Saturday, September 5, 2009

Minnesota State Fair

Two of the Fair's classic attractions, the Giant Slide and the Space Tower as seen from the Grandstand ramp.

This wooden 'flower train' is in front of the Heritage Square entrance to the grounds. Heritage Square's nostalgia seems to be spilling out of it's borders.

Fair ground. The typical filthy ground people at the fair walk on all day. Most grass is dead, and some areas are worn down to dirt and dust.

This is a vintage seed bag from a display in the Agriculture/Horticulture building.

Looking down Liggett Ave. toward the barns. Crowds can be up to 200,000 on a record day!

Creature illustrating an old circus car, Heritage Square.

Inside the small and dingy transportation and racing museum for the fair at Heritage Square. There was a large display of primitive paintings featuring transportation devices of fairs past. I was drawn to the dirigible!

Wagons made of steel. I once owned an album named that. This photo features an old pioneer wagon in Heritage Square with its modern equivalent in the nearby parking lot.

This wall is near the entrance on Liggett ave. It is a WPA project made from local limestone that is rarely used as a masonry material today.

Jacuzzi Falls. This is one of many Jacuzzi stands at the fair. This one is in the Grandstand (which has merchandise in its bowels). A cheesy wonderland!

A random CBS eye logo painted on the floor of the Grandstand. It still functions as seating for pay concerts and events at the fair. I know it only as a strange mercantile.

An oldies band playing, as seen from the Grandstand ramp. Note the skyride to the upper right. Oddly enough, as I shot this photo there was a drum solo.

Spin art stand. It is a relatively cheap aesthetic pleasure (3$ or 2 for 5$). Recently Frisbees were added.

Local anchor Amellia Santinello is depicted on this mural at the WCCO TV building.

A candid back-side shot of one of the famous french fry stands at the fair. Those sacks at the left are potatoes.

Looking down my favorite fair alley toward the Space Tower.

My favorite ride at the fair is Ye Old Mill, a boat ride through a pitch black tunnel with occasional dioramas. It was built in 1913. This wheel powers the whole ride.

A view of the meticulously organized Republican Party building. Note the odd red vests of the volunteers---Wal-Martian?

Located on a secluded alley (relatively speaking) near the Horse barns, Steichen's is an old fashioned convenience store that caters to fair workers and participators, not fair goers. It looks so old I felt like the food would all be spoiled. That stuffed animal is a mangy version of 'Fairchild' the gopher, the fair mascot.

The front of Steichen's store. Note the great old-fashioned signage.

Fish in the DNR pond. This pond displays Minnesota's native fish.

Another view of the DNR pond. The water is 4 feet deep.

This is a street scene on Liggett ave. looking down the alley that Steichen's is located in. At the end is a Barn.

The derelict Frog pond--A forgotten project that I have a soft spot for.

This animitroic feller is the mascot for Quality Bag's stand in the Coliseum (or Hippodrome as I call it).

Cattle entering the Hippodrome from the cattle barn way. Yes, this is bad photography, but is captures the excitement of the animals and people as their paths cross on the Hippodrome walkway.

Cattle waiting judging, midway between the cattle barn and Hippodrome. This picture reminds me of a Rembrandt scene.

In an alley, behind an unfriendly fence lies this private parkland with the serpentine shape of Ye Old Mill. Note the extra boat.

A 'Snozzle' firetruck with the DES Dinning Hall in the background. For the faint of stomach there are several church-style dinning halls at the fair.

Here you can watch your corndog fry in lava hot oil.

At the dog building live surgeries are preformed throughout the day.

Live demos of products are in many buildings at the fair. This is one of at least three Sham Wow! stands.

A display of arts and crafts at the educational building. As a child my dream was to have work displayed here.

A giant cigarette butt outside of the health building. One year they made paper 'butt out' hats available featuring a large cigarette butt above the forehead.

A rare lone eater inside the beer garden building.

The Minnesota State Fair is a tradition in my family, like it is for many others. It is all about fun, but mostly what the fair consists of is walking around as a family through shuffling crowds looking at food stands and schlocky merchandise. Over many years there is a lot of change at the fair, but from year to year or even five years to five years things are the same down to the last inch. Many merchandise stands have been in the same location for over 20 years (and it seems like they never leave the fairgrounds, just sitting there year round). Things that were novel in the late 70's or 80's thrive--spin art, personality analysis 'computers', computer portrait art (dot matrix!) airbrush art. A stand or booth changing locations can get quite disconcerting!

