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Road Songs: Denver

I was invited by several dear friends to see a metal concert in Denver, Colorado, featuring the city’s own Speedwolf. The state’s capitol may be filled with laid-back jocks, but this band draws a different sort of crowd. Morbid, fast, and hell-bent, “Denver 666” is just one of their popular tunes. Despite a proclivity for such diabolically […]

Watercolor Impressions of the heavy metal performance style by the author.

Watercolor impressions of a Denver heavy metal performance by the author.

I was invited by several dear friends to see a metal concert in Denver, Colorado, featuring the city’s own Speedwolf. The state’s capitol may be filled with laid-back jocks, but this band draws a different sort of crowd. Morbid, fast, and hell-bent, “Denver 666” is just one of their popular tunes. Despite a proclivity for such diabolically titled songs, my friends assured me that metal die-hards are, in fact, gentle-hearted folks underneath it all. And Speedwolf, in particular, is known for going back to metal’s early roots, forgoing the usual Cookie Monster vocals (officially dubbed the “death growl”) and superfluous antics of hair metal.

So, I arrived at the Hi-Dive venue as an unwitting cultural anthropologist, a visiting folk musician intrigued by the darker side of the craft. I was encouraged to think of mosh pits as merely a thinly veiled orchestration of camaraderie. Even so, I stood towards the back of the crowd while the more physically engaged members of the audience shoved at each other.

I know several fans of the genre, but my own experience with metal is mostly limited to an appreciation of its aesthetics. Walker Open Field hosted a popular Death Metal Drawing Club two summers ago, and Christophe Szpajdel designed a stylish metal-inspired logo for the institution. Spoofed by Spinal Tap, and revitalized by Anvil!, the genre strikes me as more beloved black sheep than bête noire.

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Once into the Speedwolf set, I distinctly heard the lyrics and song title, “One Percenter from Hell.” I was intrigued by the title – both angry and critical, bizarre and a little creepy. After some internet detective work, I found that the term “one-percenter” has two very different but equally plausible meanings in this context. Hear the word, and the first that comes to mind refers to a member of America’s wealthiest class. The alternate option I found: a member of an outlaw bike gang. The rebels of the road have been called one percenters since the 1950s when, as legend has it, the American public was assured that 99% of motorcyclists were upstanding citizens.

Speedwolf merchandise. From the band's Facebook page.

Speedwolf merchandise: “THE SCION/Funny Cars That Look Like Microwaves Tour.” From the band’s Facebook page.

Free PORK issues were on offer at the show. Portland’s PORK was founded by husband-wife team Katie and Sean Aaberg, both of whom grew up in the relaxed vibe of the 1970s East Bay in California; Sean is the son of New Age pianist Philip Aaberg. Everything about PORK is done in purposefully bad taste and resistant to anything politically correct or “square.” Self-classified in the category of “weirdo art and rock n’ roll,” PORK liberally employs the pictorial lexicon of lowbrow American culture, bodily fluids, and gallows humor. Inspiration includes Art Spiegelman’s Garbage Pail Kids, R. Crumb, and punk culture in general.

In a PORK interview with Mr. Aaberg, Speedwolf lead man Reed Bruemmer was asked about his favorite musical accessories and gear. “[Being] a ‘vocalist’ or pro yeller or whatever the hell I do, I’m not really a gear guy,” he says. Aaberg clearly appreciates this “back to basics” sound of Speedwolf and goes so far as to contrast their old-school style with the “million nonsensical sub genres [of metal],” some of whom “even [use] Art Nouveau art.” It seems that’s the ultimate insult – to leave the harsh and often tasteless metal aesthetic behind in favor of soft, French-inspired beauty.

Excerpts from PORK Magazine, Spring 2014.

Excerpts from PORK Magazine, Spring 2014.

Even based on this limited information – a one-off heavy metal concert in Denver and a free Weirdo magazine – I find I have developed a soft spot for genre and a lingering curiosity for this Pandora’s box of campy-grotesque counterculture. I mean, sure, Speedwolf’s drum set appeared to be blood-spattered, and many of the songs revolved around the themes of death, anger and the devil. And yes, there was beer propelled and sprayed over the audience; I saw a crowd surfer in a Peyton Manning jersey and wolf mask, and even caught wind of an off-color jab at folk musicians (the horror!). And yet, there is a discernible respect for craft in this music.

At the end of the concert, a man stood directly in front of me. Cautiously, he turned around. “I’m not blocking you, am I?” he asked. I shook my head. No worries.

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California native Chloe Nelson is an art historian and musician moonlighting as a curator of Americana. She’ll be sending in photo-essays from time to time for a Road Songs series on the mnartists blog as she drives across the country, harmonizing and honky-tonking in country outfit Tanbark. She tweets @chloefnelson. All photos taken by the author.

