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Make It, Take It in Minnesota

It’s easy to get artsy in Minnesota: Blow glass. Paint a meaningful message on weathered wood. See a sculptor work near the Lake Superior shore. Turn Spam can parts into a bohemian bracelet. Look to art exhibits to inspire your own works.

If you have art lovers in your group, introduce them to these experiences when you tour Minnesota.

Austin ArtWorks Center


To see art in everything, let the Austin ArtWorks Center be your guide.

Since it opened five years ago in this town of 25,000, the center has become quite good at creating imaginative art projects for group tours.

Not surprisingly, many involve Spam, the canned meat product that originated in Austin, home of Hormel. Austin is also home to the Spam Museum, now downtown.

Groups have made jewelry from the Spam cans’ tabs or floral arrangements from its distinctive cans, said Laura Helle, executive director at the arts center.

Don’t worry if Spam doesn’t ignite the Picasso within. “We are small enough that we can design a project specifically for the group,” said Helle.

There are plenty of other artistic avenues to explore, like paintings of holiday scenes, works made with polymer clays  — which are easy to handle and can be baked later in home ovens — or felted gnomes.

The center tries to be practical, devising art projects that take only an hour or so and are easy to transport.

Everything for the project is provided, and many materials are donated by the center’s enthusiastic supporters. If Helle puts out a call for rocks for a painting project, she knows from past experience that a pile of stones will soon appear. “Sometimes it’s like a spigot that won’t turn off,” she said with a laugh.

Finished projects “don’t look like preschoolers’ macaroni art, but they aren’t Tiffany either,” Helle said. Likely, artists will be proud to show off those boho-style bracelets they fashioned from used bike inner tubes and Spam can tabs. And they often realize they are more artistically inclined than they previously imagined.

“People will say, ‘I’m not an artist; I’m not creative,’” said Helle. “But then they complete a project and are pleased with the results.”

Design Station


Since opening the Design Station in Alexandria in 2018, Gwen Schroeder has often thought of herself as “a therapist, without the therapy charge.”

That’s because as her customers lose themselves for a couple of hours focusing on do-it-yourself home decor projects at her workshop, they also unwind. And they tell her what a relief that is.

“They find the projects relaxing,” she said. “They are at peace and find themselves gaining self-confidence as they do something they doubted they could do.”

Schroeder’s business gets its name from the Great Northern railcar attached to it, which was used as a dining room when the building was a restaurant. She uses the railcar for overflow and special events.

Booking a group is easy. A group leader schedules a time and talks about some projects, and Schroeder does the rest. She supplies all the raw materials: the wooden signs, planters, dog dish stands, trays and other pieces to be painted, as well as the paint, stencils and baby wipes used to apply paint. She even hands out aprons to protect clothes. Groups are welcome to bring food and drink.

Customers leave with something attractive to use at home: a sign that says “Home Sweet Home” or a kitchen tray with the stenciled message “This Kitchen Is Seasoned With Love.”

Depending on the season, painting projects vary: in the spring, wooden eggs; in the fall, wooden pumpkins. “My projects are never the same and that keeps people coming back,” said Schroeder. “We see all ages. My youngest customer has been 3; the oldest, 87.”

The Design Station has been a hit with everyone from bus tours to Boy Scout troops. At one birthday party, 11-year-old boys laughed it up as they stenciled signs that said “Little Man Cave” and “Be Nice or Go Home.”

The growing business has also been therapeutic for Schroeder. She tears up as she talks about its genesis. “My husband died seven years ago,” she said. “I feel life is short. I’d dreamed of owning my own business. My girls are all on their own now, so I decided it was time for Mom to follow her dream.”

Mueller Studio


Fans of Last Chance Studio in Lutsen will be pleased to hear that the longtime art stop has a new life as the foundry and studio of sculptor Greg Mueller.

