David Perlman

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My Minnesota: The art of spin at State Fair

  • Article by: JAMES LILEKS
  • Star Tribune
  • August 31, 2013 - 4:51 PM

The motor hums, the paint squirts and scatters: art.

The Spin-a-Painting booth has been a State Fair fixture forever, helping would-be junior Jackson Pollocks make something that’s theirs and theirs alone. The booth sits in the shadow of the DNR fire tower, and perhaps you noticed it looks different this year.

It is. Brand new. But still humble, low-tech, spattered with the hues of a hundred creations. New owner?

No. David Perlman, 60, is still the proprietor. It’s been in his family for 52 years. “I’m the one and only owner.”

So you started the business when you were … 8?

“It was a little stand across from Danielson’s Onion Rings by the food building, run by a woman named Dory Sloat. My dad had been racking his brains to find something unique to do at the fair, and when he read to me a Cedric Adams column that said Dory wouldn’t be coming back the next year, I said ‘Can we buy it?’ ”

They could and they did.

“The booth we bought from her had the spin units built into wooden barrels, and she was running seven of them. We adopted her design at first, but then we built our own, plywood with canvas sides. We took that to the Clay County Fair in Spencer, Iowa. A windstorm came up and it sailed away.” Back to the drawing board; the result was the booth that held down its spot for decades.

Did the fair suggest that you update the old shack?

“In no uncertain terms,” David chuckles. “After last year, the old one was pretty soggy.” But he’ll hold the line on the necessity of messiness. “[The fair administration] has been on my case to keep the countertops clean, but paint-splattered countertops, that’s part of the charm. It should be.”

Ever have second generations come up and say, I did this with my parents?

“Better than that — I’ve heard ‘here’s my grandkid.’ People come up to the booth and say ‘I do one of these every year.’ Every year — an honest-to-God clientele. They’re going to go through hell or high water to make a spin painting. They have 20 on the wall at home.”

Why? What’s the appeal?

“I don’t know. There are two kinds of customers — product-oriented and process-oriented. You get adults who have an idea, and they really wanted to make a nice painting, a product. The process-oriented kids just want to have fun — and they tend to make a great painting, too.” Ninety percent of the customers, he notes, are kids.

Friends Leslie Ball and Ochen Kaylen are helping work the booth this year. It was Ochen who got the new booth made in the fortnight before the fair opened.

By the way, what do you do in the off season?

“I’m a mathematics teacher. And I was a software engineer.” Two rigorously logical, orderly, rational fields, as far from Spin-a-Painting as you can get. But that’s what the fair is for.

“You’re not just selling something people buy and walk away and eat. It’s interactive. They come and they stay and they play. The whole day is a party!”


James Lileks

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