Road Songs: New Orleans

I am told that joggers in New Orleans often choose to run in the ruts of the streetcars, in between the tracks. The slow streetcars are avoidable, whereas the rolling cracks of the sidewalks are inevitable ankle-twisters. And it is not just the cracks that are distracting; the shotgun houses, with floor-to-ceiling shutters, are intricate […]

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I am told that joggers in New Orleans often choose to run in the ruts of the streetcars, in between the tracks. The slow streetcars are avoidable, whereas the rolling cracks of the sidewalks are inevitable ankle-twisters. And it is not just the cracks that are distracting; the shotgun houses, with floor-to-ceiling shutters, are intricate like Polly Pockets. It is hard to watch one’s feet when the environs are so very eye-catching. The buildings reminded me of the Painted Ladies in San Francisco, but more French - Painted Mademoiselles, maybe. One storefront was dripping with gauzy, gaudy ribbon wrapped around its columns.

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I feel the need to saunter in New Orleans, to say hello to passersby; the porches, perfect for lazing about, beckon you to come sit a while. New Orleans has so many of genteel outdoor spaces—with ceiling fans, sloping floorboards, verdant topiaries; like the homes, they are painted colorfully and well-manicured. Cats slink from these porches, sparing a little sideways look in your direction as you pass.

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In one small store, I found several copies of the artful nudie mag, Momma Tried (a clever nod to Merle Haggard). The print magazine is playful eye candy. One review calls the magazine “non-heteronormative,” and the fanciful spreads indeed embrace all sorts of folks and all sorts of delights. I get the impression that New Orleans embraces the Mardi Gras-fueled aesthetic of drag, comfortable near-nudity and self-display in many contexts and times of the year. It is as if one could step out of Jem and the Holograms or some Victorian bodice-ripper, and saunter along with the rest of the city with ease.

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Momma Tried, Issue 1. From the website.

Photographer Erik Bookhardt’s Geopsychic Wonders (1979) famously captures and pulls together imagery of New Orleans’ mystique. Writing about the phenomenon of Mardi Gras as both a political and cultural event, curator Claire Tancons shares this Bookhardt quote: “Carnival almost always is an innately anarchic and psychodramatic event … that enables everyone to visualize how things can be different and make them different, at least for a day, and that in itself is an inherently valuable, liberating, and potentially revolutionary practice.”

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Big Freedia (a.k.a. Freddie Ross) is beloved in New Orleans, a hip hop artist famous for ordering people to dance, shake and bounce. To many, Big Freedia is a needed ambassador for self-expression in a town that clings to the relatively-traditional French and jazz roots that still soak the French Quarter.  (His new album is aptly called Just Be Free.)

We happened upon an open mic in which we previewed Cirque du Gras, a humorous and heavily-tattooed New Orleans circus troupe styled somewhere between street performance, Vaudeville and burlesque. They described themselves as “apocalyptic,” and sang hedonistic songs about seizing the day and searching for love. We rounded out our evening with Walter Craft, a folk-singer-activist who came to New Orleans in the sixties to pursue a troubadour lifestyle.

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I ate crawfish for the first time at an all-you-can-eat boil, grateful for for the vegetable sides (garlic, onion, celery). The thought of eating crawfish without such accompaniments was just too graphic. By the end, piles of crawfish were strewn everywhere on the lawn where we’d all gathered. It looked like a tiny army had rolled through, leaving piles of red body parts heaped up willy-nilly. It was a gory spectacle, but the mud bugs were delicious, nonetheless – spicy, peppery and soft.

In the dark of the evening, the air felt damp. A freshly-cut tree stump crawled with cockroaches and slugs, and the waxy-leafed tropical plants drooped over fence posts. The air seemed to buzz a little bit, hinting of full summer just around the corner.

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We headed North from New Orleans in the evening. It felt like we were leaving some Venice of the bayou - the trees next to the highway were immersed in water, as if wading in a strange, submerged landscape. I noticed an enormous form on the side of the highway, light in color and long. As we drove past, the indistinct figure resolved into view: an overturned, dead alligator, and a big one at that. I had never before seen an alligator besides Claude, the albino gator at the California Academy of Sciences.

We had to keep driving.

California native Chloe Nelson is an art historian and musician moonlighting as a curator of Americana. She’ll be sending in photo-essays from time to time for a Road Songs series on the mnartists blog as she drives across the country, harmonizing and honky-tonking in country outfit Tanbark. She tweets @chloefnelson. All photos taken by the author.

Road Songs: Camping

Not so far away, coyotes were howling and a frighteningly large cicada swirled around our lantern. The animals of Joshua Tree, California, were converging on us with fluttering wings and in small packs, both physically and through the airwaves. I had just finished Madeleine L’Engle’s novel, A Wrinkle in Time. I thought about Mrs. Whatsit wisely advising […]

Joshua Tree, California

Joshua Tree, California. Photos by the author.

Not so far away, coyotes were howling and a frighteningly large cicada swirled around our lantern. The animals of Joshua Tree, California, were converging on us with fluttering wings and in small packs, both physically and through the airwaves. I had just finished Madeleine L’Engle’s novel, A Wrinkle in Time. I thought about Mrs. Whatsit wisely advising her company to allow the protagonist, Meg, to brave the unknown, unprotected: “You are going to allow [her] the privilege of accepting this danger.”

Joshua Tree by night was fraught with something akin to that dangerous, but maybe momentous, unknown. Our tent was oddly filled with light (from the fire, the stars overhead, an alien power?). We were still camping novices at that point. (Actually, who am I kidding? I am still a camping novice.) We had to set up our tent after nightfall, and the darkness, especially shadowed by the strange rock formations all around us, and the sounds and movement of fauna, was altogether spooky.