With all this baseless repetition, the fair can seem like a forced march through a collective memory. My family has to look at a day's worth of certain things, just because. There is no logic to most of is. The stands seem random, because almost any stand could turn a profit at the fair, but many are not particularly swell ideas. Here is capitalism mixed with monarchism on display--if you get a stand into the fair, your family gets grandfathered into a profitable buisness, almost regardless of what you sell. It can be a very odd and trying sensation at times to walk through this same landscape of shilling over and over.

It certainly seems like America incarnate and in microcosim. But there is one big difference I notice between the real America and fair America. Tradition, no matter how cheesey or empty-headed is valued greatly at the fair. The real America is always on to the next thing, racing to erase evidence of a potentially embarassing past. Nostalgia is ok, but chest-beating patriotism that is part of America doesn't rely on pride in the past, excepting milestones. But at the fair, even a change of venue or a disappearing stand is a slight outrage. Nostagia is everywhere--of all kinds, from all eras of Minnesota. A whole section of the fair is called Heritage Square and has a pioneer/historical theme. It features an creepily old-fashioned (and simply old) State Fair museum housed in a train car.

All that is old fashioned Minnesota is celebrated at the fair. Pioneers, family farms, unique Minnesota products (and totally non-unique ones), free-moving livestock, old cars, old buildings old benches, old rides (Ye Ole Mill was built in 1913)--things done right, done the old-fashioned way. Tradition is paramount. Here history isn't relegated to empty county history museums, it is a living, valued aspect of the fair itself. Because the fair is all about Minnesota pride, in a way people at the fair are collectively saying, 'the past is great and our history matters,' as they stuff their faces.

This photo essay is not a planned hunt for certain sites. It features things I snapped a shot of as I randomly wandered around a landscape of American exess, burned into my memory. This hardly represnts a comprehensive cross-section of the fair, but rather is colored by my family's own history and tendencies and what I spotaneously came across and enjoyed at the moment.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

The Greatest WPA project

Question: What is missing from the stimulus package? A fair answer may be a lot. But what really stands out to me, among all the Great Depression comparisons, is the total lack of attention to arts. Almost as lacking is attention to parks and architecture. On top of that a lot of the projects that got funding right away seem to be unnecessary or at least low priority--and always uninteresting. Considering the money that is being put into it, that's a little shocking.

But I'm not hear to beat up on the stimulus package. That it lacks attention to art that the WPA and New Deal included says something about our values and priorities in this society. I don't think it say much good. One could argue that the only goal of this stimulus is to get the economy back on it's feet and to put as many Americans to work as possible. And that perhaps focusing on art, architecture and parks is not the best way to do that. I don't think that kind of thinking says a lot for us. Part of how we got into this mess is because of the 'benefit of the few' mentality. By making a stimulus plan that only helps transportation and auto workers (and perhaps emergency personnel) we are just continuing down a path that brought us here. Diversify!
Another thing we seem to lack in our society is vision. Under the WPA, many projects were done that still effect us today. In my beloved, local state park, there is a beautiful stone staircase (made with craftsmanship nearly extinct today) down to the waterfall, a huge picnic shelter and several beautiful stone buildings, all done by the WPA. And there are countless such features in parks just across Minnesota, let alone across the USA. In other areas of the country, there were dams, murals and sculpture done, almost all built well enough to serve us now. The architecture of the WPA is precious, not only for its usefulness, but also for its beauty and lost sense of craftsmanship. Some of my favorite all time buildings are WPA structures.

Compare that to today. Most of the money is going into roads. Sure, the automobile rules much more now than in 1934, but roads have to be constantly maintained and improved. Who is going to notice in sixty years when one piece in a long series of improvements on a road was made during our stimulus? We always have to do that. The WPA funded things that are sometimes hard to get done, even in good times, and left behind a memorable and lasting legacy. A whole spectrum of different workers, craftsmen and artists found employment this way. The way we see things now suggests we could learn a lot looking back at the WPA and New Deal

All this has been boiling under the surface of my mind for a while, but exploded fourth when I visited Dinosaur Park in Rapid City, South Dakota. It is probably one of the oddest WPA projects. Built in 1934, it coincided with rising tourism to the region due to Mount Rushmore. It amounts to a kitsch dream, a place Pee Wee Herman wouldn't dare believe to be true. It sits on a scenic hill overlooking the city. On it are five Dinosaur sculptures (another Dinosaur and Reptile were added later), built life size, in concrete and painted only green with white and red trim. They freeze in time the way people thought Dinosaurs looked in the thirties. Perhaps we don't know much better, but the cartoonish way these lummoxes are sculpted just invites people to climb on them. In short, Dinosaur Park is pure fun, and my favorite WPA project.

