Art Afoot

Cross-posted from my Star Tribune blog:


There are people everywhere, all the time, in New York City. On the sidewalks, at the parks, in the bars and restaurants. It’s a city defined by swarms of humans as much as skyscrapers or famous streets.

I was reminded while visiting recently that how those millions of people experience the city is a complex thing: They coexist relatively peacefully, mostly minding their own business. They search for companionship in the crowds. They make micro-refuges of miniscule apartments. They drink.

And they make art.

The city’s major art institutions – the Met, Lincoln Center, MoMA, etc. – are world-class. But this time, we saw what you could see without leaving the street.

High Line hike

High Line hiking

Sunday morning, we took the E train to the 23rd Street stop, got coffee and pastries, and walked a couple blocks to the High Line, a nascent park built on an old elevated railroad. Grasses and flowers grow up from gaps in the pavement where the old tracks still lay, reminding you this was once a way to get dangerous freight trains off the streets of Chelsea, and it then sat abandoned for 25 years. Now it is a bright ribbon of green, threading a mile-and-a-half through the concrete and steel landscape of Manhattan.

The first part of the High Line opened in 2009, a second part in 2011, and another section is due to open next year. The park feels like something that could only have been created in the last decade. The design is thoughtful, confident, and informed. People move along its length smoothly, conveyed by a constant shifting of scenery.

High Line Tracks

At every turn, art asks you questions. We sat on a bench and listened to an automated male voice recite the names of animals. I wonder, will this be the outcome of one extinction after another? In the future, will our kids go outside with only a list of that which once lived here? What beasts once wandered the Manhattan wilderness? Fine questions to consider in a park reclaimed from industrial use.

It was a sunny and hot morning and for these Minnesotans it just felt good to be walking outside. We beheld creations big and small. Variations on busts, a wall of pressed tin and broken mirrors, billboards of baseball moments, gardens carefully curated for beauty and wildness.

Framing the city

The art and the gardens and the structure fit together in perfect harmony. An amphitheater over 10th Avenue, with a long view uptown through windows where a stage or screen might be, lets you sit and rest your feet and consider the city as a play or a movie: a comedy, a tragedy, a romance, and a drama, all at once.

Gallery of the sidewalk

Happy Faces

After our walk on the High Line, I took the subway out to Brooklyn. When I stepped out of the Morgan Street station, I immediately noticed two things: it was a lot dirtier than Chelsea, and there was art everywhere.

Street art, an evolution or an expansion of graffiti, is often vandalism, and illegal. But in blighted neighborhoods, especially industrial areas, it can improve one’s experience of the place. It states that people live here, and says a little about who they are, and it adds color and depth to the landscape.

Mattress art

The Bushwick neighborhood is full of good examples. The sort on display there isn’t your typical tag, and most of what I saw seemed intended to to delight, beautify, or challenge.

Its very nature is a statement about contemporary art. These are not artists content to work in a studio, hoping a curator will one day decide their work is worthy enough for a gallery or a museum. These artists go directly to the public. They also create knowing that their work is impermanent, that it will last at most a year or two, and often much less.

Wall of Wonder

These artists do not work so that the paintings will hang in a climate-controlled environment for centuries, viewable with a ticket. They work so that many, many people see it now.

The secret sound of Times Square

Our hotel was only a few blocks north of Times Square, but I had no intention of going there this trip until a friend told me about Max Neuhaus’s sound installation. It was worth fighting the hordes to experience.

You have to go looking for the piece, which is simply called Times Square, at the tip of the pedestrian triangle in the middle of this famous intersection. We found it surrounded by two people dressed up as the Statue of Liberty and a Buzz Lightyear – hokey impersonators who take photos with tourists in exchange for a couple bucks.

The large, unmarked grate in the sidewalk was unnoticed by the crowds. They walked over it quickly, perhaps assuming the weird drone from beneath their feet was the subway or ventilation or perhaps not thinking about it long enough to assume anything.

Neuhaus first installed the piece in 1977, when Times Square was one of the seediest places in New York, and possibly America. How the work has remained relevant as the square has evolved into a highly-commercial tourist destination is an interesting question worthy its own article.

The experience of the piece today is fascinating. If you stand on the grate, you are suddenly in a bubble. For the most part, people do not congregate on the grate, so you have rare space around you, and the droning emanating from beneath has the effect of white noise, blocking the cacophony of the area. You are surrounded by more activity than just about anywhere, and you are suddenly very alone.

Then you step off the grate and back into the fray and you walk as fast as you can past neon signs to escape the area. A museum like the Metropolitan has peace and quiet going for it, but none of the works we enjoyed last month would have had anywhere near the same impact in a traditional museum setting. I came home feeling I had a better sense of New York than before – not the accumulated art of our world found in the big museums, but the city itself.


The land of pines and mines

WaterI spent Thursday and Friday last week playing tour guide for a reporter in the woods of northern Minnesota. The trip was personally rewarding because in seeking to provide a good story for the reporter, I experienced one myself.