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Plaque explaining rock formation in Joshua Tree, California

By daylight, Joshua Tree’s bulbous rock formations, formed by magma, begged to be climbed. They looked like something that oozed out of the flat earth surface, like rough, melted and hardened blobs of sugar. Late one night, we saw two fellows make their way up one of these rocks – a formation that had a rounded enclave some twenty feet up – just to hang out in the darkness. They had red headlamps and, as they ascended, they looked like huge lightning bugs bobbing up the rock, then getting caught in a nook.

Illustration of several Southwestern plants by the author.

Illustration of several Southwestern plants by the author

Our first night camping, we stopped in Big Sur, California. Many of the trails were closed because of a recent forest fire. Mother Nature needs time to heal and cannot always accommodate visiting hikers and explorers. The first evening we spent there, we had the pleasure of partaking in a local Trivia Night.  A fellow trivia enthusiast, a man from Eastern Europe, competed as “Solo Team.” He did quite well.

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Watercolor of tent in Big Sur, California, by the author

In Arizona, I finally felt the triumph of camping: it had been four days. No grocery shopping, no electric light switches or running water. Arizona’s landscape was strange but beautiful. The most delicate wildflowers sprinkled the edges of the highway in colors that felt too bright. Orange! Purple!

After years of seeing it depicted in animated films and in graphic design patterns, the saguaro cactus looked absurd in real life. I kept thinking about the symmetrical saguaro, Joe Cactus, featured in Peanuts; Snoopy’s brother, Spike, is something of a desert-based philosopher who often confides in this plant. Spike offers these tender moments of almost delusional reflection, like a content but confused ascetic. “Living in the desert isn’t all bad. There’s beautiful scenery. And good conversation. Hi rock,” Spike once said. I felt similarly reflective amongst the organ pipe, enormous saguaro cactus, and cholla plants. Everything around us was potentially harmful, spiky. It makes a person mindful and attentive to one’s environs. arizona_plant_900 I wrote in my journal: “We have a lantern and ate macaroni for dinner. Tea for dessert. And crosswords.” I found I enjoyed preparing for the day’s adventures, the satisfying work of rationing out our food and entertainment. We were getting accustomed to a new, earlier sleep pattern: once the last ember sizzled from our campfire, we retired for the evening. The clock read 10:30 or so.

I am reminded now of a book my mother loved, Ram Dass’s Be Here Now (1971), which urges the reader to find peace in the present. I keep seeing this book, outside the context of our home library, and I find it timely still. It feels especially relevant when you are camping in a Martian-like landscape under the stars.

Camping is cool, man. And, outside, does feel like a privilege to accept the danger of what might be, what is, and to ultimately be here now.

Organ Pipe National Monument, Arizona

Organ Pipe National Monument, Arizona

California native Chloe Nelson is an art historian and musician moonlighting as a curator of Americana. She’ll be sending in photo-essays from time to time for a Road Songs series on the mnartists blog as she drives across the country, harmonizing and honky-tonking in country outfit Tanbark. She tweets @chloefnelson. All photos taken by the author.

Road Songs: SXSW 2014

I decided early on that the real action at Austin’s South by Southwest was happening on the floor of the stage. Not only can you spot exciting cowboy boots of many colors, you can also see the quick two step required to maneuver guitar and piano pedals. The singers kneel, dance, and tap their heels. […]

I decided early on that the real action at Austin’s South by Southwest was happening on the floor of the stage. Not only can you spot exciting cowboy boots of many colors, you can also see the quick two step required to maneuver guitar and piano pedals. The singers kneel, dance, and tap their heels. Beers and other beverages litter the stage. Hastily wrapped cables are tangled over Oriental carpets. In addition to the odd, lovely, and strange festival snapshots, I can now add band members’ feet to my repertoire of South by Southwest subjects.

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Sam’s Town Point

One of the beautiful things about the annual Austin festival is that there is music to be found anywhere – in grocery stores and coffee shops, as well as the official showcases. It is hard to know where you will find gold. I caught several members of beloved Texan country band, The Flatlanders, at El Mercado Mexican restaurant on an otherwise quiet Monday night. Half of the restaurant was eating Tex-Mex and enjoying margaritas, by all appearances oblivious to the legendary musicians playing in the back room. But the crowd in-the-know was singing along to every song, enthusiastically cheering every harmonica and mandolin solo.

My band played in a guitar shop country showcase after introducing ourselves there a few days before. We met a hound dog named Pierre who loved the harmonica and took a fancy to my solos. We caught a set from Wil Cope: his easygoing style calls to mind an indie Townes Van Zandt. Afterward, we got Mexican fruit cups sprinkled with cayenne pepper and walked toward Sixth Street to see some of the big ol’ (free) sponsored showcase and, on the way, enjoyed a full tasting menu of eccentric music personalities and street buskers. We walked by what looked like roller derby practice accompanied by a live band.

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Jonny Fritz, wearing a handmade leather guitar strap and a Budweiser jacket, stood solo on the stage recounting intimate stories of love on the road and dogs in various stages of captivity. I have been listening to his new album, Dad Country, on repeat. The pedal steel guitar, shaky, earnest vocals and plebian lyrics combine to make a completely refreshing and accessible mix.

