Friday, February 14, 2020

Clogtown: Swan River - A Love Story!

Happy Valentine's Day, Lovers! In the interest of not going insane, I always try and seek out cool and interesting stories, places, people ... things that I know will bring me some joy and some beauty and some information. I've been a little obsessed (like my Venice hummingbirds obsessed!) with the Swans of Monticello, Minnesota for the past couple of months, as I tried to go see them in December with no luck. There is a Swan Cam set up to look at the wintering trumpeter swans that come to this little bend in the Mississippi River each winter, where the water is a little warmer (I don't believe it) due to the curve, but also this is where they know they are going to be fed. I thought it would be a perfect story for Valentine's Day, as I had heard that swans mate for life, and that's a nice little love story for the day ... but what I learned was an even better one.

Over thirty years ago, a pair of trumpeter swans were released from Hennepin Parks in a partnership between the DNR, the private sector, and the public in an attempt to restore their population (after they were believed to be nearly extinct in the 1880's). A local woman named Sheila Lawrence lived on the banks of the Mississippi River in Monticello, and began feeding shelled corn to the swans that she saw taking a breather in the open waters by her house. (Photo from their brochure)

Well, word got out and soon the swans numbered in the hundreds, and then the thousands. Sheila spent her entire days hauling corn and feeding the swans, all out of her own pocket (and donations from friends here and there - this is not a government funded operation). She soon became known as the "Swan Lady", the area became known as Swan Park, and now you can see these gorgeous creatures there in the winter from December to March.

It was a bust in December when I went, because it was too warm and the swans were still out in the corn fields, fat and happy. I've been keeping a close eye on the Swan Cam so I knew the crowd was growing, and when I woke up yesterday it was -11 outside! I knew this was good news for swan viewing, so I got my Mom and myself all bundled up, and we hit the road for Monticello.

The Swan Park is on a dead end fully residential street, and as soon as we opened the car doors we could hear the call of the trumpeting swans! Exciting! Mom has to walk a little slow these days, but we were both trying to hustle - from both anticipation and the freezing cold! Steam was rising off of the river from the cold, and you could see ice bergs flowing by. Three GIANT swans FLEW by, and we forgot all about the cold (for a moment). I'd never seen a swan fly, I don't think, and it's nuts. Their long necks stretch out straight and their wing span was huge as they swooped in for a landing along the banks where all of the corn feed was ... and hundreds of their friends were down below.  Wow!

I had heard that the feeding was done every day at 10:30 am, and I saw a guy down by the water tossing corn at the swans. I waved at him, and he came over, probably to see what this crazy girl was doing outside in a sweater (it's a lovebirds sweater, in homage to the swans!). This turned out to be Jim Lawrence, the husband of the late Swan Lady Sheila, who passed away in 2011. As Jim told us everything you could ever hope to know about swans, I realized that THIS was the real love story.

Jim was a dairy farm boy from North Dakota, and talks like one. He told us how the original swans were tagged to keep track of, and old #7, well, she was what you would call a "Boss Cow". She came in and if Sheila wasn't out there at 10:30 on the dot, this swan would come right up to her - at eye level on her 5'2 frame - with basically an arched eyebrow and tapping at her wristwatch, like C'mon, Swan Lady. Every other sentence Jim uttered was about Sheila, and he is now out there every morning at 10:30 carrying on the legacy of his Swan Lady. It was incredibly touching, especially when he said that he knew she was up there feeding all of the feathered and furry creatures in Heaven, looking up as he said it.

When he looked up, I noticed the icicles forming on his eyelashes and beard, and thought I'd better get my Mom back inside the warm car. Jim walked and talked us all the way back, with more swan trivia as we went. I wanted to go back and take more pictures and just watch the graceful beasts a bit more, so Jim walked and talked me back. He wouldn't let me help him feed the swans (it's a liability thing), but I bet I could now step in as in information guide if he ever needs me. The love he has for these swans - and for his late wife, Sheila - literally made his eyes sparkle ... and it wasn't just the icicles.

I had to ask if his neighbors hate him, because these guys play some mean horn ... all day and night. He said that they love it, and the walls and your t.v. and grandkids playing all muffle it out - plus it's only for like three months. I kind of thought there would be way more swans, after reading that last year there were almost four thousand there in January. Jim then explained for me (and for you, below), that all those dark ducks weren't ducks at all (save for a few random mallards) - they were cygnets! Baby swans! They'll be all white and huge by June! Oh, man ... I was just loving it ...

