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Gallery documents overlooked pedestrian experience

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“Everyone warned me about my feet,” artist and non-fiction author Andy Sturdevant said as he described his on-foot journey from Minneapolis to Northfield – a two day trek that served as inspiration for Flaten Art Museum’s latest gallery opening, The Via Northfield. “Like, ‘wear good socks, wear good shoes.’ What they did not tell me was about underwear. I wore a pair of boxer briefs. If I was doing it again, I would wear some of the really futuristic space underwear that people have sometimes when they run marathons or bicycle long distances.”

Sturdevant’s remarks at the gallery opening on Friday, Feb. 19 – although comical – reminded show-goers of the rarity of the pedestrian experience and the unpreparedness society faces with a low-tempo life. In a motor-paced society, The Via Northfield reasserts the beauty available within an on-foot adventure.

“It was kind of a mystical experience really. When you’re out on dirt roads, and you’re dressed in regular street clothes, there’s really no context for being out there. You’re so used to experiencing that part of the world from a car,” Sturdevant said.

“To just walk through it and have this waving undulation of wheat fields and corn fields all around you is a really surreal experience. It’s almost like being at sea, because you are just surrounded by this enormity, this scale that is so outside the context of what you understand walking down a sidewalk.”

Collecting Sturdevant’s experiences as a pedestrian along one of Dakota Country’s oldest paths – Pilot Knob Road – The Via Northfield functions as an immersive, interactive archive. Photographs, interviews and infographics guide the viewer through a linear map of the route, allowing the exhibit to function in what Studevant deems a “mid-range regional history museum.”

In an unassuming way, The Via Northfield harnesses the author-artist’s natural talent for developing narrative by blending the disciplines of writing and content visualization. Although information is displayed graphically, the exhibit beckons viewers to follow the artist’s path linearly from start to finish, making it one of Flaten’s most reading-intensive exhibits in recent years.

“I think Andy commits this full power of attention to the work he makes as an artist and a writer,” Flaten Art Museum Director Jane Becker Nelson said. “We see it here in the photographs of the surface textures under his feet he walked over forty miles, we see it in the careful listening of his interview subjects, and we see it in the quirky ephemera that he unearthed in regional newspapers, archives and historical societies.”

In addition to blending media, The Via Northfield also blends time periods. “I think one of the strongest elements of the show was the dual temporal aspect,” Josh Torkelson ’17 said. “It had this very contemporary approach with the photos of it now and the interviews of people now, but it also had a historical approach. I think a lot of art these days, people are looking back at their roots and finding connections to the past. I think that was one of my favorite things about the show: it brought together past and present.”

Although Sturdevant uses his personal journey as the backbone of the project, the interviews the artist conducted during and after his pilgrimage drive the exhibit and broaden the project’s scope.

“The idea of talking to some people that had experiences as pedestrians along this path was a way to unlock what we typically think of as a pretty unremarkable part of the state,” Sturdevant said.

Students and community members can experience The Via Northfield in Flaten Art Museum until the exhibit’s close on April 17.

To continue his exploration of history, place and memory, Sturdevant will also host an artist-led walk from Flaten Art Museum to Waterford Township on Saturday, April 16. The six-mile walk will begin promptly at 11:00 a.m. and include food, drinks, guest speakers and a performance by Mike Gunther. Busses will provide walkers return service to the St. Olaf College campus after the event.

tupa@stolaf.edu