We caught Robert Ellis (also styling a Jonny Fritz-style guitar strap), a songwriter who taps into his Lone Star State heritage for lyrical fodder. He played guitar ardently and with beautiful musicianship, moseying between soft rock and free jazz-inspired five-minute solos. His band was ready for anything he threw at them, from slow country ballads to breakneck speed bluegrass foot-stompers.

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Robert Ellis

We stumbled into an Ava Luna show. Their soulful melodies are punctuated by little rhythmic yelps, like Siouxsie and the Banshees mixed with art house rock and old-time soul. The vocal leads were traded among the band members; the two female singers have quick, urgent harmonies and demanding voices. The crowd pressed against the stage at the Longbranch Inn to hear them, drawn by the band’s strange but altogether danceable tunes.

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The Longbranch Inn

Friday night of the festival, we took a bus that wound through residential streets, avoiding garbage cans and mailboxes, all the way to the end of the line, where we arrived at Sam’s Town Point on the southern edge of town. Over the doorway of the establishment reads a sign: FRIENDS ARE THE BEST PART OF LIFE. Ramsay Midwood, a singer and organizer for the evening, inexplicably brought a fog machine and rotating disco lights to accompany an evening of homespun country, folk, and rock. A Nashville country-soul outfit, Banditos, were joined (briefly) onstage by a parrot. The parrot, named Harley, was, with his owner and clearly a regular at the joint. The bird was quiet, as if respectful of the music, and remarkably patient about being passed around. Harley’s owner dropped several bills into the tip jar and told Mary, the impassioned singer on stage, that her singing had made him cry. (The same patron later requested Janis Joplin – a weird song choice, but one I am sure the band could have pulled off with aplomb.) Promised Land Sound took the stage and played straight-ahead, Allman Brothers Band harmonies – garage-rock with country twang.

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Banditos

We met the acoustic duo Wildwood and invited them to play a backyard show we helped put together, and serendipitously connected with Actual Wolf and John Mark Nelson. We heard several local Austin acoustic acts who filled the space with lyrical tales of heartbreak, Minnesota, and Southern California. The day began with an uncertain forecast calling for hail and rain. We took solace in the grilled cheese bar and made a little music, sharing some acoustic road songs. There were no amps to mess around with, no cables to untangle. So for us, South by Southwest finished quietly with melodious harmonies and a BB gun propped up on the porch.

Watercolor of the South by Southwest vibe by author.

Watercolor of the South by Southwest vibe by author

California native Chloe Nelson is an art historian and musician moonlighting as a curator of Americana. She’ll be sending in photo-essays from time to time for a Road Songs series on the mnartists blog as she drives across the country, harmonizing and honky-tonking in country outfit Tanbark. She tweets @chloefnelson. All photos taken by the author.

Road Songs: Northern California

There is no Hollywood sign welcoming you to Northern California. Silicon Valley feels quieter, less glittery than Southern California. Instead of the Getty, the city of Mountain View has a Computer History Museum educating visitors on all things digital. Filled with software artifacts, both a Google car and bike, ancient computation devices and early forays into artificial intelligence (including a Furby), […]

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Pin from the Computer History Museum. Photo by the author.

There is no Hollywood sign welcoming you to Northern California. Silicon Valley feels quieter, less glittery than Southern California. Instead of the Getty, the city of Mountain View has a Computer History Museum educating visitors on all things digital. Filled with software artifacts, both a Google car and bike, ancient computation devices and early forays into artificial intelligence (including a Furby), it’s the sort of place that asks you to linger a while, to take in slow bites.

We rushed through it in the 40 minutes before closing.

Even so, we found some choice bits about the military’s involvement in computer decryption prototypes. We browsed through documentation of the commercial fervor that drove widespread adoption of the PC. Fun fact: In the ’70s, marketers tried to get luxury consumers to purchase a dual computer/kitchen counter set. It doesn’t sound like the idea ever took off.

Plaque from Boise, Idaho. Photo by the author.

Plaque from Boise, Idaho. Photo by the author.

On a detour through Boise, Idaho, we spotted a plaque commemorating installation of the “first computer in Boise City” in 1957. It was a clunker, with “800 vacuum tubes, [that] could store 438 digits of information and weighed 3,230 pounds.” We saw several of these room-sized computers in Mountain View. Many are still operable, but they require a team of engineers to poke and prod and coax them to life.

Famous Idaho potatoes at the airport. Photo by the author.

Famous Idaho potatoes at the airport. Photo by the author.

We made our way to San Francisco. The city has an elegance all its own that always fascinated me as a child going into town. The architecture is consistently newish, styled after the 1906 quake razed the city. Coit Tower, murals, rambling Painted Ladies and bungalows alike, all stand out confidently and attest to the true color of the city. Fog rolls in every night by the Presidio where my parents live. When you’re walking late at night, the constant grumble of foghorns from the Golden Gate Bridge calls to mind steamboats and the city’s old world maritime history.

San Francisco garden. Photo by the author.

San Francisco garden. Photo by the author.