... but I also could no longer feel my face. I really could have sat and listened to the swan stories and watched them try to land in between the ice bergs, but I honestly might have lost my nose for real if I'd stayed out there even just a few more minutes. Invigorating! Jim walked and talked me back to the car again, giving me his business card. Turns out he's a professional wildlife control guy, so you call him if a wild animal needs to get caught and removed. His email name is "Ol Trapper 1". Perfect.

I shook Jim's hand (I think - I couldn't really feel it), said my farewell, and sat on the car's heated seat to try and regain some feeling before I began to drive. I looked at my Mom, and my eyes were glistening, from the cold, yes, but also because I was so touched, and still am as I write this. Here is this man living out his wife's legacy in her absence, missing her terribly, but she is so clearly there with him. He told me that the year Sheila passed away, there was no snow that winter, and thus very few swans, making her absence loom even larger. The next year there was a lot of snow, and a lot of swans. Jim knows that Sheila sent it, no question. He waved again as we pulled away, and we drove off feeling like we had just read a really beautiful love story ... and learned an awful lot about trumpeter swans while we were at it. (It turns out, according to Jim, that they mate for REPRODUCTIVE life, but if something happens to their partner, they will hook up again. Jim calls this Swan Park of his the "Pick Up Bar", because that's really what all of those trumpet peals are for.)

So, this Valentine's Day, let's celebrate love - whether we have it in our own lives in a romantic way or not - because it really is the one thing this world could sure use a whole lot more of right now. This beautiful, freezing cold morning could not have warmed my heart more, and I thank Jim Lawrence for sharing his great stories and for continuing his Swan Lady's dream long after she's been gone. Monticello has swans on its street light banners. The iron work on its overpass bridges feature swans. As we were leaving, another car with a couple inside pulled up to see the swans on an arctic blast of a day ... all because of Sheila and Jim. What a beautiful thing to behold ... ! Cheers to love, and Happy Valentine's Day, wherever you are!

If you would like to see these swans for yourselves, just head to 117 Mississippi Drive in Monticello, MN. No financial support comes from any city or state agencies to help feed the swans, so donations are always most welcome.

Swan City Heritage Foundation
c/o Monticello Chamber
P.O. Box 192
Monticello, MN 55362

Wednesday, January 29, 2020

Clogtown: Frosty Weather, Snowy Weather At MIA

Once I made my decision to fully embrace the chill of winter and have all the snowy fun I can while I'm here in Minnesota, the opportunities to celebrate the frost and snow keep rolling in. I was delighted to read that the Minneapolis Institute of Art (MIA) is going for it too, with a new exhibit all about our most famous season. Frosty Weather, Snowy Weather is a little show that was perfect to take in on a day of flurries and frost outside.

I say little because it's only one room, but the art they've put together in this celebration of winter is definitely enough to put you in the mood for snow.

As my Mom is still recovering from shoulder surgery, and is on one real leg, it's been a little bit sketchy to take her out and about on the slippery, icy sidewalks. We were both getting a little stir-crazy, and to be honest, an art show about winter wasn't met with enthusiasm from her at first. Once inside the massive museum though, she was fully stoked, as she's a fine artist herself. She likes to really take in the pieces, reading all the blurbs, and examining the brush strokes. I was hoping she'd use it as inspiration too, as we've got a slew of empty canvases waiting for her to make beauty on them. (She doesn't need a wheelchair all the time anymore at all, but we just use it for big places like art museums or malls or big places like that). This was her taking in Brook in Winter, 1914 by E. Ambrose Webster. She dug it.

The centerpiece of the show is Winter, 1964 by Peter Blume, and it was probably my favorite. Part of Blume's Four Seasons series, the brightly colored birds against the snow and sky was strikingly beautiful, and Mom and I both loved it.

Another favorite of mine was L'Avenue de Neuilly on a Winter Day, 1874 by Luigi Loir. It was much more striking in person, like almost a photograph, and though we have plenty of ice and snow here, it still made me want to be on L'Avenue de Neuilly with that dude in his wagon.

Snow Squalls, 1909 by Rockwell Kent brought to mind Orcas ... but it was really just the sea. Again, the colors in person made it so much more vivid ... another reason to go check it out yourself if you're able.

