost purely a product of the urban environment, trained at the Bauhaus and spending most of his life in Paris, London and New York. Yet one of his greatest works is out here, and it doesn’t seem at all intrusive or imperious or even out of scale with the surrounding landscape, among lakes, forests and rolling glacial hills. It fits seamlessly, reminding us that dividing the world strictly into the urban and the rural is an absurd construct. Many of us travel fluidly between those two worlds, and some of the most interesting things happen where that movement occurs.

There are two more boujas this upcoming Saturday and Sunday, Nov. 2 and 3, at the American Legion in St. Joseph. Bowls are $20 each, and proceeds go to the Meyer Farm Project. More information here.