When you move away from Northern California, as I have, and then come back into its welcoming arms from time to time, it always feels a touch more mysterious upon return. Creative, culinary, and technological experiments constantly change the weave of the city’s fabric.  San Francisco is installing protected bike lanes, pedestrian barriers and parklets that make the streetscape greener.  These ever-changing road layouts challenge even a seasoned San Francisco driver. Dining trends – burritos filled with Indian food, for example — take their cues from food trucks, youth culture, and counterculture. Many of the city’s most popular restaurants now boast of accompanying coffee table books filled with sun-kissed photographs of their recipes.

You can choose the “Northern California” brand you want to engage: the book, the movie, the social media. Silicon Valley workplaces coax productivity from their employees with dinners, massages, and beer tastings. The lines separating home and work, commute and getaway are increasingly blurry.

The Presidio. Photo by the author.

The Presidio. Photo by the author.

The Presidio’s Walt Disney Family Museum has in its collection one of the original cameras used to create the studio’s animated classics. The camera is monstrous: a behemoth whose scaffolding holds levers, lenses and long strips of original artwork at the very bottom. Shooting from above, the camera (once upon a time) would zoom in and pan around on the hand-painted film to create the illusion of a sweeping panorama; still more images and characters could be layered above the vista created. Like a photoshopped image, that camera brought together and blended layers to create an illusion of a scene. Northern California is a bit like that, a composite scene made of layers, one atop the other — analog, digital and cultural.

California native Chloe Nelson is an art historian and musician moonlighting as a curator of Americana. She’ll be sending in photo-essays from time to time for a Road Songs series on the mnartists blog as she drives across the country, harmonizing and honky-tonking in country outfit Tanbark. She tweets @chloefnelson.

Road Songs: Southern California

We arrived in Santa Barbara late in the evening, fueled by peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and eagerness to bask in the sunlight. The night air was chilly for Southern California, but I couldn’t bring myself to put on a sweater as we sat outside. We’d left the Midwest in a flurry of suitcases, cold […]

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Santa Barbara by night. Photo by the author.

We arrived in Santa Barbara late in the evening, fueled by peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and eagerness to bask in the sunlight. The night air was chilly for Southern California, but I couldn’t bring myself to put on a sweater as we sat outside. We’d left the Midwest in a flurry of suitcases, cold wind and heavy coats. Santa Barbara smelled nice, like wet rocks, moss, and asphalt. We drove past the ocean when we came in. The sun may as well have been setting.

My boyfriend and I were both wearing free bracelets we got at the National Museum of Roller Skating in Lincoln, Nebraska. They read: SKATE A MILLION MILES.

Jean jacket from the National Roller Skating Museum. Photo by the author.

Jean jacket from the National Museum of Roller Skating. Photo by the author.

This strikes me as at once absurd and inspiring. Roller skating’s popularity is surely on the wane, but the sport retains its retro feel (and fashion, short-shorts mixed with figure skating costumes). It is undoubtedly good for your health. The National Museum of Roller Skating is unique – there’s no other museum with that particular focus. It’s like a super-charged magnet for strange and lovely artifacts of the sport sitting at the center of the country, drawing to itself the nation’s stray cowboy boots with wheels and photos of roller skating bears.

Rollerblading was popularized in Southern California in the eighties. Now that my partner and I are here, on site, the silly mantra on our bracelet seems like a challenge to take the eccentric path — a dare to be extreme, and slightly odd, in one’s interests. Why just meander a million miles, when you could glide along instead with flair?

In that sense, driving across the country feels a lot like skating a million miles.

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Recording studio. Photo by the author.

In California, we recorded some music in a studio hidden among warehouses, which also felt absurd and inspiring, like a perfectly apt juxtaposition of creative expression and utility. We walked through a plain numbered door into an expansive space covered with tie-dyed tapestries, blinking Christmas lights, and a painted portrait of Willie Nelson. Odd tchotchkes littered the surfaces; shiny drum sets and twelve-string guitars stretched out before us, tempting as baubles in a storefront window.  At different points in the recording process, we could smell sage burning. Between takes, Amie by Pure Prairie League played softly on the record player.

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Recording studio. Photo by the author.

When we finished recording, we ended up in Los Angeles for several days. The Hammer Museum, nestled in a neighborhood right by the freeway, smelled like Christmas: the lobby was filled with a gingerbread house large enough to house a family of bears. We walked up a few levels and, as soon as I saw a pair of ping-pong tables, I recognized the handiwork of Southern California art collective, Machine Project. I knew the collective’s collaborators, Pop Soda, had recently visited the Midwest, warming the hearts of Minnesotans with Feel the Churn! Despite the welcome warmth of Los Angeles’ sunshine in that open plaza, seeing their work I felt a pang of homesickness for Minneapolis. I could so easily imagine the artists churning milk in the Walker’s Medtronic Gallery, a dreamy spandex-filled vision of butter-making aerobics.

Exercise fads kept coming up in conversation. I heard that Richard Simmons’ Los Angeles studio, Slimmons, was only blocks away from a friend’s home. The chance to see him in all of his short-shorts glory was almost enough to convince us to extend our stay a few days. Now: left, two, three, four. Great!

Highway 1. Photo by the author.

Highway 1. Photo by the author.

