Minnesota’s most intensely debated art contest in memory is down to six designs for the next state flag and just a handful for the official seal, a tiny fraction of the more than 2,500 in total submissions.
For Brandon Hundt, that two of his submissions — one for the flag and another for the seal — remain in contention is an achievement in itself.
“This whole last 24 hours have just been surreal,” said Hundt, a Twin Cities based product designer and writer. Hundt spoke to MPR News on Wednesday after the State Emblems and Redesign Commission selected his concepts to move to final consideration.
Sarah Agaton Howes, an Ojibwe artist and small business owner, also had a design make the cut.
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“I was just so excited and just thrilled to be able to even be a part of this process,” she said on Minnesota Now. “But to be able to have a flag that represents all of Minnesota is really exciting.”
Todd Pitman of St. Paul, another flag designer, created F944, which he calls “Mirror of the Sky.” The flag was a family effort: he designed it with input from his parents.
“I just truly love my home state, and I really feel like it deserves a flag as unique and dynamic as the people who make it such a wonderful place to live,” he said.
Designer says abstract loon was unintentional
The half-dozen finalists chosen from among the stack of serious and comical entries haven’t escaped criticism online, and the commission making the selection could refine the designs before a final vote.
The commission hasn’t released the names of all of the designers with entries in the mix, saying it wants to contact them first. But some have been vocal about their work, even posting about their concepts while the panel deliberated on Tuesday.
Each designer said they reviewed and stuck closely to the parameters laid out by the citizen panel formed by the Legislature to pick a new flag and state seal.
The current flag and seal have similar features that depict a white farmer tilling the land as an Indigenous man rides off on a horse.
For Agaton Howes, the fact the state is replacing the emblems is important in its own right.
“The flag that we currently have is really harmful and really based on Native nations disappearing,” she said. “And so I’m really excited to just represent who we are as Minnesotans, and also, as a Native person.”
Agaton Howes entered F1435, a flag with a prominent yellow star and green nods to nature on a blue background; the sides have yellow stripes to represent tribal nations and white ones for each of Minnesota’s 87 counties.
Hundt’s flag entry, F29, has a deep blue background with two stars overlaid, one reminiscent of a snowflake.
Hundt has been fine-tuning his flag design since 2015 when he first posted online about his distaste for a Minnesota flag he said was hardly very symbolic or distinctive and had way too much on it.
“Flags should be simple because they’re up on a flagpole, often very high,” Hundt said. “And I think that’s the thing that often gets overlooked. We need to think about how these flags are going to look on a flagpole.”
Pitman is a graphic designer, but this is outside his usual realm of web design. He committed to the task at hand, becoming a member of the North American Vexillological Association and studying up on flag design.
He said his flag design started with a squiggle shape inspired by the aurora, mirrored on the top and bottom half. Along the way, he and his father noticed that the shape looked a little like another commonly-submitted flag feature: a loon.
“To quote Bob Ross, let’s call it a happy accident,” he said.
Revision process could result in changes to design
Each have girded themselves for public criticism, much of which popped up quickly online as the stack of entries was whittled to six. Hundt said he won’t have a problem if the State Emblems Redesign Commission members play around with the features or colors before picking the ultimate flag.
Hundt also has a finalist in the state seal category.
“I’m really glad there’s a revision period with the commission. That is something that is missing from a lot of other flag processes that I've seen when I've looked into them,” he said. “Because I think it’s very important to actually test how the flag would work, how the seal would work before you throw it out there fully in use.”
Agaton Howes sees it similarly.
“That’s a really important part of working in community is being willing to have that back and forth. And I do that all the time. And all my design work, whether that’s designing a wool blanket or designing an art installation, that’s just a big part of the process,” she said. “And I’m here for it. I’m ready for it.”
‘Flags are really powerful’
The final selections will be made by the end of the year. The Legislature can vote to block them but if that doesn’t happen the emblems will take hold on May 11 — Statehood Day.
If their design is chosen in whole or in part, the artists will get some public recognition. But there won’t be prize money or any other direct compensation.
Pitman said he is excited to see a new state flag.
“I know that the decision is in good hands, no matter the outcome,” he said.
Agaton Howes said her reward will be a sense of pride.
“I think that flags are really powerful. And I think that their way to claim it space, and I really want to have an image that I can my kids can feel proud of, that our communities can feel proud of,” she said. “And I’m absolutely willing to do that.”
Pitman said all six are “very strong contenders.”
“I’m obviously very biased, but I think that no matter what … all Minnesotans will be able to be proud to look up at the flagpole on May 11th and say, ‘That’s my flag, that’s my state.’”
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