A hand-colored lithograph by Wanda Gag, Winter Twilight, 1927 looked like an illustration to a really good children's book. The glowing windows beckon you inside, while the lack of footprints in the snow suggest that everyone is all safely tucked in for the night with their Netflix.

Diane Burko's work is all the way up my alley. A feminist organizer and environmental activist (aka a Soul Sister), her Columbia Glacier: Lines of Recession (1980-2005), 2011 show how the Columbia Glacier in Prince William Sound, Alaska has been melting and receding catastrophically over that 25 period ... along with the rest of our arctic ice. Something MUST be done, and I'm happy to see that artists are getting involved through their work as well. Heavy. Important. And somehow still beautiful.

Another series of Four Seasons was by Wendy Red Star, and her Winter, 2012. Red Star stares at the camera in traditional Native American costume, while sitting among a clearly artificial natural setting, asking viewers to look closer at their perceptions of history. Cool.

Winter Window, 1941 by Charles Sheeler was great because it really felt like you were looking out at your friends in the snow below, making you want to shout, "Wait up!" and get inside that thing. This one caused me to linger ... longingly.

I feel like every other painting was called Brook in Winter or Snow or Ice or something, and there was Brook In Snow, 1953 by Marguerite Thompson Zorach. I enjoyed the colors against the snow, but something about it felt a little dangerous. Like, don't fall in.

There was an all white piece that made me go "Oh, C'mon, is this from the play Art?" (the play where three friends argue about the value of an all white canvas ... "It's Art!") ... but upon closer examination, Untitled #14 (Icehouses), 2001 is a photo from a camera left outside in harsh weather in an attempt to capture the disorientation of being caught in a snow whiteout ... and there on the left side, barely legible, is the titular ice house. Pretty cool, actually.

Winslow Homer was represented by his piece, Prout's Neck in Winter, 1892. I had to look up where Prout's Neck was (Maine), but you could tell it was the East coast just by standing in front of it. Winter in the east ... so cold and lonely looking, but again, beautiful all the same.

Enjoying a hot coffee in the MIA café while watching the snow fall outside was the perfect finale to a show about snow, and I hope you'll get to copy us, because it made for a lovely winter afternoon ... and it's free! Love you, MIA. Thank you. Happy Winter!

Frosty Weather, Snowy Weather is on exhibit at MIA through April 12, 2020 (when it will probably still be snowing in April).

Tuesday, January 28, 2020

Clogtown: The 2020 Lake Harriet Kite Festival!

I almost wish I hadn't known about the Lake Harriet (Bde Unma) Kite Festival last weekend in advance, because it would have been so magical to have just rolled up on the lake and seen all the colorful kites flying over the ice as a surprise ... because it was already super magical just to see.

The previous weekend had been ultra cold and windy when I went to visit the Art Shanty Projects, and attendance had been pretty sparse. Well, the balmy weather brought out THOUSANDS of people on this day, and it was so fun and enthusiastic and great, that phrase "Only in Minnesota" kept coming to mind as this was its definition.

Kites of all shapes and sizes soared over the ice on the lake ...and if I'm honest, I was a little concerned at how warm it felt. Families were having actual picnics on the ice! Could the ice be THAT thick? To hold thousand of people, buildings, trucks ... and I guess the answer is yes, but there were some slushy spots. Anyway, all was well. Better than well, it was awesome.

A giant fish was among my favorite kites, but they were all great ...

The Art Shanties were jam-packed on this day, and all of them had long lines outside to get in. I was happy I'd seen the most of it the week prior at my leisure, but no one seemed to mind the waits as it was so nice and cheery out, with something cool to see everywhere you looked.

A pretend polar bear was making the rounds ...

There were tightly contested sled races ...

There were arty performances that took peoples' attention away from the bright kites in the sky ...

... but only for a moment, because there was just something so lovely about seeing kites high in the sky against the stark white winter palette. I met my longtime friend, Rebecca, out on the ice and we just hugged so tight at how great it all was - including our friendship.

The Kite Festival (put on by the Minnesota Kite Society) was just for that day, but the great news is you can still check out the Art Shanty Projects fun for the next two weekends! And I hope you do. It is something special. You will be happy you went. And I will be too, because that means that wonderful events like this get to keep on being a thing, and we all get to keep warming our hearts in the midst of winter.