But common sense prevailed. And as we drove along the coast of California, we spotted zebras and elephant seals right off of Highway 1. They were as if across the street from each other. Zebras were grazing on the east side of the highway, some of the last remnants of newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst’s menagerie of exotic animals. The elephant seals in Piedras Blancas were slumped like slimy rocks on the beach just opposite, producing low, reverberating honking sounds and desperately flapping themselves with sand to stay cool. Male elephant seals are enormous; they grow and grow their whole lives, a span of about 14 years, at which point they simply cannot eat enough any longer to sustain their five thousand-pound mass. After giving birth to a lifetime’s worth of pups, female elephant seals swim down to Mexico to join something like an elephant seal retirement community. The elderly creatures hang out in Piedras Blancas, before they go their separate ways, migrating solo — the males to Alaska, the females down to Mexico.

In their own way, they end up skating a million miles.

California native Chloe Nelson is an art historian and musician moonlighting as a curator of Americana. She’ll be sending in photo-essays from time to time for a Road Songs series on the mnartists blog as she drives across the country, harmonizing and honky-tonking in country outfit Tanbark. She tweets @chloefnelson.

Road Songs: Dannebrog, Nebraska

Past fields, strip malls, and rotting pumpkins, we fought white-knuckled against the wind to arrive in Dannebrog, Nebraska on a Thursday. Founded in the nineteenth century by Danish farmers who lovingly named the village after the Danish flag, this is a place with personal resonance. Some of those frontier Nebraska Danes were my great-great grandparents, […]

A photograph of Dannebrog's orchestra leader

A photograph of Dannebrog’s orchestra leader from K’s Korner in Dannebrog, Nebraska.

Past fields, strip malls, and rotting pumpkins, we fought white-knuckled against the wind to arrive in Dannebrog, Nebraska on a Thursday. Founded in the nineteenth century by Danish farmers who lovingly named the village after the Danish flag, this is a place with personal resonance. Some of those frontier Nebraska Danes were my great-great grandparents, the Ericksens. My great-grandmother departed from her village with a carpetbag to become a maid in San Francisco. Just as Marie Ericksen left the familiar, Danish-speaking, environs of the Midwest for the big city as a teenager, I left California at age 17 for Minnesota.

I’ve long felt I should visit, but I never really thought that I’d actually make it here to Nebraska.

Photo of the Danish flag, in Langeland, by higgledy-piggledy. Courtesy of flickr.

Photo of the Danish flag, in Langeland, by higgledy-piggledy on Flickr.

Built by homesteaders willing to brave the elements and the dangers of quiet isolation, Dannebrog has held steady at a population of about 300 folks since 1871. Fewer and fewer people are around to throw the annual Danish summer parade, Grundlovsfest; everyone has to work these days, most in larger, nearby cities.

The winds were howling through town when we arrived, rolling empty garbage bins across the streets. K’s Korner downtown, a purple and blue establishment, drew first our eyes and then our feet. The space is filled with early photographs of the Danish Brotherhood and Sisterhood, unfortunate creek floods, farmers putting together homes and raising enormous families, piles of snow, and lonely prairies.

The author in the town center of Dannebrog, holding kolaches from the Danish Baker's.

The author in the town center of Dannebrog, holding kolaches from The Danish Baker. Photo by James Jannicelli.

We were told by K’s shopkeep and namesake that she gets a couple of people like us every year, intrigued by a whisper of a Danish settlement in the middle of the country, eager to look up long-lost ancestors from the old country. She brought out two binders of newspaper clippings and photographs from times past. After perusing these remnants, learning of local lunatics and antiquated laws, we were then pointed towards The Danish Baker at the end of the street and encouraged to have him sing us a song.

When asked, the bakery proprietor was indeed willing to serenade us – he played two original tunes on a guitar he keeps near at hand, stowed behind the counter. The first was a confessional song, tender and written for his wife of 36 years. When he finished, we thanked him and introduced ourselves as fellow musicians, a traveling band of sorts, and ended up reciprocating his hospitality by playing him some songs of our own. We had three captive audience members, bakery regulars who’d come for the unlimited coffees while eagerly awaiting Thursday’s pizza night. They requested some Everly Brothers, but we settled on Peter, Paul and Mary. Our host told us about a time the Danish Baker sold 206 pies in one night on a Thursday evening several summers ago —  enough to feed the whole town and then some.

Hat from the Danish Baker of Dannebrog, Nebraska.

Hat from the Danish Baker of Dannebrog, Nebraska. Photo by author.

Small town pride is thriving in this Danish town. “I’m too old for those big cities,” one man told me. The baker relayed to us the story of a Harry Chapin song: a musically inclined launderer sings beautifully in his shop every day­, then leaves for the big city to sing on the stage, only to have his dream ruined. He returns to his shop never to sing again. It sounds to us like a cautionary tale about cashing in on one’s dreams only to reap sadness, the profound risk of reaching for the moon only to fall among the stars.

We left Dannebrog against the wind and with no time to visit the town’s cemetery, likely filled with long-forgotten family.

Dannebrog Street

Dannebrog Street. Photo by author.

