Franconia co-founder John Hock wants you to know that his 43-acre hangout is a sculpture park, not a sculpture garden.
A “garden,” after all, is a fancy, well-manicured thing. Franconia Sculpture Park is more like a skate park, full of random jumps and halfpipes and rails for doing tricks — a haven for emerging artists who want to make work that is weird, experimental and maybe impermanent.
An hour’s drive northeast of the Twin Cities near Taylors Falls, Franconia is like that cool thrift store you happen upon during a road trip — random and eclectic.
It has more than 120 sculptures, with little curatorial direction except wherever they might fit best. Most are in plain view, except for ones hidden in a wooded area, such as Brooklyn-based Kambui Olujimi’s towering white-planked walls between two trees, named for its approximate geolocation, “45.382615, -92.708433.”
“Every year, we take out 30 to 40 sculptures and put in 30 to 40 new ones,” Hock, who is Franconia’s CEO, said during a recent tour of the grounds. “See that tower over there? Somebody just finished that two weeks ago.”
Like the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden, Franconia is free and open to the public from sunrise to sunset, 365 days a year. But during the summer, there are always a couple of artists making their sculptures on-site, so visitors can observe it all. There’s also an exploratory vibe to the park, making it something of a scavenger hunt. The sculptures seem to be never-ending — a stroll can easily turn into an entire day.
Visiting Franconia is as much about the journey as the destination. Leaving the cities and enjoying how the pace slows down are part of getting ready to spend a day wandering the park, ooohh-ing and ahh-ing over the fundamentally wacky sculptures.
Bring sunscreen, bug spray and perhaps a picnic lunch if you’re there on a weekday — food trucks are sometimes there for events, such as the Aug. 4 hot-metal pour — and walking shoes.
Enter the vortex
On a recent hot day as we rattled around the vast flat terrain in a golf cart — three carts are available for people who need assistance — Hock and I came upon Buenos Aires-born, Brooklyn-based artist Dolores Furtado, perched comfortably on the flatbed of a forklift.
Furtado was putting the finishing touches on “Vortex,” a shimmery, mountainous light blue and green sculpture made of fiberglass and resin. The forklift operator slowly brought her back to the ground, where she could stand and observe her progress.
One of five 2018 Jerome Foundation fellows, she received $5,600 to work at Franconia for a month on her 22-foot-tall sculpture, which resembles an enlarged icicle. Furtado describes “Vortex” in metaphorical terms:
“It is like a space where, a portal or a space or a door, a symbolic door, and through that portal you can go to different places and people from other places can come in, too.”
Originally this piece was going to be much smaller, but when Furtado arrived and saw the vast amount of space and the equipment available to her, she promptly changed her plans.
Canadian artist Chantel Schultz came to the park as a summer intern. She was given room and board in exchange for working at the park. Then she found her own sculptural materials to play with — chunks of Styrofoam that were about to be tossed away. A third-year student at the University of Alberta, she set up shop in a barn.
When I visited her there, she was hunched over a giant circular glob of Styrofoam, piecing chunks of it together with bulbous foam glue. People will be able to climb inside the womb-like cavernous space.
“I call them pods, but they reference wombs or intestines or some type of bodily form,” said Schultz, who has a background in painting.
People kept wandering by, checking out the piece in progress and guessing what it could be. Raspberry, popcorn, space orb, womb, echo chamber and cave were some of the top possibilities.
‘I can’t believe it’s not butter!’
No one guessed butter. That was claimed by Lewis Colburn for his own sculpture.
A former Midwesterner who now teaches at Drexel University in Philadelphia, Colburn was at Franconia this summer as an open studio fellow, which included a $5,000 budget for expenses. On this particular day, he was in the throes of wrapping up a giant replica of a Teddy Roosevelt butter sculpture made by John Karl Daniels in 1910 for the Minnesota State Fair.
Before coming to Franconia, Colburn sculpted the figure out of clay, captured a 3-D scan, enlarged it, then carved 3-D negatives out of foam using a computerized router. At Franconia he filled in the positive area with a resin-bonded fiberglass cement, some of it charcoal gray and other parts with a butter-yellow color. Each of the three pieces — Teddy’s head, body and legs are separated — ended up being about 6 feet tall. They form a deconstructed presidential figure, each on its own mount, which Colburn built at the park.
While they look like butter, they won’t melt in the sun.
“Teddy Roosevelt is still kind of a controversial figure — like, he did a lot of good things but also pretty objectionable stuff,” Colburn said. “This is an image of a type of masculinity that has reared its head in an ugly way over the last couple of years. It’s like: Here we are looking at this thing again, so let’s break it apart.”
We visited two other new sculptures: Marc La Pointe’s “I Wish That Mountains Could Move, Too” looks like an abandoned playground with an uneven concrete base and a wayward tire swing and metal pole. Then there’s Hock’s own 10-years-in-the-making gigantic sculpture “Prometheus III,” named after the Titan hero in Greek mythology.
Hock, an abstract sculptor who helped create the park more than 20 years ago with a group of community-minded artists, explained that he’d put aside his own practice.
“The park was more important than my work,” he said. But the other week, he hired a bunch of guys, got equipment together and banged it out.
At 50 feet tall, this massive steel abstract work appears at first to be supertough, but its circular shapes convey a softness. It finds a home amid all the other quirky finds at the park, a landscape that only a bunch of sculptors could cobble together, summer after summer.