Thursday, May 28, 2009


I once had a professor who wrote a presentation on the idea of authenticity in art. It was an important moment for me, because it opened my eyes--made me conscious of an important force that I'd only felt instinctively. I'd never though about authenticity out in the open air, where the idea could not hide in the shadows.

The presentation itself was for some sort of professional organization, I think, but it was given to us in class in some form, after quite a bit of begging. The irony is that I don't remember anything about it because the presentation was so inauthentic.

Perhaps it did the job better than any authentic presentation could have. It put the concept of authenticity in art into my head, and then showed me the pitfalls of not being authentic in one motion. If I squeeze my brain, I seem to remember some of the presentation interpreted authenticity as not so much a personal virtue that comes through the art, but a force of culture that can be played with to create pithy commentary on experience. My definition is much more clear--it is the aspect of art that communicates the artist's genuine joy and belief in what he or she is doing.

It is one thing to lay out a clear line of words to define what authenticity in art means to me, but another entirely to feel it, like I think we all instinctively do, even people who know little about art. Being involved and knowledgeable about art sharpens one's 'authenticity radar' in general, but this fact can be overplayed. A great pitfall of contemporary art comes from art people not listening to their authenticity instincts despite their experience in the field. Or perhaps it is just not the hip thing to be--genuine, joyful, passionate. That complicates things. In theory it would be possible to do work that is sardonic, silly, witty, sarcastic, light-hearted, miserable or ironic and still be genuine about it (at least on some level). I think this kind of complexity highlights the usefulness of following instincts.

Of course, a moment after I started thinking sharply about authenticity in art, I began to apply it to other creative fields. I think most of us know what an authentic person is like, and when someone is being 'fake' but it is a more difficult task to apply this to creations. When I think about Pop music, especially rock 'n' roll, I can come up with the clearest examples of the power of creative authenticity.

A guy like Buddy Holly was musical pioneer, a songwriter, a great vocalist and guitarist and a restless, experimental artist who also tried to please his audience. All these factors make him a legend, but he has a special quality above what other artists with all these skills seem to posses. I'd argue that it was the fact that Buddy's authenticity was off the charts added to all his skills that made him a timeless legend. Compare him to Elvis. For all the greatness and earnestness Elvis possessed, he became less and less authentic with his music. From almost the moment he made it, a gradual trickle started and began growing exponentially, leaking out his authenticity. Since he lived well beyond 1959 we were unfortunate enough to see the terminus of this process in Las Vegas, an ugly mix with his personal and health problems. Elvis oozed talent, sweated charisma and, at first, had an bit of conviction, musically. But all of this added up to very little, because he ended up not being very authentic. One could argue that he believed in every musical decision he ever made passionately, and was thus authentic, but something deep down in his soul was an endless compromiser, bending over backwards to stay away from the edge. Buddy has been described as earnest, but he could be playful, ironic and mercurial, so I'd rather call him genuine or authentic. With this gift he could make the simplest gesture endlessly entertaining and meaningful.

Credence Clearwater Revival is a great example of the complexity of creative authenticity. On paper they are very fake. They sing and play songs about the bayou country of the south obsessively, but they were from the bay area of California. Further, John Foggerty and his band didn't go to the south and seek out what the authentic south sounds were. They just played the way they though southern music might be, mixing gospel with early rock sounds and using bits of modern sixties rock to fill things out. They created a whole idealized and romantic view of the rural south with their lyrics, where poverty is a wholesome, simple existence, like a refreshing breeze and where people are "always happy to give". They create their own, rather arbitrary utopia out of the south. What could be more fake? Fake is synonymous with inauthentic, right?

Wrong! Credence's commitment to their musical-geographical fabrication is very authentic. It becomes only a point of style aesthetics and mimicking reality. Perhaps one could question Credence's deviation from the sound of real southern music, but it is hard to question their commitment to their vision of it. It is true that their music does not accurately copy true southern music, but that was never their point. They believe in the dream, even if they know it is not real. The idealized web they weave is fascinating and highly entertaining. They benefit from authenticity despite obvious outward signs. And so it is with a lot of art.

