Outdoors, Where Aspiring Artists Think Big


A short drive north of the Twin Cities’ renowned sculpture gardens and art museums, sculptors from around the world have transformed a 16-acre cornfield into an outdoor gallery for the humongous.

“The sky’s the limit,” says John Hock, co-founder and artistic director of Franconia Sculpture Park.

“That’s the brilliance of this place,” he says, sweeping an arm in front of him and glancing around at the site he helped create. “You don’t have the constraints of a studio. It’s an outdoor studio. We’re unique in that we’re a workplace and a showplace.”

It’s a place where form meets function. Chunks of rusted metal and other materials discarded by most as “junk” are piled in heaps near the barn-studio, waiting to be arranged into art.


Located along a winding highway near the Minnesota-Wisconsin border, Franconia is nowhere near as polished as, say, the Walker Art Center. Doesn’t want to be, either.

“That’s all blue-chip artists--the famous cats,” Hock, 43, says. “All the artists working with us want to be the blue-chip, famous cats someday. We’re providing the means to help them achieve their career goals.”

Sculptor Matt Toole of Savannah, Ga., arrived at the park in August with a single purpose: to create an object that would create another object.

“I wanted a performance,” he says.


Six weeks and one broken finger later, he had fashioned a towering stairway of rusted steel that rises 30 feet high. At the top, he welded a platform that supports an iron furnace.

“I’d been wanting ... to build something that’s spectacular,” says Toole, who holds a master’s degree in fine arts. “I just started with some beams and it got huge.”

He christened the sculpture “Rise of the Vulcanites” before a crowd of about 400 people during a midnight ceremony in September. Onlookers beat steel drums as Toole fired the furnace and sent 600 pounds of molten metal cascading to the ground. When it hit, and cooled, a new and undefined object had been created.

Toole’s creation is one of some 70 works that have made the small field along Highway 8 look something like a giant’s playground the past two years.

In one corner sits an old-fashioned dive apparatus the size of a small cabin. Up a few hundred yards is a piece titled “An Ocean Raft"--a welded jumble of fabricated steel pipes decorated with a colorful ladder and swing.

Across the way is “Landing on Eros"--a 1987 Mercury Sable and 1988 Chevy Corsica that are stacked on each other in such a way that they appear to be, well, intimate. Cheesy music continuously pulsates from the bottom car’s stereo, and, at night, the lights flick on. Other details need to be seen in person. Hock says it was one of the few ideas that had to be toned down because Franconia is “a family place.”

Artists are accepted for fellowships or internships each year based on an initial proposal.

“But when they get here, they’re welcome to change their minds,” Hock says.


Franconia awards about 10 fellowships each year. In 2001, each received about $3,500 for materials and/or to help pay bills back home if they are from out of town. The amount is expected to increase to $5,000 next year. Much of the funding comes from the Jerome Foundation, a St. Paul-based arts organization that doles out grants to emerging artists in Minnesota and New York.

In addition, the park accepts about 15 interns and five artists who fund their own projects.

In all, about 30 new sculptures are erected at Franconia each year and 30 are dismantled or moved elsewhere.

Hock estimates about 200 people stop by on summer days--fewer at other times of the year.

Modeled after Socrates Sculpture Park in Long Island City, N.Y., Franconia got its start in 1996 when a few passing cars stopped to see what was being built. More people know about Franconia (named after the township where it is located) these days, and some people have even driven from other states to see it.

“During July and August, you can’t even walk through here,” Hock says, adding that the mailing list is now 7,000 people strong.