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Art amusement park: Franconia Sculpture Park offers interactive horizons

Minnesota-based artist Bridget Beck created a colorful playground at Franconia Sculpture Park. "I see my sculptures as places to escape responsibility and seriousness," she said in an artist statement. Barrett Chase / 1 / 8
Late artist Michael Richards created "Are You Down" when he was a resident artist at Franconia Sculpture Park in 2000. He was killed while working at the World Trade Center in 2001, and his piece, formerly done in fiberglass, was bronzed in memory of the artist. Barrett Chase/bchase@duluthnews.com2 / 8
Matthew Falvey's "Caution Pike: No Swimming" is a slice of Americana. Barrett Chase/ 3 / 8
"Freighted" by St. Paul artist Emily Stover speaks to global shipping and identity. Barrett Chase / 4 / 8
"Self Portrait with Cucumbers" by Hannah Brookman is one of the dozens of larger-than-life sculptures at Franconia Sculpture Park in Shafer, Minn. Barrett Chase / bchase@duluthnews.com5 / 8
Jeffrey Kalstrom's "The Dog House" is an interactive structure with windows strategically placed as eyes. Barrett Chase/ bchase@duluthnews.com6 / 8
Franconia Sculpture Park, in Shafer, Minn., is a 40-plus acre spread of plus-sized visual amusements. Barrett Chase/ 7 / 8
"Got the Power: Minnesota" by Bayete Ross Smith is a tower of vintage boom boxes -- and one of the first sculptures visitors see at Franconia Sculpture Park. Barrett Chase / 8 / 8

SHAFER, Minn. — Looking up from the inside, it was a criss-cross web of steel beams. Only when we took a few steps back from the more than 20-foot tall sculpture did we realize it was a woman sprawled in a classic self-care pose: head wrapped, toes extended, fruit wheels positioned over her eyes.

Hannah Brookman's "Self Portrait with Cucumbers" is one of the dozens of larger-than-life, sometimes interactive sculptures at the Franconia Sculpture Park near Taylors Falls, Minn. The 43-acre spread is a visual arts amusement park — where the amusements come from a doghouse that looks like a dog and a house, a Seussian playground or a roller coaster-jungle gym hybrid that requires core strength for optimal enjoyment.

The park, located in the St. Croix River Valley, was started in 1996 and hosts up to 40 resident artists each year who are able to create on site. You might see one bustling in a workshop or installing a massive piece in the field.

The horizon is a post-apocalyptic fan-fiction fodder: a collection of wooden houses — one sunken, one seemingly airborne, one roofless, one dog-shaped — all alongside animals taken out of context, LEGO-like structures, geometrics, human figures and singled-out body parts.

"I keep thinking all these things are going to come alive," my partner mused during a recent first-time visit to the park with our almost-4-year-old daughter.

For this crowd, the best-of-the-best were pieces we could climb into or on, dangle from, shimmy across or take a selfie against.

"The Doghouse" is a white structure with black spots and windows strategically placed as eyes and teeth. The interactive piece by Duluth-based artist Jeffrey Kalstrom offers the chance to climb to an attic near what would be Fido's ears.

Visitors have marked the inside with chalked graffiti messages, and the colored dust clings to Oshkosh B'Gosh-brand flared yoga pants:

"You are wanted."

"It will get better."

"I like turtles."

Speaking of turtles: There is a rounded mound of concrete that our daughter believed was a turtle shell from the first time she climbed up it, to the last time she slid down it — and every time she danced at the top of it. "Concrete Skinscape," by Michigan-born artist Trever Nicholas, is actually an oversized recreation of a section of his hand, according to his artist statement.

That's not the only body part: There is a pink missile titled "New Macho" that juts in the furthest row of the park.

"It is what you think it is," one visitor said as we approached.

Matthew Falvey's "Caution Pike: No Swimming" is a slice of Americana: a weathered porch, old-school deck chairs, a cold chest and a grill, a boat painted like an American flag.

It looks like a beer commercial from the 1980s — or at least a good place to spend a summer night.

There was a jungle gym that twisted like a roller coaster track and a heavy teeter-totter where one rider sat in a curtained booth. Even a garbage-stuffed tangle of vinyl offered a chance to push, pull and wonder about the Seltzer bottle sticking out.

Traveling clockwise, one of the final mega-pieces is by Bridget Beck. It's a colorful collection of wood, steel, coils and shapes that fit together like a thingamajigger-inspired playground. There are fast slides, cubby caves, bridges, tunnels and swings.

From there, it is smaller pieces: skeletons mid-headspin, stacked boom boxes, masks.

We spent more than three hours at the park — we could have stayed longer — touching as many things as possible. At one point, we sat on a ground mound and watched our daughter perform a concert on the stage.

The park inspires the kind of mood that might send you to a swampy circle where a gnawed log juts from the muck.

"Is this art, or is this a thing where art used to be," you might wonder.

If you go

• What: Franconia Sculpture Park

• Where: 29836 St. Croix Trail, Shafer, Minn.

• How long in the car: About 2 hours

• How long at the park: About 3 hours

• If you can't hike it: There are golf carts available

• Also: The park hosts music — there is a stage and grassy mounds for sitting. Artists of local note include Black River Revue (June 24) and Actual Wolf (July 22)

• Cost: Donation

• Dinner: We ate at The Drive-In in Taylors Falls, a 1950s-style drive-in diner with home-brewed root beer, burgers, cheese curds and mini-golf