Monday, January 27, 2020

L.A. In Mourning - Thank You, Kobe Bryant

I was already super homesick for L.A. yesterday morning, doing a lot of thinking about what to do about where I live, and how I can best care for my Mom. I was checking out the U.S. Pond Hockey Championships yesterday morning on Lake Nokomis, and then went home to warm up. I looked at my social medias and saw a post from Michael Franti saying "R.I.P. Kobe Bryant" ... and I just started saying "no, no, No, No. NO!", while frantically Googling to see if this horrible thought could possibly be true. And then the horror of learning that not only was it true, but that his beloved daughter Gianna (Gigi) was with him on board the doomed helicopter that took their lives, and the lives seven of their friends. That's when the tears came. Not just tears ... they were sobs. There is some small comfort that they were together in their last moments, because you could see just how much they loved each other in their faces, and I hope that gave them peace at the end. But I also think about his little ones, that will grow up to never really know their awesome Dad. I lost my Dad at four, so I know that this will affect them all of their lives. This tragedy has many ripple effects.

Unless you've lived in Los Angeles, there is now way you can understand how very much Kobe Bryant has meant to the city. I moved there in 1995, and Kobe began his career with the Los Angeles Lakers in 1996. I saw him play in that city for his entire career, and the joy he brought to every Angeleno - so much joy, so many times - cannot be overstated. The championships ... I think I'm still bruised from some of the hogpile hugs we would share when Kobe would once again play the hero.

I had a boyfriend in the early years of Bryant's career that was an absolute basketball fanatic. Like, he definitely cared more about every NBA player than he ever did about me, which is sad - but true. Because of that, and like many girlfriends before me, I learned everything. I could talk stats, I knew all the nicknames and where they played college ball. I could ace any quiz you gave me ... but the Lakers were my team. I loved them always, because they came from Minneapolis, and moved West - just like me. They were my late Dad's team (and watched them play at the Minneapolis Armory). They wore the same colors as my Minnesota Vikings. And no one wore them better than Kobe - all twenty years that he was active in the NBA. Los Angeles will never be the same.

Watching the terrible news yesterday with tears streaming down my face, I have never felt a bigger yearning for L.A. I knew what it must feel like there. I knew everyone was all hyped for the Grammys - and how quickly that didn't seem to matter at all anymore in the arena that Kobe truly built. I kept thinking the words, "Thank you". Thank you to Kobe Bryant for all of the exciting, fantastic moments he brought to the city. I didn't know him personally, but I felt like I did. We all did. Even if you rooted against him, you had to respect how high he soared above everyone else. My heart keeps breaking all over again when I think about Vanessa, Natalia, Bianka, and Capri Bryant ... how devastated they are, but also how they will forever be in the arms of all of Los Angeles. As Kobe and Gianna will be forever in our hearts and memories.

It's still hard to believe it's true ... and I wish I could take all of L.A. into my arms in a healing embrace right now. Please know that I'm thinking of, and loving you all. Rest in Peace, Kobe, Gianna, The Altobelli's, The Chesters, Coach Mauser, and Pilot Ara Zobayan. You will not be forgotten. I wish so much that I could be at tomorrow's Lakers game at Staples. I am in spirit. Hold your loved ones close - anything can happen, any day.

Once again, THANK YOU, KOBE!

*Photos are off the web, and the illustration at top is by artist Glen Infante.

Friday, January 24, 2020

Clogtown: The Art Shanty Projects 2020!

 I've never been in Minnesota when the Art Shanty Projects have bee on, as it's usually in the depths of winter, and I've already returned to Venice from the holidays. This year, I'm here, it's on, and I finally got to go on what was maybe the coldest day of the year so far out on the ice of Lake Harriet.

The Art Shanty Projects are a big group art show out on the frozen lake, kind of like ice fishing houses that are all pop-up art galleries. I've read about it and seen photos for the last few years, have just been dying to go, and it was just as good as I thought it would be.

Art in public spaces is always at the top of my list (Art for Everyone!), and this experience is among the coolest - literally and figuratively. It's quintessential Minnesota for a whole bunch of people to come out on a freezing cold and super windy day to see art on the ice, and have a blast doing it.

It had snowed the night before, so there were shoveled off lanes to get to each of the structures in the Shanty Village. It was so cold you kind of had to hustle to each one to get inside and warm up before hitting the next one. In addition to the art shanties, there are also performances, games, and plein air painters out capturing it all.

