I CALL IT ALLEY ART. That tag in no way diminishes its value. Rather, the moniker fits the public art I’ve discovered in alleys, most recently in downtown New Ulm.
During a brief stop in this southwestern Minnesota city, Randy and I walked several blocks along the north side of Minnesota Street, popping into The Grand Center for Arts & Culture and also Antiques Plus of New Ulm. Mostly, though, we simply followed the sidewalk with me pausing whenever I found something of photographic interest.
I’m always delighted when I find the unexpected. And I found that along Minnesota Street in the form of outdoor public art. As an appreciator of the arts, especially easily accessible public art, I get excited about such creative installations.
The finds I feature here represent only a sampling of art you can enjoy in New Ulm. These three were new to me, although they likely have been around for awhile. Brief online searches yielded no information.
That doesn’t matter as much as my reaction to, and appreciation of, this art. Here were history and heritage. Creative expression. Art which enhances New Ulm and the experiences of visitors like me. Hopefully locals, too.
I considered the early settlers to this region, including the maternal side of my family with roots in neighboring small town Courtland. Generations of the Bode family still live in the area. Drop that German name in New Ulm and locals will recognize it.
I considered, too, the German heritage of this city. Tourism is based primarily on that heritage.
And then I considered how a place like Lola, an American Bistro, can carve a food and creative niche here also, drawing my camera eye with an over-sized blue plywood mug constructed around an ally entrance. Mugs attached.
The trio of public art installations I discovered during my short walk along the north side of Minnesota Street added to my appreciation of downtown New Ulm. I expect next time I’ll find even more. If not in an alley, then elsewhere.
FYI: This concludes my recent series of blog posts from New Ulm. Check my March 19, 23 and 24 posts if you missed those. Or type “New Ulm” into my blog search engine to read the many stories I’ve written on this southwestern Minnesota community.
NEW ULM, NO MATTER how often I visit, continues to draw me back. There’s simply so much to see and do here. This decidedly German community is also conveniently located along US Highway 14, the main route we follow from Faribault to my native southwestern Minnesota.
Recently, while returning from a visit with my mom in her Belview care center, Randy and I stopped in New Ulm, the half-way point on our trip. I wanted to see The Grand Center for Arts & Culture. Once we’d viewed the exhibits, we walked along the sunny side of Minnesota Street in the heart of downtown, popping into only one business. We remain COVID-cautious.
With the sun shining and the temp around 60, lots of people were downtown, enjoying an absolutely beautiful Saturday afternoon. We revisited Antiques Plus of New Ulm, a long, narrow shop packed with antiques, vintage finds and collectibles. I found myself once again drawn to the vintage clothing. I couldn’t help but think the lovely formal dresses would fly off the racks in the Twin Cities metro given their pristine condition and prices.
But back to downtown, where you can also find plenty of places to drink and dine. If you appreciate German food, New Ulm offers options. I spotted a handwritten sign in a restaurant window for ethnic meals.
While walking along Minnesota Street, we passed the vacated Herberger’s, a regional department store shuttered in 2018. It was a downtown New Ulm anchor for 72 years. The signage remains, a reminder of a once thriving business.
Signage at Roger’s Barber Shop also caught my interest on this business wedged between buildings.
I made three more discoveries while on our several-block walk along one side of Minnesota Street. Check back to see what I found as I conclude my series on New Ulm.
TELL ME: Have you visited New Ulm? If yes, what would you recommend seeing/doing while there?
IT WAS THE VIVID COLORS which first caught my eye inside The Grand Artisan Gift Shop in downtown New Ulm. Bold hues flashed, accented by strong lines of color, as if the artist had pulled every crayon from a box of crayons and dashed them across the canvas.
Reagan’s work “offers him a means to illustrate his perspective of the world,” according to a promotional bio I picked up in the gift shop. This young man views life through the lens of autism. He was diagnosed with complex autism as a toddler.
Since 2009, he has created art and is internationally-recognized. I admire Reagan, who rose to the challenges of his autism to express himself and to communicate. Strong colors, simple images and signature “tick marks” (those short dashes of color) define his art. I, for one, am a fan.
