Caught up in the whirl

Back in Northeast for the 21st annual Art-A-Whirl

A scene from the 2015 Art-A-Whirl. Submitted photo

If you’ve ever gone to see a show or just knock back a few at the 331 Club — a beloved hangout for folkies, artists and all variety of Nordeasters — then you must know “Crossings,” a 1988 painting by New York artist John Bowman.

When Art-A-Whirl spins again for the 21st time May 20–22, the 331 Club will, as usual, be in the thick of the action, the epicenter of the beer and live music sideshow that nowadays is as big a draw as the main event, a massive open studio tour that brings 30,000-plus people to Northeast on the brink of summer. And “Crossings” will be there on the bar’s west wall, near the stage, where it’s hung since the 331 Club opened in 2005.

“I tried to rotate other work in and people went, Hey, what happened to that painting?” Jon Oulman, who owns bar with his son, Jarret, said. “They apparently needed more time with it, so I ended up leaving it up there.”

“Crossings” is a panoramic nighttime scene of the forested hills at the edge of some low-lying city — definitely not Minneapolis, but maybe vaguely L.A.-ish. An antlered buck stalks behind two human figures, all three bodies silhouetted against the lights of distant office buildings. The night sky, reflecting the urban glow, is coppery orange.

The painting’s mystique was best captured in a 2013 essay by local artist and writer Andy Sturdevant that appeared on Oulman read the essay and was impressed with the way Sturdevant got its “inkblot” quality; how, when people spend time with that or any artwork, “it helps them to see their own world in different ways.”

It also inspired Oulman to bring Bowman to town for his first Minneapolis show since 2005, with pieces hanging in the 331 Club and the Sheridan Room just down the block, as well as Como Dockside and Amsterdam Bar and Hall in St. Paul (all of them Oulman-owned), plus a to-be-announced pop-up exhibition.

Oulman, who ran a downtown art gallery through most of the 1980s and ’90s, first showed Bowman here in 1990, and the two have been friends for even longer. He said Bowman plans to bring more than 30 paintings, many of them in the style of “Crossings.”

“It’s all stencil work, kind of like the kids are doing now,” Oulman said. “That Banksy kind of thing, right?”

The exhibition is just one example of how Art-A-Whirl inspires Minneapolis to celebrate its homegrown creativity beyond the officially sanctioned studio tour. That includes everything from the daylong outdoor concerts planned at Northeast bars and breweries to gallery shows to the garage concerts and craft sales that tempt the Art-A-Whirl crowds into Nordeasters’ backyards.

Getting around gets easier

The sprawl, the crowds, the labyrinthine studio buildings — it can all be a bit overwhelming, especially for the first-time Art-A-Whirler trying to, say, get from the California Building to the Casket Arts Carriage House in time for a wooden spoon carving demonstration (noon–2 p.m. Saturday and Sunday, studio 100, by the way).

Enter the Art-A-Whirl app.

Developed with funding from a Metropolitan Regional Arts Council grant, the app promises to be a must-download for visitors (although it wasn’t quite ready for launch as of press time). The design bundles event and demonstration listings, links to Art-A-Whirl mentions on social media, a listing of deals for art buyers and, most importantly, maps and other tools to help whirlers navigate the event.

“This app will be a better way to help you find your way through, especially once you’re here,” said Alejandra Pelinka, executive director of the Northeast Minneapolis Arts Association, the nonprofit that coordinates Art-A-Whirl.

You’ll still be able to pick up printed artist directory and guide, but those went to press back in March. The app will have the most up-to-date information on who’s showing what and where, Pelinka said.

NEMAA is doing even more to help whirlers get around this year, running three free trolleys between the studio buildings (up from just one or two in the past) and adding a third information booth (find them near Grain Belt Studios, the Q.arma Building and the California Building). And artists are sharing in the benefits of what Pelinka described as a very successful grant-writing season for NEMAA; they’ll be paying stipends to artists doing demonstrations and other participatory activities.

“Visitors really enjoy the interactive aspect of Art-A-Whirl,” Pelinka said.

A new audience

It’s been years now since Art-A-Whirl’s popularity made it too big for even those massive studio buildings to maintain. Oulman, who has both observed and propelled its growth, described it as “a little South by Southwest-like,” referring to the Austin, Tex., music festival.

“Now there’s kiosks in people’s front yards,” he said. “People come from around the region to show their wares.”

These days, local artists share the Art-A-Whirl spotlight with both local musicians and, ever since the Surly bill was signed into law in 2011, the local breweries that have proliferated in Northeast. The 331 Club catalyzed the transition when it added bands in 2006; this year, in addition to the stage in the bar’s parking lot, whirlers can catch live music at the 612Brew taproom, Bauhaus Brew Labs, The Anchor Fish and Chips, Grumpy’s Northeast and probably a few garages in between.

The shifting focus of Art-A-Whirl is sometimes a cause for angst, but Oulman said he thinks it’s all for the better.

“It’s an opportunity for people who are showing art,” he said. “It’s a new audience for them.”

It’s also a chance for galleries to do something special, which is exactly what Howard Christopherson has planned for his Icebox gallery in the Northrup King Building. Christopherson will be showing work by New York City photographers Sid Kaplan and Flo Fox, both of whom have had fascinating careers.

James Estrin, writing in 2013 for The New York Times’ Lens Blog, called Kaplan “the darkroom equivalent of the session man.” A longtime teacher of darkroom printing at the School of Visual Arts, he never achieved the renown of the artists whose work he printed, including Robert Frank, Louis Stettner and Cornell Capa, but is himself an accomplished photographer. Christopherson is showing Kaplan’s photos of the iconic, wedge-shaped Flatiron Building, studies in light and perspective.

Fox’s career is a study in perseverance: born blind in one eye and orphaned as a teenager, she took up photography in her 20s — just a few years before she started losing sight in her good eye. Then came a diagnosis of multiple sclerosis.

Despite all of that, Fox not only built a career as a photographer on the streets of New York City and in the studio, she briefly hosted a television talk show in the early 1980s and launched a second career as a disability right activist.

These days, Fox is legally blind and gets around in an electric wheelchair, and can only take photos with the help of an assistant. A small edition of her digital prints is coming to Icebox.

It’s the kind of show Christopherson likes to have ready for the Art-A-Whirl crowds.

“It’s like a state fair,” he said. “You’ve got everybody.”


At a glance: Art-A-Whirl

When: Friday, May 20, 5–10 p.m.; Saturday, May 21, noon–8 p.m.; and Sunday, May 22, noon–5 p.m.

Where: More than 50 locations in Northeast

What: The largest open art studio tour in the country

More info: