'A reflection of what it means to be Minnesotan' at the State Fair's Fine Arts building

People are visiting an exhibition of paintings
Fairgoers walk through the Fine Arts building at Minnesota State Fair on Thursday in Falcon Heights, Minn.
Ben Hovland | MPR News

Updated: 11:56 a.m.

Each year, the Minnesota State Fair hosts several competitions, ranging from food to different forms of art. 

At the Fine Arts building, some artists create work as visitors look on.  

Irene Wesee, of Lakeville, photographed Kathleen Murphy, an impromptu model Wesee has dressed in a flowing blue dress. She also placed fake roses in Murphy’s red hair, to draw attention to her face in the portrait.

“The definition [of fine art] is broad but it’s my interpretation of what I want to create of an image that’s in my head,” Wesee said. “Versus your standard family photo shoots.”

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Weese, who is exhibiting in the State Fair’s Fine Arts building, was featured as a studio: HERE artist. Studio: HERE is a program that brings in a new artist every day of the fair to work on a project and demonstrate the dedication artists have to their craft.

Irene Wesee is one of the twelve Studio
Irene Wesee is one of the twelve Studio: HERE artists featured at the state fair. The program invites a different artist each day of the fair to exhibit their work and show their process to patrons.
Jacob Aloi | MPR News

Last year, Wesee won second place in her category. But her move to photography full time is recent. Before July, she worked as a nurse as her main source of income.

The State Fair’s Fine Arts building showcases competitors from a variety of backgrounds, including hobbyists.

Other applicants work in the design and art world in their day jobs, using the competition to try something new. Merle W. Hansen, an architect, won first place this year in the sculpture category.

“[I] started as a model maker as part of my job as an architect, and the last, I don't know four or five years, I’ve started dabbling in being more abstract,” Hansen said.

Though anyone can enter, it’s not easy to get into the exhibit. The 2022 competition had 2,207 applicants from across the state, which judges whittled down to 324.

People are visiting an exhibition of paintings
Fairgoers walk through the Fine Arts building at Minnesota State Fair on Thursday.
Ben Hovland | MPR News

Jim Clark, superintendent of the Fine Arts Building, not only oversees the hiring of the judges, but also curates the pieces that make it into the exhibit. He said having a space to display visual art fits in with the spirit of the fair.

“The fair is a terrific venue for Minnesotans to reflect on what other Minnesotans are doing, and what it means to be Minnesotan,” Clark said.

The competition gives exposure to the artists in ways other galleries and museums cannot, due to the volume of fairgoers who stop by.

Clark said he’s interested in the emotion art evokes in the viewer rather than the label.

“We don’t define what is ‘fine art,’” he said. “Certainly objects down at Creative Activities could be displayed and accepted here. Likewise, there are objects here that could be at Creative Activities, or even the Grandstand.”

Adam Turman poses for a portrait
Adam Turman is known for his work at Target Field and other murals around the Twin Cities. His booth at the State Fair is located on the second floor of the Grandstand.
Jacob Aloi | MPR News

Adam Turman, a muralist and printmaker, has a Grandstand booth. He first entered the State Fair’s Fine Arts competitions as a teenager, but was not accepted until 2015.

“The way I got in was I was the commemorative artist,” Turman said. “Then they have to have your piece in the Fine Arts building.”

Turman’s commemorative art that year featured a Ferris wheel.

“I just make stuff that I like, and I just really hope that other people like it too. So if the State Fair is on board with that? I’m down, I love that.”  

Correction (Aug. 30, 2022): An earlier version of this story misstated where Irene Wesee lives. The story has been updated.

This activity is made possible in part by the Minnesota Legacy Amendment‘s Arts & Cultural Heritage Fund.