Craft on a Stick at the Minnesota State Fair

Craft on a Stick at the Minnesota State Fair

Handmade creativity abounds at the Great Minnesota Get-Together.

A tinker-toy rendition of the Minnesota State Fair's amusement park

A maker who prefers to remain anonymous built a tinker-toy rendition of the Minnesota State Fair's Mighty Midway, an amusement park. The display is on view in the Creative Activities building throughout the 2018 fair. 

Bailey Aaland

Ah, the Minnesota State Fair. There’s nothing quite like it. The annual 12-day celebration of Minnesotan creativity runs through Labor Day and spreads across 322 acres.

There are the inventive foods (spicy PB&J sausage, anyone?), all forms of art (Linda Christensen’s carved renderings of beauty queens in large blocks of butter have been captivating fairgoers since 1972), and an endless array of creative entertainment (the 4-H llama costume competition is a personal favorite). Plus: rides, farm equipment, shopping, music, and – for those with a strong stomach – a barn dedicated to showcasing and teaching about animal births. Craft beer abounds, new breeds of apples are introduced, and blue ribbons are awarded for everything from the largest pumpkin to the finest painting to the best crop art (2D paintings made of seeds).

I joke that learning how to do the State Fair well is like learning how to camp. It takes multiple trips over multiple years to get it right. You not only want to make sure you have the right gear and dress for the weather, but you also want to know where to find the treasures that will make your trip special.

This year, I had an opportunity to learn a few things that have given me a greater appreciation for the Great Minnesota Get-Together, the talent of my fellow Minnesotans, and what goes into sharing that talent with tens of thousands of people each day.

I reached out to Curt Pederson, superintendent of the Creative Activities building where competitions for handcrafts as well as baked and canned goods are organized, to learn about the history and inner-workings of fair’s biggest craft attraction. Pederson met me and fellow ACC colleague Bailey Aaland early yesterday afternoon to give us a behind-the-scenes tour of the charming space.

Creative Activities traces its history to the late 1800s, when it was known as the Women’s Building. At that time, the space was dedicated to the showcasing the work of women, most notably needlework and baked and canned goods. Years later, as more men began entering pieces for competition, the building was renamed Creative Activities. Its inclusive approach to competition – “99 percent of the work entered in competitions gets displayed,” Pederson says with pride; the only exception is anything disqualified from competition – make it a special attraction at the fair and a great place to learn more about your fellow Minnesotans.

Pederson, who also works as a curator at the American Swedish Institute in Minneapolis, has been working in the building for more than 40 years and has served as superintendent for just under 20. He not only manages the building's many competitions but also the daily educational demonstrations of activities ranging from weaving to woodcarving to Nordic cooking.

It’s a whirlwind putting everything together. In just 15 days prior to the fair, work is dropped off, judged, and artfully displayed. Thirty-eight judges specializing in cross-stitch, stained glass, wood, clothing, and more (there are four hand-knitting judges to tackle the number of submissions that come in every year) score work in a growing list of categories. Pederson says that more than 6,000 entries were received for competition this year, and they’re all on display.

The competitions offer Minnesota creatives an opportunity to learn and improve as well as succeed. Judges don’t simply select a blue-ribbon winner; instead, they use a score sheet to explain why the work is exceptional or how the maker could improve their craft. One of the quilt judges (there are two) works with two scribes in order to tackle her workload in the limited time allowed. (They had more than 400 quilt entries this year, which took five days to judge.) Then there’s the design crew of about 10 people who must wait for the judging to complete before arranging the thousands of eclectic pieces in cases according to themes and aesthetics; they only have four days to get it done.

Work ranges from traditional to experimental. One of Pederson’s favorite categories is Quilt-on-a-Stick, something unique to the Minnesota State Fair. The project can be done in a weekend, he points out, making it more accessible than some of the other handcrafts. Rules state that the quilts must be no bigger than 8 by 9 inches, include a pocket on the back where a stick can be inserted, and follow the designated theme. They’re simple guidelines, but the possibilities within them are endless, especially when the themes are fun. “Tattoos and Body Adornment” proved a bit provocative a few years ago, so this year Pederson dialed it back with “Up North.” Several pieces depicted warm, northern summer nights lit by campfires or aurora borealis reflecting in lake waters. Next year’s “Have You Ever Seen a Cow Dance?” theme is sure to bring many delightful entries.

As we wove our way through crowds of viewers, Pederson pointed out pink-ribbon winning papier-mâché deviled egg sculptures in the N.O.S. display case (for “not otherwise specified” work) as an example of the wide variety of art objects they receive before leading us to the scrapbooking case.

“You start reading some of these and you get to see into people’s lives,” he says. In fact, there are many beautiful stories on view in the building. A sweater knit of wolf hair required special permission from the DNR to be shown. (Despite its unique material, the piece didn’t win a ribbon; “We judge on technique,” Pederson explains.) Pederson pointed out an exquisite lace tablecloth draped in one case. The maker, Elizabeth Kro, won multiple ribbons for the piece, which she made while undergoing cancer treatments.

Draw your eyes above the cases packed with work and you might notice a few curious circus animals – a lion, elephant, giraffe, and horse – overseeing the crowd. The large sculptures of natural materials were made by University of Minnesota design students in the ’60s for a central display case, and they have been guarding the building ever since.

Those animals aren’t the only ones who have been a part of the Creative Activities community for several years. Many judges, makers, and volunteers have spent more than 20 summers working there. Just last year, infant-and-toddler wearables judge Betty Pollitt retired after 34 years of service; she was 93 at the time.

When you ask Pederson why he continues to coordinate the building’s art, competitions, and activities, he simply says, “This is what I grew up with.” His grandmother made quilts in winter, gardened and canned in the summer.

Craft – and the creativity it entails – is a big part of everyday life, he notes. And it's a part worth celebrating.