The purple pylon seemed to rise straight out of the cornfields.
"There it is," shrieked my 5-year-old daughter from the back seat of the van. "Here are the sculptures!"
If you've driven along Highway 8 toward the St. Croix River Valley, you've glimpsed them. A tall purple spire. Large metal shapes poking up from a grassy field. A dozen orange windsocks blowing on tall sticks.
My daughter had been scouring the landscape over the last several miles of our drive, and in her excitement had pointed out a silo and a rural mailbox as sculpture. But once you see Franconia Sculpture Park, there is no mistaking it.
While you expect to see large artwork in the field in front of Walker Art Center, you do not expect to see it pop up among the woods and fields of Chisago County, about 45 minutes north of the Twin Cities.
I brought my son, 12, and daughter, 5, to explore more than six dozen pieces that dot the former farmstead. We parked in a large parking lot filled with a dozen other vans and cars and a large tour bus. My kids headed straight for the playground, or at least a sculpture that looks like a playground, called "Playstation," created a couple of years ago by Wisconsin artist Bridget Beck.
"Do you know what a Playstation is?" the 12-year-old asked his sister.
"It's where you drop off kids and they play there?"
"No, it's a video game platform," he said, always the tease. Then he paused and looked at the sculpture as if for the first time.
The play structure was built from pieces of colorful wood and recycled metal; we spotted rebar, chains, massive springs, metal wheels and even garden rakes poking up like flags. There was a lookout tower made from a section of metal tubing large enough to stand inside and swings hung from a massive metal beam. It was irresistible. We checked out the slides, explored two caves and ate our snack at a rustic wood table built into its side.
WORKS THAT COME AND GO
"Playstation" is one of the few permanent sculptures on the property. But most of the works come and go to make room for new pieces created by visiting artists. Since it was established 15 years ago, Franconia has hosted 500 artists and interns for stints ranging from a couple of weeks to several months. Artists live and work onsite, so even if you don't opt for one of the artist-led tours, you can usually find people working and willing to talk.
We bumped into an intern from Canada under a large shade canopy, assembling a sculpture of weathered wood kites that look like rustic parquet. Later, we came across New York City artist Jose Emilio Rodriguez, who was on a ladder putting finishing touches to a gazebo-like structure made of white PVC pipe.
"It's very hard to do work on this scale in New York City, where space is at a premium," he explained as he attached strips of LED lights to the PVC frame. His piece, "Surya Ratha," is a modern interpretation of a classical Indian sun temple. The white pipes create a graceful open vault that comes to a point about 13 feet aboveground. Solar panels collect energy during the day and electricity stored in underground batteries power the lights at night.
"Hopefully, the space will provide some kind of solace," he said.
Like the sun temple, many pieces scattered across the 20-acre site are meant to be touched, entered or even climbed, and those that aren't are labeled. The more opportunities for playing, the better, as far as my kids were concerned. My son climbed onto an old metal tractor seat attached to a wood sculpture that looked like the back of an airplane ("Tractor Fin" by Texan Kurt Dyrhaug). We walked into a large black cube that was built to focus sunlight through a series of floor-to-ceiling vertical slats in one wall ("Evening" by Chicago artist James Payne). The kids ran through one sculpture that was nothing but a roof lying incongruously on the ground, covered in standard asphalt shingles. ("The Northern Oracle: We Will Tear the Roof Off the Mother" by Heather Hart of New York).
One of their favorites was a symmetrical mound paved in beige pink concrete and crisscrossed by wavy lines like parched earth.
I liked "Reclamation" by Melanie Van Houten of Minneapolis, a shed of weathered gray boards suspended by hundreds of ropes from a massive metal frame. It looked like Dorothy's house from "The Wizard of Oz" being sucked into the air by the cyclone. When we got closer, we saw that dirt had been removed underneath, as if it had been ripped off its foundation. When I got home, I looked up Van Houten's artist statement on the Franconia website, where I read that she was trying to evoke "the disappearing rural landscape."
We spotted a half- dozen other families while we were there, including Kim Larsen, who had camped at a state park nearby the night before. She stopped by with her two children on their drive home to Eagan.
"I think it's amazing that these artists come from New York and all over," she said. Her kids Max, 11, and Serena, 6, seemed to be having a good time exploring.
"I like the roof over there," said Max, waving his hand toward Heather Hart's piece. "There's no house. I expected there to be a house."
WORKSHOPS AND MORE
Franconia hosts a couple of workshops every year for kids, and every August, the park welcomes crowds for its Hot Metal Pour, when artists cast pieces late into the night. The public is invited to watch and create molds for their own small sculptures.
During warm months, the park also hosts outdoor concerts. Even the seating is sculptural - stone benches embedded into grassy mounds that dot the field in front of the stage like gopher hills. The band Squib plays the last concert of the season Oct. 8.
My kids were ready to leave after 90 minutes of exploring. On our way out, we spotted a toddler scrambling over a concrete sculpture that looked like a car smashed flat. I had an urge to run over and jump on its roof like King Kong. But I knew it would mortify my preteen son.
Instead, we got back into the car and headed off to Dairy Queen, my son's reward for hanging out with mom and little sister for the afternoon.
Maja Beckstrom can be reached at 651-228-5295.
What: Franconia Sculpture Garden
Where: 29836 St. Croix Trail, Franconia, Minn.
Information: franconia.org or 651-257-6668
Hours: Daily from dawn to dusk; guided tours 2 p.m. every Sunday through October or by appointment
Cost: Free (donations accepted)
Target audience: Anyone who likes large art backdropped by the great outdoors
Crowd pleaser: Climbing "Playstation" by Bridget Beck
Tip: Play "name that sculpture" to keep your kids interested in the ones they can't climb.
Special event: A daylong celebration to showcase the season's new sculptures. 10 a.m.-10 p.m., Sept. 24. There will be live music, artist tours, poetry, magicians and a hot metal pour. Parking is $5.