The Grand restroom in New Ulm is not artist-themed, but rather an artistic canvas for anyone who steps inside. The lime green walls first caught my eye as I walked past the bathroom. (As a teen, my bedroom was painted a similar lime green.) And then I noticed the chalk art above the tile and thought, what a great idea. Maybe it’s nothing novel for a public bathroom. But it was to me. And, although I didn’t pick up chalk and add to the black canvas, I photographed it. And that, too, is art.
And when I write “small,” I mean “small.” The enclosed box museum measures 31.75 inches wide x 32.75 inches high x 7.5 inches deep. Just enough space for artists, makers, collectors, culture buffs, writers and historians to create a mini exhibit.
I love this concept for its uniqueness and also its public accessibility. Posted outside The Grand, this museum is viewable 24/7. Similar museums, the Hoosesagg Museum (Pants Pocket Museum) and The Smallest Museum in St. Paul, inspired the one in New Ulm. The museum also reminds me of Little Free Libraries.
Local Clay Schuldt curated the first exhibit, “The Stacked Deck,” featuring select playing cards from decks in his long-time collection. His card showcase continues through April 23 and includes a take-home informational sheet explaining his exhibit. For Schuldt, these cards are not just for playing games. He views cards through multiple lenses of art, entertainment, history, storytelling, marketing and more.
This is what I love about creativity. Creatives bring their backgrounds, experiences and individual interpretations into their work. While I considered a deck of cards as just that, a deck of cards, Schuldt views them differently. And now, because of his featured collection and insights, I view cards from a wider perspective.
I look forward to seeing more of these mini exhibits outside The Grand. Creatives, collectors, historians and others are invited to submit museum proposals. You can do that by clicking here and then clicking on the PDF link. Guidelines call for applicants to consider how the proposed exhibit relates to the region, audience engagement and simplicity.
Selected artists receive a $50 stipend for a two-month exhibit.
AS SOMEONE WHO GREW UP with minimal exposure to the arts, I feel not so much deprived as deeply appreciative of creativity. I consider myself an artist—of images and of words. To write and to photograph, oh, the joy.
I feel gratitude for all the creatives out there who share their talents, whether in published works or performances or art exhibits or whatever in whatever space they choose.
During a brief Saturday afternoon stop in New Ulm, my first must-see destination was The Grand Center for Arts and Culture, housed in a former historic hotel in the heart of downtown. The building itself drew my interest with its appealing signage and lovely architectural details.
A front face plaque summarizes its history. You’ll find such historical info throughout this downtown on plaques, benches and even picnic tables. I appreciate the easy access to history.
Inside the arts center, the first floor features a gift shop brimming with great art and, across the hall, The Grand Kabaret, for entertainment/the performing arts. Downstairs, the basement houses Cellar Press, a letterpress and printmaking studio, which I didn’t see (but must).
A steep flight of stairs leads to 4 Pillars Gallery and studio space on the second floor. The compact gallery, with abundant natural light flowing into the room, feels intimate, inviting, ideal for showcasing art.
Caitlin Lang of Springfield and Sam Matter of New Ulm are the current featured artists in a joint mixed media exhibit, “Intentionally Accidental.” Their show runs through April 3.
What a joy to see the work of these two young artists. Lang specializes in portraits and Matter describes his art as “a small scene from my heart to the viewer.” I love that poetic description.
And I love this center for arts and culture, a must-see in New Ulm.
FYI: The Grand Center for Arts & Cultureis changing its hours starting March 23 and will be open from 11 am – 4 pm Tuesday – Saturday.
Please check back for more photos from the arts center.
FOR THOSE OF YOU who’ve followed my Minnesota Prairie Roots blog for awhile, you understand that I value small towns. They are a favorite destination, an escape of sorts back to my rural prairie roots. To a less-populated place, typically rooted in agriculture.
That said, I recognize that my definition of a “small town” may differ from yours. I view small towns as communities with populations of several thousand or less. I would not, for example, consider my city of Faribault to be small. Others would given its population of around 24,000.
What draws me to small towns, to photograph and write about them, beyond my desire to reconnect with rural places and share my finds?
