The St. Croix Valley can sometimes seem like one big open air museum. Art is not only found in traditional galleries and museums, but in backyards and parks, and anywhere else that offers a good setting for wonder and delight.
There are studios and galleries up and down the valley, inviting people off the roads to see and perhaps purchase art — from paintings to pottery. There are also beautiful vistas around every bend, something that inspires both artists and audiences.
Unusual venues for the arts are closely connected to the region’s unique intersection between art and nature. The rural settings and the wild river seem to encourage experimentation and outdoor experiences.
Three people and organizations who are involved in bringing the arts outdoors have shared their experiences and thoughts for this article. Their programs range from music and film to books and carefully curated exhibitions. They all accept the challenges of unpredictable weather and inconsistent infrastructure, but find the rewards of serendipity and natural beauty worth it.
Art in the wild
There are often strange sightings in the St. Croix Valley during the summer. An unexplained object in unexpected places. A vessel that seems to beckon passersby to come in, to see, to think. This alien craft is ArtReach St. Croix’s Mobile Art Gallery, with a large mural on one side and folded up windows on the other side, and wonders to behold for those who step inside.
During the past two summers, independent curator Billy Franklin has worked with ArtReach to put together unique and insightful exhibits — and take the shows on the road. The gallery on wheels has visited everything from state and county parks to the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, briefly appearing and quickly disappearing.
Franklin says the enigmatic venue for art is essential to the shows he has curated.
“It challenges notions about where you have to always go to see art,” he says. “The art is just in the parks, waiting for you.”
The scenic settings, the artsy gallery itself, and the unexpected locations puts people in the right frame of mind to step inside and experience unique exhibits.
Photos courtesy ArtReach St. Croix
The wide variety of people who visit public parks are an exciting audience. They often follow signs along roads and trails to the gallery, and then come around a leafy corner to spot it, both unlike anything else around, and fitting in perfectly.
“The beauty of the Mobile Art Gallery is that you get out of the typical audience, you go to places where your audience is hikers and campers,” Franklin says.
Coming across the gallery in a park is a lot like catching a glimpse of a deer or a bird, the same excitement of a fleeting experience you were fortunate to see in its natural habitat, “spotted in the wild,” Franklin says.
He also believes it’s a powerful democratic form of art exhibition. It’s free and accessible, not closed up in a monolithic museum. “It doesn’t present any any any any threat or limitation,” Franklin says.
He compares it to a creation of the influential 20th century artist Marcel Duchamp, who created a “portable museum” in a suitcase. Franklin also says the idea draws directly from the rise of food trucks, which have primed the public to be curious about the contents of such a vehicle.
When the Mobile Art Gallery has spent a few days somewhere, its doors and windows are closed and it’s hitched to a towing vehicle, slipping away and leaving no trace except in the minds of visitors.
Parks, public art, and books
A lifelong love of reading often starts with story time. There is a special joy when kids come together to enjoy a book, all eyes and ears on the reader. The shared experience can be as important as the words and illustrations.
Put that story time in a park, around a piece of community art, and there is an extra level of excitement. That’s what Anastasia Shartin from The Phipps Center for the Arts in Hudson has done with Books and Benches. The programs take place during the summer at Art Benches up and down the St. Croix Valley, bringing together artists, librarians, National Park Service rangers, and families. The ten Art Benches have been created over the past 15 years by kids and communities, providing public art and a perfect place to read books.
Each bench is both a unique work of sculpture and functional seating. Each one also has layers of meaning and messages from its creators. It’s the ideal setting to connect people and their community.
“The location of each bench is integral to the experience of the bench itself,” says Shartin. “The youth and community members who worked together to design and create the benches carefully considered where their bench would be located. They chose places that reflected the themes and ideas they wanted visitors to understand about their community and the St. Croix River Valley.”
All of these aspects factor into Books and Benches. The Phipps partners with local libraries and other organizations to schedule story times with special nature-related activities at the benches and kids also go home with three free books of their own. The reading and programming are built around themes of art and nature, and each event usually relates to the local Art Bench.
On the bluffs of Prescott, Wis. last summer, a Books and Benches story time program was hosted at Freedom Park. The Art Bench there is named the “Butterfly Bench,” celebrating the fluttering insects. It sits amid flowers that are good for monarchs and other species. It gave the librarian a perfect chance to share books and activities focused on pollinators.
“The benches were created to be gathering places, and working with local partners on programs like Books and Benches has been a really great way to make this happen,” Shartin says.
When Paul Creager was a kid, growing up near Square Lake, his dad Warren paid a bulldozer operator who was working on a highway crew to dig out a shallow bowl at the bottom of a hill next to the house. It stands next to a windmill that reminds Paul’s mom, Linda, of her childhood on a Nebraska farm. Later, Warren built a small covered stage at the bottom of the slope, facing the hillside.
This summer, Paul replaced the plywood covering the stage and opened it up to one of the best loved bands in Minnesota music: Low, from Duluth. The group played their first concerts since the beginning of the pandemic over the span of two nights, celebrating the release of a new album, to a crowd of a couple hundred, in the Creager yard. The concerts were an extension of annual Square Lake Film and Music Festivals the family has hosted on the property since 2005.
Creager is a big believer in the power of this scenic, serene site. It isn’t just a pretty place to enjoy a show, but a venue that inspires creativity and connection. The natural beauty makes people feel fortunate to simply be there, experiencing something special.
“Nontraditional venues are very important, they’re underutilized,” Creager says. “Pulling off the core elements of the event is paramount, versus when you’re in a posh venue, suddenly people are concerned about the napkins.”
Square Lake Film and Music Festival (Greg Seitz/St. Croix 360)
At a venue like his parents’ yard, everyone from audience to performer is pretty happy when the basics come together, when audios and visual work, when they feel safe and relaxed, and out of their ordinary locales.
The Square Lake Festival stage has hosted bands large and small, as eclectic as the venue, and the hillside has held audiences from around the world. The festivals have a reputation for experimentation and one-of-a-kind performances in which artists are clearly inspired by the unique setting. It also feels like being welcomed by the whole Creager family to enjoy their home for an evening.
The cozy outdoor venue in rural country also offers other opportunities for serendipity. Creager says the real magic happens when a shooting star is seen above a stage, cranes fly overhead, or rain clears out just in time for artists to amaze the audience.
Producing a show in a nightclub or another traditional venue removes a lot of the risk. But Creager says, while that might be prefered for commercial endeavors, places like the unusual art spaces of the St. Croix Valley reward taking such risks.
And, when something happens that could only be seen somewhere specific, and with the audience in the right frame of mind, it’s worth it.