A flying house. A doghouse. A Maze of Mirrors. X chromosome? Boats in a cornfield?
How did they get here? What is this place? Why is it here?
Unusual, creative, intriguing, perplexing and hilarious describes the Franconia Sculpture Park.
Our only Midwestern relatives live in the Twin Cities. So, a few times a year we head north to visit. Last fall, when the guys went on a ramble to the woods, the gals ventured into the land of giant sculptures — located 45 minutes northeast of the Twin Cities.
The fertile valley of the St. Croix river in Minnesota has been a draw from the earliest days. The Chippewa lived, fished and harvested wild rice here. Businesses came to exploit the vast forest and fishery resources.
Today, although sawmills are long gone and fishery just recovering, the valley is rich in another way. It abounds with creativity.
The Franconia Sculpture Park, was founded in 1996 by Fuller Cowles, Tasha and John Hock, three colleagues who envisioned a working and living space in a rural setting for artists — one that also welcomes the public.
The original 15 acre-site of the Franconia Sculpture Park was nestled along the St. Croix River in the town of Franconia. From the Germanic meaning “daring, bold” the vision of the park is all that.
Now, 40 artists from all over the world annually make FSP their home. This residency program embraces collaboration for emerging and fellowship artists. Selected artists agree to work and live in community. They work part-time maintaining the grounds and buildings, and leading tours. In return they receive room and board, some a stipend and studio space. That space is often the wide outdoors where visitors can interact with the artists as they work.
Today the park, set in its second location west of Franconia, is an expansive 50-acre tract that features an eclectic collection of Paul Bunyan sized sculptures. Wood, metal, ceramic, recycled materials — you name it. Artists from emerging to established have created and displayed unusual and evocative works — as the 150,000 visitors a year discover.
“A sculpture can be tongue-in-cheek, poignant and fun all at once,” our cousin said.
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Franconia Sculpture Park features rotating outdoor exhibitions and a permanent sculpture honoring the work of Michael Richards. “Are You Down?” reflects on the contributions and struggles of the famed Tuskegee Airmen. After Richards’ death in the World Trade Tower attacks, the sculpture was cast in bronze to preserve it in the harsh Minnesota elements.
Whether you seek an aerobic walk, a meaningful meander, use a wheelchair or prefer a golf cart to get around, the flat terrain and wide mowed paths make access easy in this intriguing setting.
For FSP, creativity and experimentation are more than watchwords. Even in COVID-19 times, and in keeping with the original mission, FSP pivoted quickly, incorporating safety protocols to accommodate resident artists and writers who live in the 4,500 square-foot farmhouse, as well as visitors.
“Last summer was our busiest ever,” said Alyssa Auten, communications and creative director for the Park, pointing out the wide-open spaces allow visitors to enjoy the outdoors safely.
People respected the protocols of wearing masks and keeping a distance when passing others or gathering near sculptures. People also return time and again partly because the park is big. Exhibits change and. as Auten noted, the whole landscape looks different in different seasons. Plus, there is lots to do.
Franconia Sculpture Park is gearing up for an active Jubilee year with the theme “Authority, Visibility and Public Space.” All events will continue to accommodate peoples’ need to be active and safely engaged outside.
Winter enthusiasts can choose from skating, cross country skiing and snowshoeing.
The first Sunday of each month from May through October features an Art and Farmers Market. The Summer Solstice Fest the third week of June will draw hundreds of guests.
Art classes, summer camps in July, music and films (a horror theme in October) and Frost Fest in December all are on the books. Additionally, FSP offers virtual lectures, including the 2021 inaugural Writers-in-Residence program.
“You can spend hours and hours and not see everything,” Auten said.
IF YOU GO
What: Franconia Sculpture Park
Address: 29836 St. Croix Trail, Shafer, Minn., 55074
Phone: (651) 257-6668
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Before you go, check the website for updates. For behind the scenes, follow on Instagram and Facebook.
Location: Junction of MN 95 and US Hwy 8. About 45 minutes NE of the Twin Cities.
Admission and hours: Admission to the grounds is free. Grounds open 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. daily. The Commons (office, gift shop, indoor gallery) is open Friday, Saturday, Sunday from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. until April 14. April 15–November 14 open 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Closed major holidays.
Access: Building and grounds accessible for walking and wheelchair use. Golf carts are available during warm months but not during events. Restrooms accessible. Dogs on leashes allowed only on the grounds. Bring a bag to clean up after them.
Refreshments: Café with limited beverages in winter. Take and go items in summer. Local eateries in the area cater to carry out.
Where to stay: St. Croix, Chisago City, Osceola, Stillwater all offer simple cabins, Airbnbs, modest motels.
Rich and Marion Patterson have backgrounds in environmental science and forestry. They co-own Winding Pathways, a consulting business that encourages people to “Create Wondrous Yards.”