It’s discovering nuances of character. It’s connecting with people. It’s the architecture and oddities and so much more. Exploring small towns is like taking a basic sentence and enhancing the main subject with adjectives.
Yet, I realize not everyone appreciates language like I do. All too often, small towns are bypassed or driven through—seemingly not a place that would attract visitors. But I am here to tell you they are worth the detour off the interstate, the destination for a day trip, the stopping on Main Street.
Montgomery, Minnesota, for example, is one of my favorite nearby small towns. Why? I love going to Franke’s Bakery, a staple in this community for 100-plus years. The bakery specializes in Czech treats, in this self-proclaimed Kolacky Capital of the World. Across the street from the bakery, a mural tells the history of this town. Aged buildings line the main business district, with home-grown shops and eateries and bars. The adjectives enhancing the main subject.
The Montgomery Arts and Cultural Heritage Center and Montgomery Brewing also draw me to this Le Sueur County community. And the signs and architecture.
The good folks of Montgomery have branded their community, tapping into their heritage and then building on that to create a place that attracts visitors. I think potential exists in every small town to do the same. And it starts with recognizing the strengths, the uniqueness, of a community. I know that requires time, money and effort. But, oh, the possibilities.
I, for one, love small town bakeries, antique shops, thrift stores, art centers and home-grown cafes with meal offerings that are crafted by hand, not pulled from a freezer and heated. I recently saw a sign for Beef Commercials in New Ulm. I haven’t eaten one—roast beef layered between slices of white bread, topped with a dollop of mashed potatoes and smothered in gravy—for years. Had it been meal time and not a pandemic, I may have stopped to indulge in nostalgia.
Now I know every community can’t tap into heritage like New Ulm and Montgomery. But, each place truly possesses potential to attract visitors. In Ellendale, for example, the award-winning Steve’s Meat Market draws meat lovers. I am partial to Lerberg’s Foods and its worn wooden floor, narrow aisles and aged moose head looming over cans of stacked corn.
I delight in such discoveries. Kitsch. Identity. A strong sense of place and pride. I hope that, by sharing my thoughts and photos, you, too, will view small towns through a lens of appreciation.
TELL ME: Have you discovered a small town that you just love. I’d like to hear.
PLEASE CHECK BACK as I expand on this post with more photos from some of the communities featured here.
WHEN I WAS GROWING UP on the southwestern Minnesota prairie in the 60s and 70s, locally sourced meant harvesting vegetables from the garden, dipping milk from the bulk tank and pulling our own farm-raised beef from the freezer. Our farm family of eight was basically food self-sufficient, with the exception of fresh fruit (a rare treat) and staples like flour and sugar.
With that background, you’ll understand why I appreciate the efforts of businesses like Sleepy Eye Brewing and Sleepy Eye Coffee Company, which work with local farmers to source products. Bison meat. Milk. Honey. Eggs. It’s a win-win for everyone, including customers who value fresh, local and direct farm-to-table.
The brewery and coffee/bakery/sandwich/salad shop are housed in the historic former PIX Theatre in the heart of downtown Sleepy Eye. My first and only visit happened a year ago, just before COVID-19 changed everything, including my interest in dining out or imbibing at a craft brewery.
But I’ll be back once life returns to normal because I appreciate the former movie house setting, the beer and the small town friendliness. I intend also to sample a homemade sweet treat from the bakery. Or maybe a sandwich or salad.
I love how some small towns are seeing a revival of sorts via businesses like craft breweries. Hometown bakeries also add to the draw.
For someone like me who grew up with home-grown/home-raised food on premises, the current trend of locally sourced brings me full circle back to my roots. That’s 45 miles to the northwest of Sleepy Eye in rural Vesta.
UP UNTIL CRAFT BREWERIES OPENED, I wasn’t much of a beer drinker. I’m still not. But I now enjoy the occasional IPA or other locally-brewed beer at a brewery. Yet, it’s about more than appreciating a good beer. For me, it’s also about the setting. The place in which these beers are brewed and served.
And in southern Minnesota, I’ve discovered some aesthetically pleasing breweries in historic buildings. Montgomery Brewing has come full circle back to its roots, based in a 130-year-old building built to brew beer. At Chapel Brewing in Dundas, the taproom occupies a compact 1880 former chapel along the Cannon River. In neighboring Northfield, Imminent Brewing is stationed in the old National Guard Armory garage. And further to the southeast along the Mississippi River, Reads Landing Brewing occupies an 1870 dry goods store.
