Random acts of beauty punctuate the 2015 State Fair fine art show, along with keen observations, refined craftsmanship, novel designs, mysterious animals and more.

The Fine Arts hall can accommodate only about 325 pieces, so, like admission to top colleges, the competition just gets tougher as the number of applicants grows. This year there were 2,361 entries, about 10 percent more than last summer. Of those, 327 were accepted by the eight jurors.

Keen observation is at the heart of good art, whether it be a "Roadside Barber" photographed by Timothy Harmon or the abandoned "Mill Complex" painted by Rod Massey.

Harmon's barber plies his trade in a dusty country, perhaps India, where modernity, aspirations and dignity struggle against an undertow of poverty and urban decay. A straightforward black-and-white street shot, it is rich in telling detail — traffic races just feet away from the rubble in which the barber has spread his combs and pomades on a rickety table while he clips the hair of a dignified man in a jerry-rigged wooden chair. Their well-tailored clothes are shabby, but the haircut is as flawless as Harmon's printing and composition.

Massey's crumbling, graffitied mill towers mark the end of an agrarian and industrial era, their proud shells stained by rust, weather and neglect. Even so, they are perfect artist's fodder, their angles, curves and planes a harmony of geometry against a flattened sky.

In "Blue on Blue," Catherine Hearding of Lake Elmo uses transparent watercolor to capture the papery delicacy of hydrangeas, while Suzanne Shaff employs the same demanding medium to enlarge a dry "Shadow Leaf" into a batlike creature that's more than 2 feet wide and balanced with utmost grace on its slender stem. Elegant.

Refined craftsmanship

Curling along a slab of raw wood, the "Shelf Fungus" that Kimber Olson of Eden Prairie made from wool, silk and felt is a remarkable illusion, its nubby textures and shimmering skin disarmingly realistic.

Megan Grigal of St. Paul won't trick anyone into taking a bite out of her "Bologna and Cheese [Sandwich] With Mustard," but the ceramic still life is memorably clever. Meanwhile, the trompe l'oeil egg that Brenda M. Ryan plunked into a ceramic egg carton is so perfect it could easily end up accidentally cracked into a frying pan.

Also noteworthy: an elegantly shimmering blown-glass vessel by Fred Kaemmer; a horse and carriage that Rebecca Cardinal executed as a batik watercolor, and Kurt Seaberg's "Migrant Workers" lithograph that poignantly links the migratory lives of monarch butterflies with those of field workers laboring under clouds of industrial pollution. Grim but eloquently executed.

Unexpected vistas

Patchy paint, drips, streaks and a block of flat aqua color shape and surround several girls whose mingled hostility, curiosity and vulnerability are depicted by Lizzie Wortham in "Girl," her compelling painting of youth in many stages.

Minneapolis artist Clinton L. Rost achieves a similar effect in "Barbette," a painting more than 5 feet tall of a woman gazing through a restaurant window into a rainy night. Standing with her back to the viewer, the woman's posture and anonymity amplify the loneliness and mystery suggested by the watery light.

Drawing and graphic design are strong suits this year. On four hinged panels, each about 12 inches tall, Chad Jerome Manders of Brooklyn Park details, in ink, a surrealistic "Steampunk Tech Junkie." Each vertical panel of his fantastic drawing is a slice of the techie's body. The head is split open to reveal cogs and wheels; a mouse skitters along his shoulder; a snake curls around his knee, and insects are everywhere. Meticulously executed, it's fabulously conceived as a foldout, wall-hung sculpture.

"Hiding in Plain Sight" by Randall Richard Rogers is similarly impressive. Nearly 6 feet wide and 3 feet tall, it's a black-and-white close-up of a hand, nose and long-lashed eye with a bit of curled hair. The facial details are all executed in overlapping, postage-stamp-size rectangles of lines and tiny wedges that are an astonishing tour de force of inkwork.

In her diptych "Memento Mori I (Now You See Me, Now You Don't)," the improbably named Bunny Portia of Minneapolis juxtaposes two portraits, most likely of herself in her youth and more recently. On the left, in black-and-white, she's a perky innocent in satin bunny ears and bustier; on the right, in color, she's a strikingly attractive, now-gray-haired woman, in the same outfit. Ah, tempus fugit, indeed.

Mysterious animals

This being the State Fair there are, of course, animals. Of the many, these stood out:

Eric Mueller's black-and-white photo of celestial light breaking around a young man and his well-groomed heifer or steer as he guides the animal from its fairground stall to its "Judgment Day."

James R. Thompson's color photo of a "Girl and Her Chicken" perched on a worn red bench, where she clutches the bird between her legs and pets it absent-mindedly with black-chipped fingernails.

R.J. Kern's possibly digitally altered image of "Hazel," an ethereal blond goat sleeping in a mountain wilderness like a sacrificial beast awaiting some ancient ritual.

Karen R. Brown's ceramic sculpture "Doe, a Deer" is a fetching, gold-horned critter in a pinafore and red-slippered hoofs. The 3-foot-tall charmer studies passers with malevolent mischief in her blue eyes. Don't miss — or mess with — her!

mary.abbe@startribune.com • 612-673-4431