Growing up in a pleasant but very featureless sector of suburbia, a place with neither sidewalks nor anything worth using them to walk to, I probably learned more about observing city life from fiction than from reality. My cultural intake as a youth was filled with fictional communities from books, movies, and TV that were fleshed out with enough detail by their creators to make me feel as if I’d spent actual time in them: from Narnia, Wayside, Hill Valley, Duckburg, and New Zebedee to Lake Wobegone, Midland City, The Village, and – perhaps the greatest fictional city of them all – Springfield. By the time I got to college, I am sure I would have been more comfortable leading a walking tour of all of the above than any part of my actual hometown.
This can actually be quite a useful background to have for an aspiring flaneur. By absorbing fictions about not-quite-real places, you can learn to see the physical world in a way that magnifies the small absurdities and incongruences around you: the odd business names, the architectural idiosyncrasies, the various characters on the street. This might be why, when I did get to college, I was immediately attracted to the work of New York cartoonist Ben Katchor as soon as I encountered it. Katchor’s ink-washed accounts of the quotidian non-adventures of one Julius Knipl, real estate photographer, have been published regularly in comics journals and small weekly papers since the early 1990s. Knipl lives and works in a sprawling, Manhattan-ish urban center, where he wanders through the streets encountering radiator musicians, newspaper weight manufacturers, antique office supply dealers, and municipal laxative gardens.
Katchor is an acknowledged influence on Northfield-based artist David Lefkowitz. “NRTHFLD: Nirthfolde Visitors’ Bureau” is a show created by Lefkowitz and musician/designer Doug Bratland, running at the Northfield Arts Guild through the end of this week, Saturday, Feb. 9. The show is a collection of artifacts, didactics, models, historic displays and other items relating to the history and geography of Nirthfolde, a small town located in southeastern Minnesota that happens to overlap another very similarly named small town known far and wide for its cows, colleges and contentment.
Nirthfolde’s claims to fame are also pretty bucolic and good-natured, but slightly off-kilter. Around town, you’ll find the Fairly Small Array, a tiny cluster of satellite dishes scouring the cosmos for signs of extraterrestrial life (an attraction that also gives the local high school its nickname, the Radars). There is the legendary Hitsburg USA, a smalltime record label that kept postwar America’s ceaseless appetite for unicycle-themed instrumental rock and regional polka in check between 1958 and 1973. There is the Cowling Arboretum Contemplative Transit System, a mass transit system that shuttles nature-lovers quickly and efficiently between attractions on the area’s nature trails. There is the Accursed Location, a famed modernist landmark that has mysteriously failed to retain any local business for more than a few months since the 1950s (this particular display contains a small Easter egg for local arts enthusiasts: the name of the Accursed Location’s most recent occupant, a restaurant called Swizzle’s, seems to be a nod to local painter and past Stroll contributor Carolyn Swiszcz, whose work often depicts these types of strip-mall landscapes).
This doesn’t even cover the model beaver dam, the Great Nirthfolde Historic Event, or the Monoliths of Mystery. I could go on and on about these features, because they’re all so charming and appealing. All of these items rest in that Katchorian/Springfieldian zone of being highly absurdist, but also highly recognizable – like a Beauty Supply District, or a Tire Fire. Every city has at least a few accursed locations, commercial sites that inexplicably blow through tenants for one reason or another. The difference between most cities and Nirthfolde is that the city leadership of most communities don’t generally go out of their way to celebrate these sites as notable attractions touched by a sort of non-specific civic mysticism. But it’s not too great a leap to imagine a civic booster making a tent with his or her fingers while regarding an accursed retail location like this, and then thinking, “Hmmm, maybe this liability is actually an advantage.” Small institutions, whether businesses or towns, must sometimes do odd or ridiculous things to differentiate themselves from their nearby rivals also competing for limited resources and attention. Why else would there be so many fiberglass sculptures dotting the roadsides of the Midwest?
Artifacts of Nirthfolde’s attractions – prints, paintings, photos – are lovingly displayed on walls or in kiosks, accompanied by supporting text written in the sort of half-objective, half-breathless prose that is often used in this sort of context. And it’s context that’s key to the exhibition’s charm. The Northfield Artists’ Guild is located on Division Street in downtown Northfield, on the main commercial corridor. It’s located in one of those charming old buildings in commercial districts that feels as if it’s gone through many different uses in its history. The artists’ transformation of the gallery space into a small town visitors’ bureau feels completely natural – the fixtures, lighting, color palette and layout feel very much like many neighborhood and small town historical societies, chambers of commerce or interpretive centers you’ve visited. It feels authentic, even if that authenticity is clearly laced with absurdity.
In some sense, it could be argued that Nirthfolde is a distant spiritual descendent of Sinclair Lewis’ Gopher Prairie, the oldest member of the pantheon of fictitious Minnesota towns. The aim is quite a bit different, though; Gopher Prairie, as depicted in the novel “Main Street,” was a backward, ugly little dump on the prairie, fueled by gossip, disapproval and humorless conservatism. Lewis was born and raised in Sauk Centre, Minn., and you don’t get the sense reading his work that he had much affection for the place (an opinion many of the townspeople returned in his lifetime). Lewis’ Gopher Prairie was also a slight exaggeration of reality that felt more like the truth than a straight journalistic account might have. That’s why the account stung small town Minnesotans so badly when it was published.
Lefkowitz and Bratland, both residents of Northfield, don’t have any antipathy for the place they live, though. Nirthfolde may be a slightly absurd place, but it has an appealing awareness of what makes it special, and that pleasant self-awareness makes it all seem very familiar. This hyperreal familiarity doesn’t sting, but resonates. Small towns often struggle with a powerful desire to take on an outsized, big-league importance in the larger world, and also with the shrugging knowledge that they really can’t compete in such a way, and accept that it’s OK. Any place can really only strive to be, as Lefkowitz and Bratland say with Nirthfolde’s motto, really somewhere.