Driving back to the freeway, we passed through Cairo, Nebraska (pronounced Care-o), one small town over from Dannebrog. We found out later, this is where my boyfriend’s Greek grandfather grew up farming sugar beets. We heard that, every summer, as a young man he attended the Danish parade in Dannebrog.

I’m not sure what it means, but that feels like some sort of full circle.

California native Chloe Nelson is an art historian and musician moonlighting as a curator of Americana. She’ll be sending in photo-essays from time to time for a Road Songs series on the mnartists blog as she drives across the country, harmonizing and honky-tonking in country outfit Tanbark. She tweets @chloefnelson.

The Year in Minnesota Art: Assorted “Bests” in Music, Film and Spectacle

Best Intimate Venue Califone frontman Tim Rutili arrived in the Twin Cities last May via a quietly publicized Living Room Concert tour. The chosen “living room” was a place of business on Lake Street, moonlighting as a music venue. Haunting, minimal and impeccably delivered, Rutili’s repetitive and rustic guitar-based works were well-suited to the casual […]

Station to Station at St. Paul's Union Depot.

Station to Station at St. Paul’s Union Depot. Photo courtesy of Station to Station’s website.

Best Intimate Venue

Califone frontman Tim Rutili arrived in the Twin Cities last May via a quietly publicized Living Room Concert tour. The chosen “living room” was a place of business on Lake Street, moonlighting as a music venue. Haunting, minimal and impeccably delivered, Rutili’s repetitive and rustic guitar-based works were well-suited to the casual venue. Alternative spaces and crowd-funded performance have been on everyone’s lips. Nonetheless, there is something wonderful about a musician who shies away from grandiose tours and definable genres to create something uniquely pleasing for his devoted following.

Best Charm

The New Yorker recently called Jonathan Richman an “old-fashioned troubadour,” and it’s also an apt description of his charming, world-weary yet carefree appearance at the Cedar Cultural Center in November. Richman’s eclectic and forthright oeuvre feels refreshing to ears accustomed to, but perhaps bored by, highly produced and postmodern pop tunes. Richman sang of how much he loathed cell phones, joyfully danced around stage, and was accompanied by his long-time collaborator, Tommy Larkins, who was decked out for the occasion in a sequined blazer.

Best Jaunt

This summer, a trip to New York’s Governor’s Island Art Fair proved a surprising and multifarious art experience. My fellow revelers picked a house; we walked in past groaning performance artists on the porch, only to be confronted with a naked man gyrating to trance music inside. (It was a performance apparently meant to evoke cult and ritual behavior.) On the island, former military barracks were thus transformed into experimental and wildly-curated art spaces, featuring work that truly ran the gamut — from naked performance pieces to delicate works on paper.

Author's photograph of the Governor's Island Art Fair

Author’s photograph of the Governor’s Island Art Fair.

Best Big Bang

Station to Station roared into St. Paul this September and made people talk about concepts we usually face only in museums: issues to do with art and context, how setting affects interaction with the work on view. The expanding definition of a traveling show, a “pop-up,” raised questions of heritage (why do we still so admire and engage with trains and the myth of American exploration?), sharing (what is shared experience? Is it a hashtag?), and artist intent (why are these artists here?). Patti Smith was the reigning queen of the evening, using her transient platform to urge people to stay ever-engaged and politically aware.

Station to Station at St. Paul’s Union Depot.

Station to Station at St. Paul’s Union Depot. From the website of Station to Station.

Best Swan Song

Franklin Art Works’ last exhibition at their Franklin Avenue address last summer came in the form of a highly personal painting show, Njideka Akunyili’s I Still Face You. Dense, layered and engrossing, Akunyili’s work deals with African heritage, diaspora and alienation. Each work contains layer upon layer of collage, paint and pattern. These colorful works make the viewer feel privy to something inside the artist’s world, all the while keeping plenty of secrets hidden behind the ciphers of Akunyili’s collection of found images.

Njideka Akunyili. Her Widening Gyre, 2011. Charcoal, acrylic, collage and xerox transfers on paper. From the website of Akunyili.

Njideka Akunyili. Her Widening Gyre, 2011. Charcoal, acrylic, collage and xerox transfers on paper. From the website of Akunyili.

Best Small Film

Remarkably fresh and clever, Pierre Étaix’s recently restored Yoyo (1965) defied the expectations one has of a near-silent film. The film conveys a simultaneous longing for artistic authenticity and financial success that still feels timely — it’s a push-and-pull that is ever-relevant for those working in creative fields. The melancholy, loss and self-discovery in Yoyo are classic themes, and the intimate  Trylon Microcinema, where the film was shown this August, was nicely filled with the odd soundtrack of noises and delightful sound effects.

Chloe Nelson is the program assistant for mnartists.org.

The White Page: A New Minneapolis Space

Several checkered boxes for Chris & Rob’s pizza and Pabst Blue Ribbon greet me at the door. I’m at The White Page, and the iconic PBR brand has been transformed into shoes in the window display. That’s right ­– shoes made out of beer boxes.  Does this give the viewer permission to visually stomp on the brand, the […]

Edward Ping installation shot. Photograph by author.

Edward Ping installation shot. Photo by the author.