My journey north on Thursday took me to Two Harbors and then straight north to visit a man who has read everything Thoreau ever wrote and owns a canoe Garrison Keillor once paddled. Friday afternoon was foggy as I drove home via a circuitous route on lonely National Forest roads. I went 20 miles at a time or more without seeing another vehicle.

There was pretty scenery, but there was also interesting scenes. I documented the trip with some photos in the slideshow below.


Roam rhymes with home

This path was made for walking.
Near the 1850s Point Douglas-Superior Military Road, Wild River State Park

There is a concept that I’ve struggled to state clearly in the past about home, but I have come to this: It is home because I love it; I love it because it is home.

The author and theologian Tony Jones lives in Edina, Minnesota, two blocks from his childhood home. He has always lived within five miles of it. In a recent blog post titled “Why I’m Staying Put,” he offers a defense of the well-rooted. (And yes, we have a tendency to be defensive.)

Why have I stayed put?  There are several reasons:

First, I like it here.  Minnesota is a beautiful, fantastic, seasoned place, filled with genuinely good people.  I like the culture, and I know it.  And the Twin Cities makes just about every list for best places to live, bicycle, run, etc.

Second, the land.  My family owns some woodland about 120 miles north of my house.  I want to spend the rest of my life within a couple hours of that, my spiritual home.

Third, influence.  Because I know this place and I know these people, I’ve been invited to serve on some youth advocacy committees, I was a volunteer police chaplain for ten years, and I hope to run for public office (probably school board) some day.  Of course, none of this is only available to someone who stays put, but it seems a lot more natural to me since I’ve been rooted here.

It should be said that the fourth reason is his divorce and the subsequent shared custody, but it’s a long story and, fortunately for me, I don’t have that aspect to relate to. Those first three are compelling, though. I would add that, in addition to the influence aspect of knowing the place and its people, there is also simply the joy of the relationships one can build with family and oldest friends.

This is not to say that I don’t admire people who move away. I love to travel, and almost anywhere I go I enjoy thinking about what it would be like to live there, maybe just for a while. Sometimes I’m envious of the nomadic for choosing the place where they want to live the most, and living there. To me, it feels like the place chose me.

The Hjelmar Road

Over at Minnesota Trails magazine, editor Dave Simpkins writes about walking an old farm road that runs through the property in western Minnesota where he grew up and where he still has a cabin today.*

I put on an old pair of waterproof hiking boots, a war-torn rain jacket, and a big ugly hat and I headed out on the Hjelmar Road.The Hjelmar Road leads to the Hjelmar land, that old Hjelmar Huff, a Norwegian, homesteaded in 1884. My grandfather, a Norwegian married farmer, bought the little six-acre patch of land from his son August in 1922.

I’ve hiked, skied, Jeeped, cut wood and hauled hay on that old road most of my life. I shocked wheat and oats in the Hjelmar Land, camped in the summer and dug a snow cave in the winter. I shot my first deer here and picked blackberries by the quart.

The whole thing is worth a read: Roaming through our legacy | Minnesota Trails.

Dave goes on to say that every child, every person, deserves to have such a place, and to experience all their lives the mystery of what that attachment means. I agree, but I also agree with the second part of what he gets at: that not every kid can have a 300 acre family farm to grow up on and grow old on, but we can all have attachments to nature through public lands and waters.

A great-great-…-great-grandfather of mine rode a boat over from near Trier, Germany in 1851. I visited the village when I was traveling in Europe in 2003. The thing I remember the most was the bus ride to it; how the rolling farmland looked so much like the Wisconsin where he would ultimately settle. Even he, who was willing to leave everything he knew behind, must have found comfort in the landscape.

* Disclosure: I am currently doing some writing, Web and social media work for Minnesota Trails magazine.


Back from the beach

The six days we spent in Playa del Carmen, Mexico last week are already fading into distant memory. It was a fun, relaxing vacation in a beautiful place with a whole bunch of good friends. I ate a lot of tasty food, had some excellent afternoons on the beach, reading, swimming and drinking, and enjoyed wandering around the relatively laid-back city.

Now, I really have an urge to explore Mexico further from the beaten path. The ideal of a small town on the coast somewhere, with one hotel and one restaurant and one glorious beach, has been planted in my head and I want to go find that place.

I read Ian Frazier’s excellent Great Plains while we were there. It’s travel writing of sorts–I also read part two of his recent article about driving across Siberia in the New Yorker–though it features more history than adventure. I particularly loved how he was able to identify the seemingly obscure details of a story that he reveals to be the real truth of what he is covering.

It encouraged me to open up my eyes a little bit as I explored Playa, not assuming that the loudest voices or the biggest and brightest sights were the most important. Maybe even going to Wal-Mart in Mexico can be a foreign experience that tells you how ordinary Mexicans live, maybe aggressive street vendors can help you understand what it’s really like to visit someone else’s home, and maybe you see how big the world really is by going somewhere you’re told isn’t so far away.