Most people in Minnesota like the State Fair. Not everyone, but most people. One of the primary reasons people do like it is because there is a shared consensus about what they like about it: the fried and stick-mounted foods, the people-watching, the butter head sculptures, the seed art, the various miracles of birth, and all the other shared Fair-related experiences most often discussed in personal conversation and via Facebook status updates in the 12 days before Labor Day. It’s something everyone can talk about.
However, those who’ve been to the fair enough times to generally know their way around have their own private fair, too – a fair that’s more personal and more idiosyncratic than the standard highlights. As noisy, sprawling, and multifaceted as the State Fair is, you’re sure to find small, lesser-known pockets that you return to year after year, and always make a point to bring your friends.
For me, it’s the Spring Grove Soda Pop booth, the soon-to-be-defunct Newspaper Museum in Heritage Square, the wall paintings in Ye Old Mill, the Ford Motor display at Machinery Hill (for strictly autobiographical reasons: I worked there for one memorable summer several years ago, handing out Ford-themed beer koozies to thousands of people), and the postcard collections at the Creative Activities Building.
The postcard collections are a recent highlight of the fair for me, but one I’m sure never to miss. Located in the Creative Activities building, it’s a part of the Collections category, clustered together under the Creative Activities banner with the needlecraft, canned foods, garments, pies and handcrafted goods. Entrants may assemble collections of postcards in any number of thematic groupings: famous people, Minnesota-specific subjects, cats, dogs, mining, fishing and other things like that.
Last year, I wrote very enthusiastically about an award-winning set of postcards by Sharon Sawyer of Maplewood, all themed around quilting. That may sound a little dry, I realize, but these postcards were one of the aesthetic highlights of the fair for me: funny, irreverent, colorful, handmade collaged postcards using famous quilting patterns, but also found vintage photography, stamps, and drawings, throwing in references to Gertrude Stein, Vincent van Gogh and other art historical figures. I loved them.
An occasional perk of this job is I’ll sometimes get mail about things I’ve written. After the piece ran, a friend and neighbor of Sawyer’s got in touch with me to let me know she’d seen my piece, and wanted to send me a postcard. Of course! In the mail a few weeks later, I received a Sharon Sawyer postcard. On the back, she’d written a note: “No computer, no camera, don’t drive after dark. I’m 77 and I make postcards.”
It was clear to me I had to meet Sharon Sawyer.
This year, I asked if she’d meet me at the fair, so we could look at her entry in the postcards category together. We made plans to meet up on a Friday afternoon in the Creative Activities building. As I was milling around the postcards, she spotted me right away, and enthused, “I love the fair!”
Sawyer’s work this year is all themed around Gertrude Stein. Each postcard has a drawing of Stein, based on Picasso’s famed 1905 portrait – it was the writer’s favorite depiction of herself, calling it “the only reproduction of me which is always I, for me.” In the postcards, Stein reviews the guest list for an evening salon, sits for a portrait, chats with Papa Hemingway, and stares down Pablo himself, who looks nervously at her from inside a picture frame on the wall. The other postcards on display in the category are very nice and tasteful, but very … well, they’re very postcard-y. They’re nice to look at it, but they don’t put you in the mind of wanting to write a message to a friend on the reverse and drop it in a mailbox.
Sawyer’s Stein postcards, on the other hand, are so out-of-the-ordinary and so delightfully executed that you suddenly find yourself wanting to make and receive handmade postcards in the mail from your friends and family and anyone else. Maybe there are even subtle political advantages to the medium: “I think it’s the right time for postcards,” she says. “They’re so transparent! Security agencies have no system for scanning contemporary postcards.”
Sawyer’s Gertrude Stein postcards were awarded a second-place ribbon in the modern postcards category this year; she’d received a first-place blue ribbon last. Sawyer thinks this may be because the subject is a little arcane for most people’s tastes. I tell her I disagree, and she thanks me. “I’ve always liked this period,” she says. “How she related to Picasso, and to the all the other artists of that time. Her life, her associations, her interactions. I’ve always enjoyed that time.”
The ingenuity of this project is in how Sawyer uses the medium. Traditionally, the postcard category consists of collections of work by individual artists, most often assembled but not created by the entrant. Last year, Sawyer figured she could create her own postcards and enter them herself in the category – serve as her own collector, basically. The only real restrictions are that they can be legally mailed (“I mail them,” she says, “and they get there”), and that they be the work of one artist. Her postcards fit those criteria. “There was a little bit of argument,” she explains. “They had to look it up in the book.”
Sawyer’s been entering work in many competitions for several years – she’s had entries in other craft categories in years past (“I’ve been accepted and I’ve been rejected”), and has a piece of protest art about Guantanamo in the Fine Art competition this year. But she got the idea to give postcards a try last year, after seeing an exhibition by artist Peter Kramer at the Grand Hand Gallery in St. Paul in January of 2012. Entitled Postcards to Save the Post Office, Kramer created 120 original postcards, decorated with drawings, paintings and collage. There was a political and educational dimension that appealed to Sawyer, who worked at the State Capitol and the Minnesota Historical Society before retiring.
“He did this show to show support for mail carriers and for the USPS, and a lot of postal carriers came to the opening.” Postcards, she tells me, have the potential to give the viewer a brief education on history, or any other subject. They work as aesthetic objects, but they’re also their own didactics.
And so some of the best visual work at the fair this year is a brief education on Gertrude Stein in the collections section of the Creative Activities building. Sawyer has an easy-going, low-key presence, not unlike Stein. “She’s not marching in high heels,” she says of one postcard of Stein sitting comfortably on a red carpet, holding a proto-Warholian TV set in her lap that reads FAME. “She’s just sitting in a chair.”
I ask her what her favorite part of the fair is – her own personal highlight. It’s the Fine Arts category, she says. “I think what attracts people is the diversity of the work. It’s all kinds of mediums, and every work is unique in its own way.”
Sawyer’s background also includes a stint as a gallery manager in downtown St. Paul, and I can tell she enjoys playing at the intersection of art and craft, being able to submit work for both categories that’s well-suited for either: “There was more of a division between fine art and craft in the 1960s and ‘70s,” she tells me before we both head out of the Creative Activities building to see the rest of the fair. “Now those boundaries seem more flexible.”