A balcony overlooks the long, narrow room defined by wood and brick and tile and stainless steel and even chandeliers.
Outside, the restored marquee adds artistic and historic interest. Eye-catching. Unique. Memorable.
I haven’t returned to Sleepy Eye Brewing since my first visit a year ago. The pandemic has kept me away from breweries. But once I feel safe and comfortable—perhaps by summer or fall—I’ll revisit some of these home-grown breweries as much for the beer as for the settings. And history.
But on this stop, we’d just come from neighboring Redwood County, where we saw my mom in the nursing home. We didn’t know it then, but this would be our last in-person visit before COVID-19 closed care center doors to visitors and changed everything.
By the time we reached Sleepy Eye well past the noon hour, I was hungry. It’s a running joke in our family that I need to eat on time or I get crabby. It’s the truth, not a joke.
We ended up at The Railway Bar & Grill, appropriately named given its location near the train tracks. Next to the grain elevator. I don’t recall what I ordered other than a sandwich. Nothing memorable, but sustenance.
In a pandemic year that’s been especially difficult for bars and restaurants, The Railway apparently struggled. The business—complete with bar, two dining areas, private conference room, an outdoor patio, 12 tappers and more—is now for sale. For $165,000.
I’m not familiar with dining options in Sleepy Eye. But I know one thing about small towns—cafes and bars and grills are community gathering places. Spots to meet with family and friends. After a ball game. On a Saturday night. To shoot the breeze. To celebrate. To get out of the house on a cold winter evening. To BS over a beer or two. From all indications, The Railway filled that need in Sleepy Eye.
When Randy and I finished our sandwiches on that early March Saturday afternoon in 2020, I stepped outside to photograph the neighborhood while he paid the bill. I focused my lens on three houses crammed together.
And then I aimed toward the towering grain elevators next to the bar & grill. Vintage elevators always draw my eye for their architectural interest (as cathedrals of the prairie), historical importance and connection to my farming past. Silo style grain storage units will never hold the same appeal as these rectangular grey elevators soaring high above small towns. Too many of these have vanished, including in my hometown of Vesta where a local farmer moved the elevators onto his farm.
On this Saturday, I delighted in reconnecting with my rural roots outside The Railway. In my memory, I heard the rumble of a train, saw grain trucks lining up at the elevator, smelled the earthy scent of harvest…
IT PROVED A FIRST. A walk through a SILLY WALK ZONE near the Garver Feed Mill in the Atwood Neighborhood of Madison, Wisconsin. I still am uncertain whether the words painted on the sidewalk are intentional art or graffiti.
But when Randy and I spotted the directive to PUT ALL YOUR MONEY RIGHT HERE with an arrow pointing to a circle, we laughed. And then Randy pulled a quarter from his pocket and deposited it in the circle.
I documented the deposit with my camera as I did several other noteworthy scenes from that walk in the neighborhood near our son’s apartment building. Yes, I carry my camera most places when I’m out and about because, when I don’t, I regret leaving it behind.
During this early September 2020 morning outing, Randy and I came upon a narrow dirt path leading into woods along a creek. A sign warned us of contaminated water, something our son has shared as an industry-related issue on Madison’s East Side. We followed the path for a distance before retracing our steps and crossing the street.
Randy noticed street signage of DEAD END, Daley Dr, which he found amusing if you change the spelling to Daily. We walked along the dead end street, noting sandbags, a clear indication that the contaminated creek sometimes floods this neighborhood.
I noticed, too, the BLACK LIVES MATTER sign posted at a V in the sidewalk. Such signage is common in this area, a clear indication to me that the folks who live on the East Side care about issues and people.
After I composed a few photos, we recrossed the busy street, aiming for Garver Feed Mill, a 114-year-old restored complex of buildings that now serves as a community hub for businesses and gatherings. It’s worthy of a solo post. So check back as I focus my camera on this gem in the Atwood Neighborhood of Wisconsin’s capital city.