For a long time I thought that authenticity was more important and prominent in music. I no longer believe this--I think it is easier to illustrate the concepts related to creative authenticity with music, but it is at least as important to visual art. One problem with authenticity and art is that their is often a dearth of it in art. Old painters, for instance, were hampered by practicality and society, and had to work over the centuries to free themselves and allow for full authenticity. Does that mean that realism and illustrative styles that were dominate in the times of older painters were less authentic? Not at all, but society wanted certain things from artists and in the past viewed artists more like we see artisans today. This certainly hampered the spirit of the individual, and made authenticity difficult. Even when it existed it was rarely as obvious as it is today. Perhaps Baroque greats like Rembrandt and Frans Hals are the exception, oozing authenticity in an era when it was under the radar in painting. In fact most famous artists, the guys we know today, had way more authenticity than was normal for their times. One could argue that Rembrandt is one of the most authentic artists ever.

When one looks at an artist like Van Gogh, one can see how far the process evolved over time. Van Gogh was ahead of his time, expressive, and stylistically unique and brilliant, plus he had a sympathetic (and pathetic) biography. All these things add to his greatness, but his massive authenticity is what makes him one of the most popular artists of all time. One feels like one can look into his soul by viewing a single Van Gogh painting. What could be more authentic?

Despite an open playing field, so to speak, for authenticity in art, their seems to be an ironic backlash in today's contemporary scene. Ironic and contrived are in. Can something be ironic and contrived and also highly authentic? Certainly, but it is probably quite difficult, (I don't see it a lot) especially because no value is placed on authenticity lately. Crack open a copy of New American Paintings, a contemporary art exhibition in print, and I think you'll see what I mean. There are interesting (although somewhat homogeneous) styles, great virtuosity, high ambition, and topical intellect, but is is very easy to flip by most of the work and set the magazine down quickly. Being jaded has become the easiest of things. With everyone painting to 'make the scene' authenticity goes out the window, and as an insurance policy for such sellouts, authenticity is for squares right now. Proposing that authenticity in visual art is undesirable or somehow not as intellectual or meaningful as irony and contrived conceptual matrices is a dangerous game.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Waterfalls of the Blue Earth River

The Blue Earth River, in south central Minnesota, might seem like a typical Midwestern river at first glance, but it is remarkable in several respects. For one, it is a rare south to north flowing river. It starts is Iowa and flows to meet the Minnesota River at it's famous bend, where the city of Mankato now lies. It is the central vein in a wide, leaf-like watershed south of the Minnesota River. This watershed is notable because it is wider than it is long. Most of it's way the Blue Earth meanders gently from bluff to bluff carving out muddy banks. But near Rapidan, Minnesota is a dam that marks the beginning of a deep, wild valley that goes on for nine miles until the valley widens at the confluence of the Blue Earth and Le Sueur Rivers. This narrow stretch of the Blue Earth is short but sweet, containing many class I rapids and very scenic surroundings. Because of the lively current, this section is popular with canoeists. What most people don't know or pay attention to is that this section of the Blue Earth is also one of the best Waterfall regions in Minnesota. Only a few miles from the river is Minneopa creek and its famous falls. Most people know about Minneopa and perhaps a few other falls of the Minnesota valley such as Minnemishinona falls. The falls of the Blue Earth are not comparatively unknown, most are almost literally unknown. Only Triple falls and Devil's Den are locally known. This probably is due to the low volume, intermittent nature of the streams feeding the Blue Earth along this section, mixed with relatively limited access. These factors do little to dull my personal enthusiasm for these natural treasures. Posted here is a photo guide to these waterfalls.
Pictured above is the fall pool of what a call 'Tall falls'.

A view of the beautiful wall-like cliff of Tall falls. A rough estimate for the height is between 30 and 35 feet. They form a high single drop, but because of the lack of undercut the some of the water slides down the cliff.

A classic view of Tall falls. This falls has a small watershed and is very intermittent.

A view from the top of Tall falls.

I've only been to this falls once. For lack of a better name I call it small falls, because it is not a very high drop compared to the other falls. This view shows the falls in the background with the steep, rock stream bed crashing down to the river.

A close up of small falls. It measures about five feet tall.

This is another modest waterfall near small falls. I call it Minni-triple falls because it has three drops, all of which could fit into one drop of Triple falls. This is the highest, top fall.

Here is the full view of Minni-Triple falls. This Falls probably only totals 10 to 15 feet in height.

This is the view from the top of Minnejujuwaha falls. I named this falls anglicized versions of Dakota words meaning, 'water broken to pieces.'

