Minnesota Art Crawl on the Prairie
A band of Minnesota artists finds community in solitude, kinship in history and an unlikely muse in the plainspoken beauty of the countryside.
Several years ago, writer and poet (and, at the time, newlywed) Lauren Carlson moved from Chicago to western Minnesota, planting herself closer to the Dakotas than Minneapolis. I found her during Meander, a self-guided art crawl through area studios and galleries, reading to a crowd of hundreds in a school auditorium.
“Here on our prairie,” she said, “I came to face the majesty of human absence every day.”
Her words have haunted me since, in a longing sort of way, especially when I’m pecking at a keyboard in my urban cubicle. What Carlson came to learn, like anyone who makes the trek to this country, is that people are hardly absent out here. There’s just a smaller band of them, drawing on the area’s Scandinavian folk art tradition, honoring open space and community, and tightening their relationship to the land.
Held over three days each October, Meander follows the Upper Minnesota River northwest from Granite Falls, through Montevideo (the big city of 5,000) and into Ortonville. It’s a schlep for almost any visitor—no nearby interstates, and Minneapolis and Fargo are more than two hours away—but the event has kept growing since its founding 16 years ago.
“It’s the most beautiful time to be in western Minnesota. The geese are flying. The corn is turning. The skies are periwinkle blue,” says Patrick Moore, who founded the tour with Don Sherman and Dawn Hegland.
About 50 area artists show their work. Barn doors fly open, home studios welcome strangers, and coffee shops and school rooms morph into makeshift galleries. Meander has a map but no prescribed sequence. (Meander will hold an online art auction in 2020 due to the pandemic; details are on the website.)
Before I left for Minnesota, Moore tipped me off to Moonstone Farm in Montevideo, describing the property as its own work of art. Two of the tour’s founding participants, Audrey Arner and Richard Handeen, live and work there. They also have a rental cottage (a rarity in these undiscovered parts). I made Moonstone my base camp and first tour stop.
Handeen, who is a potter, grass-fed cattle farmer and winemaker, walked me around shortly after sunrise. His studio occupies a three-season porch behind the farmhouse. Inside, he shows me his potter’s wheel, made from parts salvaged on his family’s Century Farm: old brackets from a sewing machine, a reclaimed wheel hub filled with cement, a seat rescued from an antique tractor. Rather than buy modern equipment, he prefers to rescue abandoned things. Each item has a story. His bowls and mugs fill shelves alongside Arner’s painted barn stars, farmstead honey and canned goods in their on-site store.
Leaving Montevideo, I take my time on quiet backroads, passing miles of spent corn stalks, red barns, cattail-ringed ponds, the Goose Bar and a sign advertising a meatball supper in Dawson (population 1,540). Occasionally, stands of yellowing cottonwoods and orange maples pop against the landscape. When I arrive in Milan, so does John George Larson, one of the youngest artists on the tour.
Like Handeen, he works with clay, drawn to the medium’s functionality. “Anything you use regularly you develop an intimate relationship with,” Larson says. He harvests some of his clay locally, and he makes his glazes from Minnesota granite and clay mixed with soybean, corn husk or wood ash. Those raw materials become sculpture, as well as mugs and plates—products that come in contact with our hands and our lips, he says. When you use them, you touch (even kiss, in a way) this place, the Earth, and all who have inhabited it.
During the tour, Larson shows his work at the Milan Village Arts School, Minnesota’s oldest folk school and a top spot on Meander. In the 1970s, Karen Jenson, a rosemaling artist from Milan, caught the attention of the Smithsonian and The New York Times. Jenson’s rise inspired a small Norwegian craft movement in the area. Interest surged in rosemaling, carving and other traditional arts, leading to the school’s founding in 1988. Only some of the artists on the tour would describe themselves as Scandinavian or folk artists today, but like gardeners amending soil, those pioneers laid fertile ground for a diverse artistic community to thrive.
I meet so many. Andy Kahmann, running his letterpress. Bradley Hall, dabbing paint on block prints in an old church. Katia Andreeva, capturing prairie flora in watercolor. And Don Sherman, crafting paper for his mixed-media pieces from native, commercial and invasive species collected in and around Big Stone Lake. “I’m using papermaking to learn as much as I can about plants,” he says. “A weed is something that does not have a fully fixed or appropriate purpose.” So he’s creating purpose, using art to restore balance to the ecosystem.
