Terrain.org Columns.
View Terrain.org Blog.


Plein Air
by Deborah Fries, Editorial Board Member, Terrain.org

Open Book, Field, Mind: Life Lessons Learned in Minneapolis


Open Book spiral staircase.
The open interior of Minneapolis' sanctuary for
literary arts, Open Book.

Photo courtesy Open Book.

There is a Sharon Olds poem that begins, “When I think of eels, I think of Seattle.” It’s a memorable and idiosyncratic association. I’ve created my own neural pathway to a city: when I think of openness, I think of Minneapolis.

Maybe it’s more accurate to say that when I think of Minneapolis, a city I’ve visited often in the past decade, modifiers come rushing to the surface: cold, and progressive, and Minnesota nice, and open.

That last association began with my love of Open Book, a three-story sanctuary for endeavors dedicated to literary arts. The space created by three contiguous, 100-year-old warehouses on Washington Avenue, a few blocks from the Metrodome, grounds the literary arts in the way that bricks and mortar have created homes elsewhere for music, dance, and drama. Since 2000, Open Book has beguiled the public with its transformation of raw interior space into a cathedral for book pilgrims.

The first floor of the former warehouse complex is home to Minnesota Center for Book Arts, to the tactile world of letterpress and printmaking, of papermaking and marbling, binding and cutting. There’s exhibit space and a gift shop, where the public is invited into the sensual experiences of paper and ink and the cerebral joys that accompany the book and works on paper.

The second floor houses The Loft Literary Center, where writers gather for classes, workshops, and readings, and readers discuss books—some of which may have been published by a tenant of Open Book’s third floor, Milkweed Editions. Even though I live in Philadelphia, I have at times been a member of The Loft, which once made it possible to rent one of their cozy writers’ studios, and to revise a manuscript while looking out over the city’s skyline.

Student works to build a dream school in the Open Field Commons, Minneapolis
A Macalester College student volunteers her carpentry
skills to build a dream school in the Open Field

Photo by Deborah Fries.

The summer of 2010 brought a different kind of openness to Minneapolis. Less than three miles from Open Book, Open Field at the Walker unfolded its gigantic blank page of grass to the possibilities of populist art and play. The field was opened across the street from the Walker’s famous Minneapolis Sculpture Garden, where for 22 years, in summer and in snow, people have posed with Spoonbridge and Cherry, Claes Oldenburg and Coosje van Bruggen’s beloved, iconic sculpture.

Until it was demolished and relocated in 2006, the space that is now the field housed the Guthrie Theater. Then it became a negative space that for almost four years begged the question: What do you do with an empty field?

The answer became: You create a cultural commons.

Initially, you’d invite artists in residence to provide continuity, while democratizing your programming to invite an entire city to join in the conversation. You’d stock a tool shed with playthings: books and art supplies, cards, balls, hula hoops, blankets to lie on and watch cumulus shapes drift through the blue sky over the field. You’d establish Rules of the Commons and a social imagination reading list and set up an area for outdoor seating where people could enjoy Cloud Burgers from a Wolfgang Puck grill. And then, from June 3 until September 5, you’d conduct an experiment that would celebrate open thought.

On the July day that I visited Open Field, resident artists from Red76—a nationwide network of artists, musicians and activists—were launching their Surplus Seminar, a three-week Anywhere/Anyplace Academy initiative intended to capitalize on surplus knowledge and excess materials. Volunteers were building concept schoolhouses out of scraps and salvage. Children had collaborated on the concepts, which included a school for the reconciliation of conflicts between people and dragons.

At the top of the hill, overlooking the commons, the toll-free telephone number for Red76 danced across the grass. Delicious smells from the Open Field Bar and Grill mixed with the sounds of an a cappella group called Deviated Septet. In search of better acoustics, the group relocated to an open bunker at the top of the hill, and their audience followed, passing a sign that read “Mapping of Joy and Pain / Please Participate.”

Sarah Peters and teh Open Field Tool Shed
Sarah Peters, associate director of the Walker's
Public Programs, shares the contents of the Open
Field Tool Shed.