This is one of the reasons for the name--the stream falls perhaps 30 or 40 more feet after the waterfall on the way to the Blue Earth River. The stream bed is choked with huge talus pieces and glacial boulders, further breaking the water to pieces.

Here is a classic view of Minnejujuwaha. It is one of my favorites aesthetically. The water falls over a staircase of hard, rough sandstone before it plunges over the softer layer. The falls is almost half hard stone and half soft, making quite unique in the area. It has a very rugged beauty. I'd guess its height to be around 20 to 30 feet.

Water broken to pieces. This view shows the falls and the stream bed character as if flows about 30 yards down to the river.

Minnejujuwaha has little undercut because of the thick capstone. The result is many interesting carvings into the soft sandstone.

This is the odd view from the top of Triple falls, one of the most spectacular falls in Minnesota. Note the three separate platforms and impressive height.

This is a view from under the massive overhang of triple falls' final drop. Springs come out from the bottom of the cliff.

The classic view of Triple falls. This is an average, healthy flow during wet times. Note the tree stuck into the ground in the foreground. Triple falls is the most visited falls along the Blue Earth, revealing need for conservation. It is easy to find garbage and new carved initials when one visits. This would be an ideal place for a state or county park.

Triple falls after a very heavy June storm. I've never measured the leaps, but have pondered it often. My guess: top, 8 feet, middle 15 feet, lower, 25 feet, totaling 48. That would make it the region's tallest waterfall. I don't know if that is true, but it feels like it.

The bottom falls during the June burst. The crest of the bottom falls can be very wide in high water, while the middle is also fairly wide the top is always narrow and concentrated.

A head-on June view of the falls. It was loud!

This is what is locally called Devil's Den or Devil's Gulch. A creek flows down to the Blue Earth via a high waterfall in a round amphitheater type gorge. Then the stream narrows into a razor thin sandstone canyon as it flows to the river. This photo is from autumn when the stream bed was bone dry.

Devil's Den gets to be 3 or 4 feet wide at it's narrowest places. The narrowest part is at about waist height and the walls gradually open up as they get higher.

Nature's beautiful sculpture. Unfortunately, much of the canyon is marred by graffiti carvings. This view shows the potent beauty of the untouched parts of the walls.

Here is Devil's Den falls is summer. It looks to be at least 30 feet high.

The canyon while water is flowing through the stream. Although I am not an expert on such things, I'd guess this area harbours rare plants. There is an amazing community of mosses and ferns turning the walls into hanging gardens.

This is how the canyon begins near the river. The river is about 20 yards behind the spot of this photo. The canyon begins almost right away and gradually narrows as it nears the round falls arena. The canyon walls are probably 30 to 35 feet high, after that are more gentle ravine bluffs.

Near Devil's Den's unworldly environment is another strange place, the tiny Grotto falls. This falls is too small for almost anyone in their right mind to name, but I did anyway. It might rarely flow, but it is a beautiful, secluded spot. It is little more than a mossy notch carved into the river cliffs, falling in two parts. The falls is probably 20 feet high, but usually only trickles.

Exquisite water carved sandstone at the bottom of Grotto Falls.

This is the top of what I call Rapidan falls, do to the fact that it is near the dam, across the river from the county park. Despite being near the beginning of the Blue Earth River gorge, it is quite high.

Rapidan falls has a nice cascade that in unsual in this area. Most of the falls are created by hard but thin capstone over very soft stone in a thick layer. Rapidan falls has a very thick capstone that hasn't eroded much.

Despite the large capstone, this falls has a healthy overhang. It is also quite tall, probably near 30 feet, maybe more.
These are the stunning falls of the Blue Earth, an area of uncommon and rarely appreciated beauty. There are probably more falls in this stretch to discover. Most are probably minor places, like grotto falls, that most people won't appreciate. However, I know of at least one more decent falls, which I have discovered only when dry.
My heart is torn with these falls. On one hand, I wish they were better known, even a tourist draw. I wish they brought joy to many people the way they do to me. On the other hand, I see what happens to places that do get frequent visitation, like Triple falls, and I fear for them. Perhaps most of these falls should and will continue in relative anonymity. Ideally it would be great to see Triple falls a public park with a caretaker as it is so often visited already and one of the unique falls in the Midwestern United States. It is actually shocking to me that it is not already a public park of some kind. Almost any other feature of this grandure would be, why not Triple falls? The falls of the Blue Earth reveal the joy of nature, and the character of each falls mimics the characters of indivdual people. I hope people long into the future can enjoy these features.