Before I attended Meander, the word always evoked aimlessness to me. A lack of intention. But meandering just means following a winding course. That’s why the crawl has this name. The route traces a river, and as Moore puts it, “The way a river expends energy is to twist back and forth.” The path may seem indirect, or the current slow, but the water flows steadily—both guided by and shaping the land around it. Likewise, there’s nothing aimless about the choice of artists to live here, or in their quiet dedication to sustainability and a prairie arts revival.
I think about that at Easy Bean Farm, where painter Malena Handeen grows vegetables for CSA shares. I find her playing an accordion and singing while a small crowd sips and listens. Locals call her The Art Farmer, and this gig is a Meander highlight each year. The daughter of Richard Handeen and Audrey Arner, my hosts back at Moonstone Farm, Malena returned to the area as an adult after a stint in art school and Minneapolis. She was uncomfortable, she says, piecemealing out her art to galleries to make a sale. A body of work should be viewed all together, in its natural element. The same could be said for the art out here. It feels rooted in place. And it’s worth the long, slow drive to reach it. In fact, that makes it even better.
Andy Kahmann: Letterpress
Andy Kahmann launched A to Z Letterpress Printing in Montevideo, Minnesota, in 2000—a good decade before every hip urban neighborhood had five letterpress studios of its own. He also helped found the Upper Minnesota River Art Crawl, better known as Meander, which draws visitors to more than 30 open studios and pop-up galleries the first weekend in October.
Malena Handeen: Painting
At Easy Bean Farm in Milan, paintings fill a studio-gallery called the Loose Tooth Saloon of Art. (Name credit goes to Malena Handeen’s daughter, Hazel.) Her work is equal parts ethereal, whimsical and evocative. “In the Midwest we have really beautiful light, so that’s what I work with,” says Handeen (below). “I’m trying to capture the place that I’m from.”
Bradley Hall: Block Printing
Printmaker Bradley Hall, who lives and works in a restored Granite Falls church, credits Andy Kahmann for introducing him to linoleum-block carving. The mentor and student still collaborate every year on a calendar. Hearkening to the Arts and Crafts Movement, Hall’s watercolor-filled prints capture snippets of rural life: fishing flies, barns, animals, ears of corn, even a pickle jar.
John George Larson: Ceramics
At age 14, John George Larson built his first wood-fired kiln. He still relies on that ancient technique today. He also often works with native Minnesota clay, a less predictable medium that gives his art a profound sense of place. Larson’s simple, sculptural style was influenced by his time in South Korea studying under a traditional Onggi potter.
Audrey Arner + Richard Handeen: Painting and Pottery
At Moonstone Farm in Montevideo, Audrey Arner paints vibrant, mandala-like decorative stars. Her husband, Richard Handeen, throws pottery. His Swedish great-grandparents emigrated to this land in 1872; the couple has restored the 240-acre farmstead to a healthy mix of grazing land, hayfields and ecologically diverse woodland.
Lucy + Gene Tokheim: Pottery
A shop that’s open year-round, Tokheim Stoneware in Dawson is one of the tour’s busiest stops. Husband and wife Gene and Lucy Tokheim established the business in 1973, when the area’s folk art revival was in its infancy. Glazed in rugged creams, browns and blues, their pieces often have Norwegian motifs, like reindeer, horse-head handles and rosemaling.
Make a Meander Weekend
CRAWL Meander usually happens the first Friday, Saturday and Sunday in October. But this year, due to the pandemic, organizers are planning a virtual auction on those days instead. Look for details on the website by mid-September. (Many artists featured in this story independently sell their work online too.)
FUEL If you make the trip (2021, perhaps?), you’ll find the most dining options in Montevideo and Granite Falls. Java River is an artsy restaurant-coffeehouse. Talking Waters Brewing Company is the best spot for craft beer. Valentino’s American Restaurant serves sandwiches, burgers and pie—always with real whipped cream.