Several checkered boxes for Chris & Rob’s pizza and Pabst Blue Ribbon greet me at the door. I’m at The White Page, and the iconic PBR brand has been transformed into shoes in the window display. That’s right ­– shoes made out of beer boxes.  Does this give the viewer permission to visually stomp on the brand, the can, and the hipster implications, the frustrations of making art/craft that might go with them? Each pair of “shoes” is priced to sell.

Edward Ping, a creative duo based in Detroit, are the artists who instigated this storefront-cum-gallery display. They were invited by The White Page to be artists-in-residence for the month of September. The title of their show, Garage Sale, aptly describes both the new gallery space and (for better or worse) the economic climate in the artists’ Michigan hometown. After all, garage sales are what neighbors do to help each other out in times of flux or particular hardship. And that sense of friendship and camaraderie is a thread that is plainly acknowledged and fostered throughout the new South Minneapolis art space.

Inside of the White Page gallery, subtle boundaries are established and broken. What is the line between studio, residency, and exhibition space? Between craft, useful innovations, and artwork? The White Page was begun by four artists who met at Alfred University and decided to call Minneapolis home. “There are pots hanging in the bathroom!” exclaims Alexis L. Stiteler, a ceramic artist and one of the gallery’s founders.  This bathroom in the basement turns out to be part of the downstairs workshop, a shared resource for visiting artists and founding members of the collective.

Photo by author.

Artist residency space. Photo by the  author.

The White Page is meant to be a celebratory space for collaboration and play. When I visited, a violinist was playing on the sidewalk, a toy snake was hanging from the wall. The place was filled with young artists and college friends, fellow zine-makers, beer drinkers. The White Page is as accessible as its name, a space both open-ended and up for interpretation, and one that’s hospitable to new ideas.

All of Edward Ping’s crafts on exhibit were also available for sale, and marketed online and in-person as such. Every item in the gallery had a delicate price tag, handwritten with an amount and a small dollar sign. On view: earthenware, pom poms, and childlike attire; a PVC purse just right for a Spice Girl and filled with newspaper clippings, and a lamp made of wood. One wall is filled with zines: C.L.A.P., WOPOZI. Clearly the artists of the White Page have worked together to merge their worlds – Detroit, Minneapolis, and their broader college networks – rather than create one distinct artist statement.  According to the website, Edward Ping seeks to “neither hide nor embrace … inexperience and doing so allows an honesty to material to shine through.”

Madeleine Weiand's Landing. Installation photo by author.

Madeleine Weiand, Landing, 2013. Alley between E 41st St & E 42nd St and Bloomington Ave & 15th Ave S.  Installation photo by author.

Madeleine Wieand’s photographs were installed in the White Page gallery through October. This second show in the space, Have a Nice Day, was more minimally orchestrated than the first. For her show, Weiand walked around the gallery’s surrounding South Minneapolis neighborhood and documented welcoming, slightly anthropomorphic, and odd households. Each work is held behind glass with four pins.  Subtle smiles, eagle murals, signs, and paint serve as armor for these nearly-suburban homes. The exhibit calls her series of photographs a “quiet narrative,” an ambulatory daydream that transforms the everyday into a nuanced and seemingly uninhabited vista.

The White Page similarly transforms itself for these short residencies by emerging artists. The narrative of this new Minneapolis gallery is still quiet, still developing, but each month holds the promise of fresh potential.

Chloe Nelson is the program assistant for mnartists.org.

Viewfinder posts are your opportunity to “show & tell” about the everyday arts happenings, interesting sights and sounds made or as seen by Minnesota artists, because art is where you find it. Submit your own informal, first-person responses to the art around you to editor(at)mnartists.org, and we may well publish your piece here on the blog. (Guidelines: 300 words or less, not about your own event/work, and please include an image, media, video, or audio file, and one sentence about yourself.)

Help Koo Koo Kanga Roo Pick their #CATVIDFEST Inspired Album Cover

Dance party maestros and Internet Cat Video Film Festival featured band Koo Koo Kanga Roo  are crowdsourcing their album cover design for their upcoming “EP ‘VIRAL: Songs About Cats and Stuff’.” After receiving a litter of cat photos – over 300 #kookoocat tagged contributions – and posting them on their Facebook page,  they are looking to YOU to whittle their […]

Dance party maestros and Internet Cat Video Film Festival featured band Koo Koo Kanga Roo  are crowdsourcing their album cover design for their upcoming “EP ‘VIRAL: Songs About Cats and Stuff’.” After receiving a litter of cat photos – over 300 #kookoocat tagged contributions – and posting them on their Facebook page,  they are looking to YOU to whittle their top six choices down and selected the winner.  The options are as follows….

1. Running Cat

Running_Cat

2.  Fat Cat

Fat_Cat

3. Cat In Air

Cat_In_Air

4. Close Cat

Close_Cat

5. Table Cat

Table_Cat

6. Curious Cat

Curious_Cat

CLICK HERE to vote on your favorite. Voting Closes Friday, August 9th.

The winning design will adorn the cover of the Koo Koo Kanga Roo EP set to be released on August 13th as a free download.  In addition, be sure to snag your tickets to the 2013 Internet Cat Video Festival on August 28th at the Minnesota State Fair Grandstand including an exclusive performance by Koo Koo Kanga Roo.  Meow.

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