On the way into town on Highway 2 we pass a small, cheery, farmer’s market in a parking lot, across the street from the looming Blandin paper mill, with its sprawling, four-story, windowless walls and seemingly endless stacks of uniform logs.
Vegetables are less well represented here than cut flowers or baked goods, though one young woman has three varieties of organic kale for sale. “I’d buy some,” I tell her, after admiring the arrangement, “but we’re camping out tonight.”
Across the way, I come upon a display of jams and jellies, and ask the woman behind the table where the fruit came from. She’s flustered. She doesn’t know the answer. “Well, my mom and her sister do all the canning. I know they pick the fruit themselves, but I’m not sure where….”
“Well, I don’t need to know the exact plot of woods. But at least it didn’t come from Washington State or Chile,” I hastily reply, trying to reassure her. “That’s all I was wondering about. My aunt used to make chokecherry jelly on Lake Vermilion, back when I was a kid.” And I purchase a jar of pin-cherry jelly out of sheer nostalgia.
At the coffee shop a few blocks down the street we order a latte and inquire into the whereabouts of the local art gallery. “It’s a block down, tucked into the mall. It’s not in the mall, but on that same block. You’ll see it…”
And we did.
The MacCrostie Art Center is a fine art gallery, on the order of the Lanesboro Art Center or the Kaddatz Gallery in Fergus Falls, rather than a North Woods gallery like the Sivertson galleries in Duluth and Grand Marais, which specialize in artwork suitable for a hunting lodge or a North Shore estate—often beautiful, but invariably woodsy in flavor. The MacCrostie mounts one-person shows of aspiring and established artists, while also offering a handsome selection of photographs, pottery, hand-woven fabrics, note cards, and other more affordable stuff.
The show we saw was a hum-dinger called Elements Unheard. It consisted of a series of paintings and drawing of various sizes by a young artist named Liza Sylvestre that superficially resemble big, colorful balls of twine, or arteries, or aquatic tentacles, or coronal ejections, or hair—often several such substances intermingling and wrapping around one another.
The balance of colors and forms is sophisticated. But if you’re thinking “action painting,” think again. A close look reveals an astonishing line control and premeditation, as strands cross over and under one another, bulge out like a hernia (well, I’ve never actually seen one), or bundle surrounding elements up within a protective scarf.
The images are attractive but also unsettling, because they have no place to rest.
The same could be said of a glass sculpture by Dale Chihuly, I guess. But his creations are present in front of us as objects to be admired. Liza’s works are representations…of deafness. More accurately, they are representations of what sound looks like, how it moves through the body, and “how the various senses attach themselves to each other and mix up.”
If you didn’t read the accompanying artist statement, you wouldn’t know that. I didn’t read very far. In the first place, it seems to me that a work of art must present itself to us without commentary. But the little I did read confirmed the notion established by the images themselves, that Liza is engaged in musical creation of a visual nature.
Was it Walter Pater who said that all art aspires to the condition of music?
And novelist Jim Harrison remarked recently: “I probably wouldn't have been a poet if I hadn't lost my left eye when I was a boy. A neighbor girl shoved a broken bottle in my face during a quarrel. Afterward, I retreated to the natural world and never really came back, you know.”
My favorite image was the first one. I also liked others. The airier the better. In fact, Hilary and I have one of Liza’s early works. You see, she’s our niece.
We spoke with Summer, the woman behind the counter near the front door. She happens to be from St. Paul. Her husband is a sales manager for Pepsi. He was offered a position in Grand Rapids, and he asked his wife if she’d consider moving to a small town.
“I told him, ‘If it has a coffee shop and an art gallery, I’ll go.’ ”
To which I replied, “If you’ve just come from Bachus or Boy River, Grand Rapids is not a small town.”
I mentioned that we were planning to bike the Mesabi Trail, and she told us where the trailhead is located.
“But you might have some difficulty getting to it this morning. The trail starts at the fairgrounds, and they’re having a big swap meet and a vintage car show up there today.”
“Gee, there’s a lot going on around here,” I said. “And then the rodeo up in Effie.”
“Yes, and tonight they’re going to shoot off the fireworks down at the dam that were flooded out on the Fourth.”
Cars were backed up for blocks heading into the fairgrounds. After consulting two sets of locals, both of whom recommended that we turn around and head for Coleraine, seven miles down the highway, to pick up the trail there—it runs all the way to Ely—Hilary had the brilliant idea of simply parking on a side street nearby and cycling down to the events.
Inside the fairgrounds there were people and hot-rods everywhere, and merchants selling decals, caps, used furniture and fishing equipment, food, and a wide assortment of rusty metal junk. The smell of fry bread and sugar filled the air.
As we were walking our bikes toward the distant arches, I heard one young man say to his sister, “You would never have bought that coil. You don’t even know what a coil does.”
To which his sister replied, “I do too. You just told me.”
Though I’m not much for vintage cars, the ones on display were spectacular.
The entry to the trail, we soon learned, was through a thin golden arch on the far side of the fairgrounds, at the edge of the woods. When we reached it, we diligently put our fee in a yellow envelope—though without filling in any of the blanks on the form—dropped it into the slot in the metal pipe by the path, and headed off.
Or I should say, headed up.
The trail climbs for a few hundred yards before reaching the level of the open-pit mines the railroad used to service. Cars were parked under the trees on both sides of the asphalt path but eventually they gave way to open woods.
Then we came to the pits, surrounded by high banks of orange slag and filled with water. Clear, clean water. Two loons were swimming in the pit fifty yards below us—not an unusual sight in northern Minnesota. But when they dove, we could continue to see them easily under the water as they darted after passing fish. Three more loons joined them, seemingly from out of nowhere. Babies? It soon became obvious they were otters.
We passed several mine pits on our way to Coleraine, and also crossed the lovely Prairie River, where the first iron ore on the western Mesabi Range was discovered almost exactly 150 years ago.
The cherry trees along the way were bursting with fruit. It was a spectacular, though unusually hilly, two-hour ride to Coleraine and back. Along the way we met up with two pedestrians and were passed by three cyclists.
Where is everybody? They were down at the fairgrounds, I guess. Though when I asked the very knowledgeable man at the Visitors’ Center in Marcel, 20 miles north of Grand Rapids, why the Forest Service campground on nearby North Star Lake was largely empty on a Saturday afternoon, he replied, as if it were common knowledge: “Everybody’s up at the rodeo in Effie.”
We didn’t get that far. We’d made a reservation at Schoolcraft State Park, twenty miles west of Grand Rapids. One our way out of town we picked up some pasties for friends, and also for ourselves, at Pasties Plus. (They’re pretty good. Ours are better.)
The pastoral countryside we drove through to get to the park, freshened by a late afternoon cloudburst, was stunning. Our campsite, on the banks of the still-diminutive Mississippi River, is the best in the park: ample, open, and grassy enough for a major bocce ball tournament.
Some people were fishing by canoe out on the river. Our woman caught a walleye—probably her first, to judge from how excitedly she was shouting to an elderly couple in a big kayak nearby; then came the bad news.
“We got it into the canoe…then we lost it.”
At which point a male voice chimed in: “We didn’t lose it. YOU lost it.”
But things soon quieted down, and by nightfall we were being serenaded by the guttural groans of a vast assortment of leopard frogs luxuriating in the reedy muck along the riverbank.