SHAFER, Minn. — Amid clumps of milkweed, prairie grass and pine trees, there’s a massive, turquoise Lorraine Motel sign, a copper-clad asteroid being catapulted back to space and a cedar hunting blind awaiting curious visitors.

Just off Highway 8 in Shafer, near Taylors Falls in southeast Minnesota, Franconia Sculpture Park has been a part of the surrounding community and the Greater Minnesota and Wisconsin area for 25 years as an educational and recreational space for public art, as well as a day trip destination. It’s not only a gateway to contemporary art for visitors, but also a place where art lives without barriers or borders.

Spanning 50 acres with more than 100 sculptures on display, Franconia draws thousands of visitors each year — and that number rose from 180,000 during 2020 to 200,000 in 2021, one of Franconia’s highest attendance years yet.

Unlike the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden, Franconia isn’t smack dab in the middle of a metropolitan area. Its clientele skews more rural than urban and the park was founded eight years after Minneapolis’ Sculpture Garden put a giant spoon and cherry near the Loring greenway.

When Franconia was founded in 1996, Fuller Cowles and John Hock had a mission to create a space where interactions between artists and arts viewers could flourish, and large-scale sculptures could come to life.

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“The fun part of being at Franconia is the accessibility of a community. You have Susie and Bob walking down the trail being able to interact with Marcos from Portugal who is there doing a project,” Cowles said. “That random intersection on a Tuesday afternoon is what really sets us apart.”

The space isn’t just a haven for art viewers; it’s also the temporary home of more than 30 artists each year who spend a few months living on the grounds of the park, creating their work on site and leaving Franconia with a sculpture — or a written work, or a piece of performance or video art — along the prairie pathway. Both Cowles and Hock had done work for Socrates Sculpture Park in New York, and they were jazzed by the idea of bringing a public sculpture park to rural Minnesota.

Unlike a traditional white-walled gallery space, Franconia’s tree-and-prairie landscape encourages artists to tap into a new side of their creative processing and configure their sculpture within a wild space. When mixed media artist Julie Schenkelberg arrived at the site this summer, before she even began building her “Aurora” installation, she’d spent a few weeks in Franconia’s field, lying in the grass, taking note of where the moon rose and the sun set, all to inform where her work would be positioned.

“It’s such a great opportunity to show something that is wild — and my work is wild,” Schenkelberg said. “Even though I do get exhibited in galleries, I like the rawness of my work being outside. And also, I can’t control how people will see it necessarily, like they’ll be walking around it, or they can go in and out of it.”

And other artists create their work to cater to the space itself. Take local artist Tom Bierlein’s “Variations on Becoming,” a cedar hunting blind that allows the viewer to see the nature of the park through a shielded, yet open, space. “From the beginning, I was really interested in integrating the work physically within the prairie, and within the ecosystem of Franconia,” Bierlein said.

The residency program naturally invigorates artists to go beyond their everyday practice and explore different approaches to creating art, according to Ginger Shulick Porcella, Franconia’s executive director and chief curator. But Franconia isn’t zeroed in on the art it produces; since Shulick Porcella has taken the reins of the park, Franconia has worked to create relationships with the folks they welcome in.

“Our focus has really shifted away from large-scale sculpture, to more audience engagement and community engagement in the space and using the landscape and the space as an entry point for people to experience art in nature,” Shulick Porcella said.

The sculpture park has definitely shifted. Staff have ushered in movie nights, farmers markets, film series and special events. And with the 2020 opening of Franconia’s visitor center, there’s an indoor gallery and opportunities for weddings and other celebrations.

Franconia’s rural setting creates a unique opportunity for the artists and curators of Franconia, Shulick Porcella said.

“We get folks from the Twin Cities, but we also get really conservative folks from Wisconsin who are not going to go to a museum, but they’re going to come here,” she said. “So our social responsibility as an educational art space is to tell these people about the work of these global artists, the global ideas and, you know, maybe that’ll get people to think differently about the world.

“We literally physically and mentally eliminate the barriers from participation with contemporary art, which, if you put a lot of this art in a museum space, would be very intimidating,” Shulick Porcella explained. “But people are able to come right up to the art, they’re able to read about the art and the artist’s motivations and, at times, even meet the artist if they see them making their work on site. So it’s just a totally different environment for demystifying the creative process for both artists and audiences.”

On Sept. 25, Franconia will celebrate its 25th year with a bundle of activities, from an examination of Franconia’s biodiversity with University of Minnesota professors, to a performance by Twin Cities-based hip-hop artist Nur-D.

“My heart swells with pride and joy, watching the new young artists come and make work at the sculpture park and how excited little kids get; that stuff just makes my heart sing,” Cowles said.

A few Fraconia facts

Oldest sculpture? Mark di Suvero’s “Gorky’s Pillow”

Sculpture that surprises? Jason Peters light-up loops using 300 plastic buckets

Sculpture folks often miss: Don Edler’s tablet that was made, then dug into the ground and excavated right before it was put on display

Sculpture that brings a smile: April Martin’s “We Move Still”

Most Instagrammable sculpture: Bayete Rose Smith’s “Got the Power: Minnesota”

Fraconia celebrates 25 years

Franconia will celebrate with food and events on Sept. 25. Parking is $5 and events are free, unless otherwise noted. For more info: franconia.org.

  • Taste your way through Franconia’s 25th with food truck faves available for purchase from The Great Panini, Burro Loco and Fro Yo Soul, as well as beverages from Lake Monster Brewing and Alexis Bailly Vineyards.
  • 11 a.m.-9 p.m. — The Elm Tree Story Booth: Visit the retrofitted phone booth built with a recording device inside to record your thoughts on interactions with nature. The stories you record will be used as inspiration for a public exhibition by the Natural Heritage Project.
  • 11 a.m.-1 p.m. — BioQuest with the University of Minnesota: Examine the biodiversity within the Franconia Sculpture Park with University of Minnesota professors.
  • 2-3 p.m. — New sculpture tour: Take a tour to see the newest sculpture installations on the sculpture park’s campus.
  • 3-4 p.m. — Meet the artists-in-residence
  • 4-6 p.m. — Opening Reception for “After, Other, and Before” in the Mardag Gallery: See work from the Emerging Curators Institute Fellow and 2021 Franconia Fellow Kehayr Brown-Ransaw, along with the work of other participating artists.
  • 5-6 p.m. — Opening Reception for Franconia Sculpture Park’s Artist Billboard Project with artist Yasmeenah.
  • 6-7 p.m. — Nur-D Concert: Join the Twin Cities-based hip-hop performer and activist in Franconia’s Amphitheatre. This is a ticketed event.
  • 7:30-8:30 p.m. — Fashion Show: Featuring work by Uselding Fridays, aka designer Joshua McGarvey. This is a ticketed event.