Photo by Deborah Fries.

On that Saturday afternoon, the Open Field experience was in flux, relaxed, with no visible joy or pain, just a mellow big cloud vibe that embraced the halfway mark of summer. Sarah Peters, Associate Director of the Walker’s Public Programs, showed me the whimsical contents of the Open Field Tool Shed. Mike Wolf, of Red76, gave me the latest copy of the group’s always free Journal of Radical Shimming. The Field was an easy place to be open, to be in the moment.

After I’d left Minneapolis, the Commons would host more than a hundred public events, including Israeli dodge ball, book-binding lessons, human chess, speed-submissions to an editor of a small press, interactive hip-hop mixing, flash camera tag, and an art mart. There would be choreographers' evening rehearsals, pirate radio workshops, woodwind performances, flamenco lessons, and cocktails with creatives. People would talk of situations and draw conclusions in a collaborative drawing club. Ideas would be shared, minds opened. Back in Philadelphia, I would miss it all.

Values clarifications almost always emerge after vacations. We leave the house at the shore or the campsite in the mountains or the elegant hotel on the island, return home and find ourselves longing for something we left behind. Days—more often weeks—after we return, we’ve sifted out the essence of what we’re missing. We pull the signal out of the noise.

And so it was with my most recent Minnesota vacation.

My visit to Open Book reinforced the importance of focusing creative expression and taking it seriously.  I need more writing and printmaking in my life, and to learn how to combine those two endeavors. And I need to do more reading and book discussing, to sustain my attention, rather than fracturing it into a million small pieces through old and new media.

Watching the world cup at Brits Pub
Watching the FIFA World Cup at Brits Pub, Minneapolis,
one of several outdoor summer film venues.

Photo courtesy Peter Kastler.

Open Field reminded me how removed I’ve become from play. (Seriously, I’ve never even spent time tossing a Frisbee with a friend or a dog.) Humor can get us through the workday, but for play, we need other people and the willingness to suspend all self-consciousness with them. We need to be willing to take part in a kazoo band or to roll down a hill together, and to be in a moment that does not include worry over finances or anguish over hundred-day petroleum leaks.

The very concept of en plein air honors the enjoyment and aesthetic of being in a place where art intersects with nature, and yet I spend most of my time, creative and otherwise, indoors. The hardy residents of the Twin Cities make the most of life’s brief summers, and move activities out into the open. They watch films outdoors in at least five venues. In Minneapolis, they encourage you to use their 43 miles of dedicated bike lanes and eighty miles of off-street bike paths by subscribing to Nice Ride Minnesota, where, since June 2010, distinctive green bikes can be borrowed from a growing network of bike stations. I returned from Minnesota determined to reconnect with outdoor living, even if that only means working at my laptop on the porch.

And of course, in the aftermath of my trip, I am acutely aware of how living a thousand miles away from one’s family precludes the everyday, loving relationship you can have when you live in the same city. I miss my daughter, who has been my companion and tour guide to many open spaces in The Cities, and who, in her wisdom, would encourage me to throw out my television, write a novel, walk 10,000 steps a day, map out joy, and open the remainder of my temporal existence to adventure.


Deborah Fries works in multiple genres—including poetry, short fiction, and nonfiction. Her poems and poetry reviews have appeared in numerous print and online journals, including Cream City Review, North American Review, Cimmaron Review, Valparaiso Review, and Terrain.org, where she has been a contributor since 2000. Her first book of poetry, Various Modes of Departure, was published in 2004 by Kore Press, Tucson. Her second book, A Field Guide to Temporal Habitat, will also be published by Kore. She is the editor of the online publication, New Purlieu Review.
View Comments   :   Post Comment   :   Print   :   Blog   :   Next   


Journal of Radical Shimming

The Loft Literary Center

Milkweed Editions

Minnesota Center for Book Arts

Minneapolis Sculpture Garden

Nice Ride Minnesota

Open Book

Open Field at the Walker



Home : Terrain.org. Terrain.org: A Journal of the Built & Natural Environments.