Mueller bought the spot from his artist friend Tom Christianson and renamed it Mueller Studio. There’s no longer a retail art gallery, but Mueller, a longtime art educator, welcomes groups to watch him at work on the varied sculptural pieces he creates for public and private commissions.

“If I know in advance, I could prepare a demonstration. I’ve got two to three large commissions going, so it can be fun to see things in progress,” he said.

As he works, Mueller can answer questions and talk about the history of foundry work and how it has changed. Groups can examine some of the reclaimed and found objects — stop signs, for example — that he uses in his projects.

Visitors might realize they’ve seen some of Mueller’s work, like benches he made last fall for a park in Eagan or sculptures that will be part of a highway enhancement.

Because his studio is outdoors, on the busy and scenic highway, he’s getting used to drop-ins.

“It’s pretty informal,” he said. “I get people who are curious as to what is going on.”

Back in his home state for just a couple of years, Mueller has already become active in nearby Grand Marais’ arts community. He’s among some 20 artists who open their studios during the twice-annual Art Along the Lake tour. As improvements are made to Highway 61, he and other area artists are making sure that public art enhances the byway. He’s also planning a sculpture garden on his property to brighten the ride for bikers on the Gitchi-Gami bike trail, which will eventually run right through his yard on its way to Grand Marais from Duluth.

FOCI Minnesota Center for Glass Arts


Art can be calming. A palmful of clay or a brush dipped in watercolor paint tends to soothe. Delving into glassmaking, though, is a different artistic animal.

First, there’s the heat. “It’s around 2,000 degrees, so there’s a natural instinct to want to shield yourself from the heat,” said Kelly Nezworski of the FOCI Minnesota Center for Glass Arts in Minneapolis. “Your body reacts, your instinct kicks in. Then people feel the excitement and the adrenaline. As they watch molten glass that flows like honey turn into a hard, reflective solid, there is something still very magical. The alchemy is fascinating.”

FOCI, housed in a building that was once a General Mills research facility, has artist studios, an exhibition gallery and glass arts classes for all ages.

Groups can visit the gallery, where works by 30 artists rotate every three months and cost from $20 to $750. The shopping expedition could be followed by a glassblowing demonstration and talk. Or if there’s more time, travelers could take a glassblowing class.

Each person makes a small glass object — it varies depending on the season — sometimes a flower or a pumpkin, other times a tumbler or a paperweight. One-on-one training takes about 20 minutes per person at four glassblowing stations, so a group of 20 would wrap up in 90 minutes to two hours. Because the glass must harden, pieces can be picked up in a couple of days or shipped.

Watermark Art Center


Bemidji, a tourist town in Minnesota’s northwest region, has cleverly turned a former lakeside supermarket into a superlative center for artistic expression.

Its new digs have allowed the community arts organization, now called the Watermark Art Center, to expand exhibition space and other offerings, including classes.

For an additional fee, a group tour can book an artistic project led by center staff, according to Jill Oakes, art education program director. “When I do an art activity with a tour, I try to coordinate it with one of our current exhibits,” she said. “I usually give them two to three choices for activities.”

The hands-on projects are designed to be finished in about an hour.

For a recent church group, Oakes used an exhibit in the center’s Native American gallery as inspiration. Water was its theme, and so the group made a waterscape that included birch branch weavings. The center’s pollinator gardens inspired another project, where a group made tiny bird and bumblebee baths. A youth group made colorful bears to echo wildlife paintings by DG House, a Native American artist.

In its first year in the new space, the center had more than 20 exhibitions in its four galleries, including a gallery that is curated by Bemidji State University and that serves as the showplace for its impressive art collection. Visitors to the Watermark see everything from the best of local high school students’ art to the works of Mary Cassatt and Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec from the Bemidji State collection.

The center is also a shopping destination, as tourists and locals line up in its Shop 505 for fine art and handcrafted jewelry. “It is work by local artists, things you would buy that are real art,” said Oakes.