As I was walking from one shanty to the next, a group of Russian babushkas (Nitka) strolled past, singing an enchanting folky song that made me feel like I was enjoying a Siberian winter.

A few of the shanties were working on time-slots, so I need to return to enjoy some of the ones I didn't get in to, like the Minnesauna! A five person sauna out on the lake! I love it so much.

There is an activist, educational vibe to several of the shanties (which is clearly all the way up my alley), and one of my favorites was the "Pollinator Shanty", all about creating gardens for pollinators to help save our Earth.

You could strap on a helmet and see through the eyes of a pollinator, you could learn about butterflies and what to plant to attract them, and create butterfly puppets. I loved all of that, but I especially loved the chimenea that warmed me up to get to the next one.

There was a rocking boat (Rocky the Rocking Sea Shanty) ...

And a giant kaleidoscope from Spectra Gigs you could stick your head into ...

There was a adult sized Lite-Brite shanty ...

Where inside you could move the pegs to create your own vision (while you kind of warmed up).

There was the excellent "Shanty Of People Who Know Things", showcasing the work and wisdom of people over 55 years old. Nice.

There was a Seed Bank, featuring the native plants of Minnesota (where you could take seed samples with you and plant them when all this ice melts) ...

There was an "Opticon", a camera obscura that showed you how that works and check out the sights outside on the ice ...

There was a shanty for you to show your love for our regional parks (for every five love letters written to the parks inside the shanty a tree will be planted!) ...

Another favorite was the Glass Half ______ Shanty, a factory for stories! The brightly painted shanty was already fun from the outside, but then you went to a roll of paper sticking out, where there was either a phrase or a picture, and you would either write a new phrase for the picture above, or vice versa.

You then went inside where the roll of paper is creating one long story - with pictures! - made by everyone who participates at this shanty.

 It would be cool for them to make a real book out of it at the end of it all, because what I saw and read was pretty beautiful.

Another touching shanty was The Archive of Apologies and Pardons. You went inside and wrote an apology and a pardon for whatever you're feeling, then leave them behind inside among all the others, for a collective body of remorse. By writing both, you admit that you are capable of both receiving and committing harm. Split up into areas like "Sexism" and "Racism", it was very moving to see what people contributed, and it got very deep for a whimsical day on the ice. You could almost see the load come off some people as they emerged from the little hut.

One fun interactive one was Nauticault: A Cautionary Tale. Steampunk style explores have gotten their ship stuck in the ice of Bde Unma (Lake Harriet) and are in terrible need of rescue. They're desperate and need a guide to get them out to safety.

I played along, as they were looking for a mermaid to help, and we all know I am one (part-time). The lady inside said they needed a lock of mermaid hair, and I thought she was kidding, but she really did reach back and snip off a good inch of my hair. I can't really tell where it was (in the back), but they better get rescued if I gave up my real hair for the cause. Wow. Pretty sure I get the Good Sport Award from them.

Of all the shanties that I saw (and there are a few remaining that I still need to check out - like the one from our friends at the Franconia Sculpture Park!), it will come as no surprise that my favorite of them all was the -7 Degree Entry Danceteria (a play on our beloved 7th Street Entry at First Avenue).

If you were cool enough to be on the list (and I was SUPER COLD!), you went inside to see a full-on dance party, complete with D.J. spinning and a light-up dance floor!

A perfect way to get moving and warm up, I shared a song with a family with little kids, and we all just jumped around for a bit, laughing and smiling the whole time that we were at a dance party in an ice house on Lake Harriet! I could not have loved it more.

It was such a delight to see all the hearty people out enjoying art and fun and winter, despite the cold. Most of the men I saw had their facial hair full of icicles, but they were smiling. As was everyone. This super special spectacle is on weekends through February 9th, Saturday and Sunday from 10am- 4pm. It's a free event, but they ask for a $10-$20 donation to keep it going for years to come, yet no one will be turned away.

This is the perfect way to put a smile on your face in the dead of winter, and I hope everyone gets the chance to get there, because it will truly make your day. Thank you to all the artists, staff, volunteers, and Minnesota Nice people that make the Art Shanty Projects so cool! You're doing a wonderful thing.

Art Shanty Projects 2020
Weekends through February 9th
10 am - 4 pm
Lake Harriet (Bandshell side)