Last weekend I went up north to visit my sister and go on a Studio Tour. Great idea, the studio tour. You travel around the countryside, visiting artists' homes and studios to see where and how they work. Local galleries and shops put on their best clothes and invite you in as well.
What I liked best about this tour was the beauty of our surroundings. A few years ago I went to California for the first time and drove the Pacific Coast Highway. It was a breathtaking and unexpectedly moving experience. As I followed Highway 35 south from the Twin Cities I found myself reminded of that experience, especially just outside Maiden Rock, on the eastern shores of Lake Pepin. There were the same winding roads, and stunning vistas, with rolling landscapes, and views of trees clinging to vertical cliffs on the left and a shining expanse of water on the right.
Okay, so the cliffs weren't as tall as the California mountains, and the shining waters were clearly bounded on the other side of the lake, no more than 2 or 3 miles to the west, as opposed to the limitless expanse of water you see when you stand at the edge of the Pacific Ocean. But the feeling you got, of straddling some magical line, between land and water, sky and earth, was definitely echoed in this almost hidden Midwestern landscape.
And the towns (it would be an aggrandizement of monumental proportions to call them cities, and even the word "towns" is, in some cases, quite a stretch) are also reminiscent of a deep history. Small wooden houses, most wearing their century of life with weary dignity, cluster together, and for this weekend, show off their party colors.
We stopped first in Maiden Rock. It was a glorious fall Saturday, if a bit too warm (it eventually reached 90 degrees that day - and in Wisconsin, October is usually more like 50 to 60 degrees, with 70 degrees a welcome departure) and being a Saturday in Wisconsin, there was a farmer's market. Two tables. One with the biggest jar of homemade pickles I've ever seen for $10 and the other with a small selection of late season veggies, like squash and some late tomatoes.
For such a small town (I think the population was around 300) it had an amazing variety of art galleries and shops. We went to two. The first was a little converted house with beautiful contemporary art. Drawings of huge flocks of birds juxtaposed with interesting multimedia stuff. I can't list too much because as we were looking around the owner had to close for a few minutes. So we wandered up the street to a place called Basil's. This old house clings to the sidewalk like a little old lady clutching her purse and as we went in we were bombarded with stuff. The walls were covered from floor to ceiling in paintings of vibrant blue trees against orange skies and villages with jaunty red roofs and multicolored doors. Tables in the center of the room were heaped with leather purses and birdcages, holiday decorations for every holiday, not just the one coming up, costume jewelry antiques and retro boxes, all ready to slide off into your possession. Cabinets lined the walls and the open doors were hung with feather boas and beaded wire strands. As we picked our way through the plethora of stuff the owner cheerfully confessed to us that they'd already had avalanches.
Reluctantly we left. It was 11:30 and we'd only been to three places and only one of those was actually on the art tour. Before leaving town though we stopped at the Hungry Pelican. This was a bakery with some mouthwatering goods, like sour cream and green onion foccacia cooling on a table behind the counter and raspberry cheesecake pie. We had stopped to use the facilities and loved the look of the food, but we reasoned that it was early and the line (10 deep) was a tad too long to get something to eat already, so we moved on, once again passing on the $10 jar of pickles. (One of the drawbacks to a tour like this. You either have to have an impressive bladder or be willing to cajole your way into a bathroom. Another option, which we chose not to exercise, is to pee in the woods.)
Only later did I stop to wonder why a bakery in the middle of Wisconsin was called the Hungry Pelican. More on that later.
The next town was Stockholm. I won't go into detail here. I mean. I could. There's details. But the problem is, I'm blogging, not writing a novel. Here's the skinny. Great art. Great shops. Very cool look. Cooking shop!!! Small campground on the edge of Lake Pepin complete with pelicans. Still at this point (and it's 1:30 now) have only gone to 4 out of 12 proposed sites. Time to pick up the pace so we went on to Pepin.
And ate lunch. Really nice little cafe. Not amazingly good, but certainly better than many MANY a small town cafe, and great Scotcheroos. In Pepin we saw giant bamboo and tissue paper fish made by many people in the community in workshops put on by a local artists, as well as a video about an event they had held earlier in the summer, where they built a Viking ship out of scrap wood on the shore of the lake and then lit it on fire. I began to wonder just how much time these people have on their hands. And, in at least one part of my mind, I had to ask "Why don't they do this where I live?" And don't tell me, I know the answer to that. Because I'm not out there organizing the giant Viking ship burn. Well, not yet at least.
At this point we turned up into the uplands of Wisconsin, and as we wandered through two lane country roads that dipped in and out of steep crop-lined valleys, rising periodically to ride the crests of ridges, we drove past the birth place of Laura Ingalls Wilder without even realizing it until we'd gone completely past. We realized that we could easily come back after our next stop, billed as an artist who does sculpture, so we decided to go forward.
So, you're in the middle of nowhere. The last town you drove through had a population of 4. You turn at the instigation of a small orange sign and start driving down a gravel road that goes on, up and down over hills for a few miles, until you pull into a farm house driveway where you are greeted by an enormous stone sculpture, in progress. We were delighted to find that this charming artist, Stanton Sears, was also, along with his wife, Andrea Mykelbust, responsible for bringing in the artists who orchestrated the big Viking ship burn. Sears is the creator of some stunning public art that is both architectural and oddly organic. I put their website on the list. Check it out.
After this, we went back to where Laura Ingalls Wilder was born. The thing is, they had this cabin there, and there's nothing that says that this isn't the original cabin, until you walk in and realize that there's never been a fire in the fireplace or furniture on the floors. It's a little disappointing. Kind of like realizing that those tantalizing desserts on display in the restaurant are really fakes. I mean, you still get the gist but the perfection is false.
After this we really headed into the sticks, winding down gravel roads to ramshackle houses charming decorated as only artists can, to see pottery, painting and prints. We fell in love with most of the work and all of the sites. Cooing as much over artfully planted gardens, found art sculpture and the fall of sunlight through poplar trees as we we did over hand carved figurative sculptures (Dave Ekdahl at Nopointink also on the list), stone rattles (Nancy Liedl) and landscape painted tiles (Margy Balwierz, also at Nopointink) , we wandered until even we were too tired to do anything more than turn the car north again and head home.
And that was just the first day.