Rolling farmland and patches of trees dominate the last leg of the drive north on Highway 95 as you approach Schafer, Minnesota, a town of just over 1,000 people. Then, suddenly, the trees grow thin and open into a clearing of land, revealing a giant circular structure rising 40 feet toward the sky. This isn’t just farmland. This soil grows art.
Some 120 structures of steel, wood, and fiberglass cover the 43 acres of Franconia Sculpture Park, each with a story to tell. The keeper of the tales is John Hock, Franconia’s CEO, artistic director, and one of the park’s founders.
Twenty years ago John was a sculptor living and working in New York. Every August he visited Minnesota with a friend. But in 1995 he didn’t return to New York. Instead, he chose to stay in rural Minnesota and build a new kind of sculpture park—one where artists lived, worked, and exhibited all in the same space. “It was taking all my best experiences and putting them together to come up with one,” John says.
Jumping into a golf cart, cigar in hand, John cruises the dirt paths of his park. He is a man in perpetual motion—until he spots a fence in need of fixing. Wire mesh dangles off the side of a wooden pole, in front of a sculpture. He stops the cart, hops off, and flips open his cell phone, summoning someone on staff to come remedy the issue. Then, just as quickly, he climbs back into the driver’s seat and motors on.
The original site where John and a group of artists built Franconia actually sits about a quarter mile to the east from the current site. To open the park in 1996, John rented 10 acres of land from a college buddy’s parents using $14,000 of his own money. Once the space was secured, he recruited a group of Minnesota and New York artists to create 30 sculptures.
Using the land for sculpture instead of crops took some getting used to for the park’s neighbors. Luckily, small town generosity and kindness prevailed, even in the face of skepticism. “When it gets out to rural Minnesota, friends and neighbors all help each other do stuff,” John says. “One of the park’s neighbors came over and dragged the whole field because it used to be a cornfield; you had all the planting mounds from corn. We dragged the field with an I-beam to flatten it out.”
The same farmer helped John till and plant prairie grass. In return, John and his friends put their welding and mechanical skills to use, fixing neighbors’ lawn mowers and tractors when needed. It wasn’t long before the sculpture park won over its neighbors, including the farmer, who started visiting the park nearly every other day with his five- and seven-year-old kids.
“After the first year, the neighbors who helped till the field were coming back over, talking with the artists and critiquing the work,” John says. “Here is somebody who had never been to the Walker, but was now fully involved in the discussion about what this artist was working on—what it could be, would be, and should be.”
Opening up the world of modern sculpture to new people and communities is one of Franconia’s main goals. Where the park had 20,000 visitors its first year, John expects 150,000 this year. With work from nearly 120 artists, there’s something for everyone. But it’s usually the humorous sculptures, like a piece in 1998 that involved a 20-foot-tall clothesline holding 12 giant white shirts, that make people stop.
“People got interested in what they saw from the road. They’d come in and maybe get a giggle out of that installation, but then it enabled them to look at the other work in a more open way,” John says. “Sometimes people are enticed by something humorous or tongue in cheek, [but that] enables them to look at more serious work and not be intimidated.”
It helps that the park is free and open to visitors to wander from dawn to dusk every day of the year, too. And for the youngest visitors, John and Franconia staff go one step further: With help from a Minnesota State Arts Board grant, Franconia reimburses schools for the cost of bringing kids to the park. Each week, nearly 15 busloads of kids participate in interactive tours. The kids build windmills, rivet pieces of metal together to make abstract sculptures, and dance between the sculptures on movement tours—an initiation into the world of fine art without the hushed tones and “do not touch” signs of typical museums.
In addition to providing opportunities for the public to experience art, Franconia also provides artists with the space and support they need to create. One such artist is Jessica Hirsch, a Minnesota native who is one of six artists working at the park as part of the Jerome Fellowship Program this summer. Her piece involves three coffin-shaped boxes stacked atop each other, each smaller than the one below it. Pieces of crystal will cover the top box, and Jessica plans on planting wildflowers on the lower layers. Like other sculptures in the park, she hopes people will climb on it.
Each year a new set of fellows, interns, and open-studio artists descends upon Franconia and takes up residency in the two-story “White House.” With each new wave of talent comes about 30 new sculptures, each replacing an outgoing piece.
It’s that constant change that keeps the park exciting, says John. Over two decades, the artistic director has worked with more than 850 artists; there’s always a new crop of sculptors to challenge and motivate him. “[Franconia] is bigger than me,” John says. “All the support and helping people develop, it has become bigger than anything I could do as an artist. It’s more important.”
The park provides a solution to the catch-22 many of its artists face: In order to make public sculpture, you need to have experience on your resume. John gives artists that opportunity, like Bridget Beck, a sculptor who worked at the park for more than five years, first as an intern, then as a Jerome fellow and open-studio artist.
“I’m the kind of person who gets into projects I don’t know how to finish,” Bridget says. “They’re way too huge. I’m just sort of fearless. It’s the story of my life, thinking I can do whatever and then realizing mid-project that, sink or swim, I need to figure these things out.”
Bridget first came to Franconia in her early twenties. Even though she didn’t know how to weld, she opted to make a raft out of large steel pipes for her first project. She welded one side together, but when a crane flipped the sculpture over so she could weld the other side, the whole thing fell apart. Through stubborn determination and help from John, she eventually figured out how to fix and install it. Today, two of Bridget’s giant whimsical structures, Playstation and Poetry Studio, stand in the park. Each looks like a piece of abstract art-turned-kid’s jungle gym, complete with swings and platforms to crawl on and explore.
John is currently in the process of expanding Franconia, physically as well as in opportunities for artists. In 2015, the park launched a capital campaign to raise $3 million in three years to build a new 7,000-square-foot education center and a 3,000-square-foot studio building where artists can work year-round. “I’ve found the best way to teach ambition is to have an environment that is ambitious in itself, and then let that challenge each artist individually to accelerate,” John says of the goal.
It’s just one more way that John is looking ahead and dreaming about what Franconia Sculpture Park might become in the near and far future. If the last two decades are any indication, ambitious imaginations will continue to reign supreme.