Art Yard

Franconia Sculpture Part features a wonderland of giant structures and hidden treasures

Sara Nicole Miller

Franconia Sculpture Park is an artistic enigma in the most unlikely of spaces.

Whether you are an autumn foliage peeper, cultural scavenger or wandering arts rapscallion, you now have a good reason to leave the city for an afternoon and venture out toward a utopia of community art.

Franconia is set against a perpetually transforming kaleidoscope of fall harvests. It is nestled in a 16-acre field in the St. Croix region of eastern Minnesota, about 45 miles northeast of the Twin Cities. The area is speckled with peculiar, playful destinations of interest – the St Croix’s antique shop-ridden scenic byway, groggy towns with Swedish sister cities home to bars named Smitty’s and Scooter’s, and Hazelden (the celebrity drug rehab center). But Franconia is the most spectacular and unusual of fall hot spots.

Upon rounding the bend on Highway 8, drivers swerve and precariously tap their brakes at the sight of 22-foot-high human figures with silver, galactic-hooded space suits: guardians of the gate to an alternate universe.

The park emits a kind of earthy surrealism that hovers over you when you realize that you are in a parallel roadside reality of sorts – and a uniquely American one at that.

At first glance, the park’s layout – chipped barns plopped atop unkempt wildflowers and prairie grass with towering sculptures placed sporadically throughout the site – it reminds the traveler of a stumbled-upon back-road oddity.

The Valkenvania junkyard from the 1991 movie “Nothing But Trouble” – that crazy, cluttered lot of trap doors, hodgepodge heaps and sadistic judges with condiment fetishes played by Dan Aykroyd – comes to mind. But unlike Valkenvania, the park doesn’t emit an aura of eeriness. Rather, the erratic, jilted shapes protruding from the grassy landscape encourage curiosity and exploration.

Dreamer and visionary sculptor John Hock – a Washington, D.C. native – came to Minnesota from New York City searching for a space to create art in 1995. He conceived of the idea of a “working sculpture park,” the only high-profile park in the Midwest in which artists are invited to reside and create site-specific work.

For 11 years now, Franconia has functioned as a collaborative sanctuary for both emerging and midcareer artists. Artists can stay in one of the park’s “love shacks” from weeks to months.

Thanks to both public and private funding, artists come from all over the world to live and create here. They live among each other, commune-style. Each obtains a schedule of cooking and cleaning duties. Dinner, from the plot’s organic gardens, is ready when the cooks ring the dinner bell. By day, the artists stay busy sawing, welding, molding and casting. But at night they let loose in the various dive bars that dot the towns of the St. Croix River.

“It’s kind of like summer camp, but for adults who know how to sculpt,” said Araan Schmidt, a Master of Fine Arts graduate candidate at the University.

This summer, he had the opportunity to spend time out at the park during a Franconia-sponsored Hot Metal Pour. The Pour is a community-based event at which folks can come out and witness the spectacle of pouring molten iron into ready-made molds.