Arts, music, and a giant lizard

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What the heck is that huge bright green spotted lizard doing in a field, you ask? That’s sculpture, silly, by artist Mary Johnson, and it doubles as a concession stand. And the smiling, beguiling “Lizard Lounge” is not even the half of it. To see the rest, pack up your friends, your kids, and/or your dogs this Saturday and venture to Franconia Sculpture Park (FSP)—located near Taylors Falls in the St. Croix River Valley—for the park’s freewheeling annual outdoor arts and music festival.

The Franconia Arts and Music Festival takes place from noon to 10 p.m. on Saturday, September 20 at Franconia Sculpture Park, 29836 St. Croix Trail, Franconia. Admission free. For more information, see franconia.org.


In addition to more than 20 playful to provocative outdoor sculptures—ranging from the lizard to two 19-foot-tall gunslingers made from wood (Alexa Horchowski’s “Hollywood Flats”) to Holly Steeksra’s working camera obscura, where the visitor enters a carnival-like trailer to see an image projected upside down on the wall—this year’s festival showcases everything from music and poetry readings to biking guerillas and a hula hoop demonstration.

FSP, a non-profit organization, has been supporting sculptors and their work since 1996. Whether professional artists with a track record or emerging artists, students, and interns, the sculptors arrive like clockwork each spring. They hail from all points across Minnesota and across the country—and occasionally from other countries—to live and work collaboratively. A few guest artists visit each year to produce sculpture or offer a workshop. Some of the sculptors are on fellowships funded by St. Paul’s Jerome Foundation and the Minnesota State Arts Board, while others arrive under their own financial steam to live and work together every day, for periods ranging from a few weeks to several months.

In 2006, FSP moved from its former site—just down the road on Highway 8—to their current, larger, 20-acre site on the southwest corner of the intersection of highways 95 and 8. By owning property instead of leasing, FSP can make capital improvements and invest in other activities. “When you’re leasing, you just can’t sink money into a site in the same way as if you own it,” comments John Hock, FSP co-founder and artistic director. “We can now adapt the park to our needs.” In addition to the wide-open acreage of mowed lawn, work-launching pad and fields, FSP now has several outbuildings and an eight-bedroom, three-bathroom house with a big kitchen and verandas, where all of the artists reside. This is a vast improvement over the three-bedroom, one-bathroom house the artists occupied on the previous site.

Although FSP has matured, under the collective eye of Hock and a skilled board of directors, it has not lost its rough-and-tumble nature. It is still a visceral, experimental place—in part because 99% of the activity takes places outdoors, rain or shine. “We just finished a 10-month strategic plan funded by the Bush Foundation,” explains Hock. “What we all learned is that what we have always done is what we should continue to do. We’re evolving, no doubt; evolution is good. But we’re sticking with our first m.o.—to provide a nourishing atmosphere where artists can work.” In spite of their new, expanded digs, FSP still operates on a lean and mean basis, employing only one full-time staff member (Hock) and three part-time and two seasonal staff members.

There are other sculpture parks, to be sure, like the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden across from Walker Art Center, best identified by its Spoonbridge and Cherry sculpture. But rather than refined and highly predetermined like MSG, FSP is a grass-roots kind of place, where the majority of the art is realized through sweat and tears on the spot.

You’re a 19-year old female art student from the East Coast and you don’t know how to operate a crane or weld? No problem, Hock or other more experienced artists will teach you. Don’t know how to cook for twenty? You’ll learn. And, you’ll harvest much of your food from the communal garden. This is not a place for the meek, or for those who don’t want to get their hands dirty. FSP is a working park, with emphasis on the “working” and not the “park”, although a restful, inviting place it is. FSP is about gaining skills and learning how to work as a team in a culturally diverse environment. This is its story and it is sticking to it.

Over the years, FSP has also built their outreach and education programs. More than 50,000 people show at the park each year, some to just wander the park on their own and others to take organized tours. FSP provided more than 30 tours last year for at-risk youth, and the park hosts a popular program called Kids Make Sculpture. In August FSP hosted its annual Community Collaboration/Hot Metal Pour where participants can watch artists make cast metal sculptures—a hot and harrowing process—and learn to how to do the same. With a program called 3-D Symposiums on the Road, FSP organizes park artists and local critics to present an evening of discussion in communities ranging from the Twin Cities to Stillwater. On view through September 30 at the Stillwater Public Library is an informative exhibition organized by FSP called 12 Years of Casting Sculpture. If you show up between April and December, any time from dawn to dusk, seven days a week, you can usually find at least one—if not a dozen—artists working on their sculptures.

The FSP Annual Festival is casual, low-key, and fun. There is no entrance fee and you can arrive and leave at will. When the weather is good up to 1,500 people attend, but with all of that acreage to roam it never seems too crowded. And don’t forget sunscreen and a hat, a cooler full of your beverage(s) of choice, and lawn chairs to sit back and watch the action.

Mason Riddle writes on the visual arts, architecture and design. She has contributed to publications including Artforum, Metropolis, the Star Tribune, and the Pioneer Press. She is guest editor for the upcoming Public Art Review #39: Between Rural and Urban, which explores public art in the suburbs.