Forecast grantee Pete Driessen’s monumental and participatory sculptures echo 1875 rail architecture at historic site
This Fall, Forecast 2019 mid-career project grantee Pete Driessen created RoundHouse: Pivotal Turntable Tactics, sited at the Northern Pacific (NP) Rail Yard in Brainerd, Minnesota. Abstract, monumental, and participatory, the sculptures echo the former 1875 rail architecture at the historic site. An artist talk, workshop, sound composition, and opening day performances accompanied the installations.
Driessen provided the following project description, lightly edited for format and clarity:
The Project & Installations
Created with red and white pine wood and metal hardware, RoundHouse: Pivotal Turntable Tactics was a public art project consisting of two large, site specific installations, RoundHouse Wedge and Turntable Dock. The installations reflect the architectural structure of the former rail yard spaces, reference empowering locational identity, and use ideas of affective stimuli, physical embodiment and rural vacancy.
The Roundhouse Wedge
The exterior Roundhouse Wedge, an abstract, pie-shaped, train garage stall, rested on the original rail tracking foundation of the former NP roundhouse site. The wooden Roundhouse Wedge illuminated a bay of the circular space used for servicing and repairing railroad locomotives and train cars. Referencing imagery from the Crow Wing County Historical Society & Museum, Driessen recreated the daily working ecosystem of the former NP roundhouse and turntable sites. Standing over 316 feet wide, the former Northern Pacific Roundhouse complex was more than a modern football field in diameter. Nestled within the center of the NP Rail Yard as a living symbol of perseverance and resilience, the past working structure lasted for more than one hundred years. Viewers were able to walk through the abstract installation.
The Turntable Dock
The interior movable Turntable Dock was an abstract installation, rotating on casters, that reflected a traditional turntable docking system used during the height of the railroad industry. Using the NP Boiler Shop as a process studio space and independent alternative gallery space, the TurnTable Dock contained a traditional turntable aligned with the architecture of the former work site. The sculpture illuminated how the former collective pivoting system would maneuver the large train engines, coal cars and rail assemblies. Viewers were able to both walk on and push the abstract train docking platform.
Accompanying sound composition
The installation included a unique sound work composed by sound artist Eric Anthony Frye:
Frye’s composition reflected on a range of personal railroad-based experiences from his rural Illinois childhood.
Two additional galleries accompanied the Turntable dock site, including a welcoming mud room with a rotating exhibit of NP rail detritus, and a station master office containing artist models, drawings, notes and ephemera. A children’s Roundhouse Empowerment Workshop with artist Heidi Jeub/Tiny School of Art & Design took place during opening day. A choreographed movement composition by Sullivan & Co. dance troupe accompanied both works on opening day and night. The exhibit also included a self-published catalog with critical essays by curator/art historian Sheila Dickinson, writer/educator Susan Smith-Grier, and the artist. Both writers, along with the artist, held a talk beginning at the interior Turntable site that toured on foot to the outdoor Wedge sculpture. Turntable Ale, a special, limited edition beer brewed by the local Roundhouse Brewery, complemented the exhibit opening, artist talk, and show run. A series of postcards, limited edition wallpaper, and a short print run of signed, limited edition posters printed on engineer paper were also available.
The Northern Pacific Railroad yard is a large historic grouping of twelve brick and wooden beam buildings that sit on a 47-acre plot of land in Brainerd, MN. The massive industrial site contains the aesthetic atmosphere and former physical workings of the past turn-of-the-century railroad era. The old railroad Blacksmith Shop building is 75,000 square feet, with 20-foot high sidewalls, an 80-foot wide cross-span, and concrete floors. Listed on the National Register of Historic Places and a former EPA Superfund site, the NP setting is located near the geographic center of the state, where the Mississippi begins its curl to the headwaters. Both the industrial rawness and the monumental scale of the Northern Pacific site and its former roundhouse space reflect Minnesota’s architectural history and our current need for regional public arts. The site has high potential and possibility as a future site for contemporary public arts, curating art fairs and museological programming.
Collaboration, the Audience, and Community
Collaborative production artist Joel Sisson worked on the NP Roundhouse installation, taking lead on the build of both sculptures, and helping the artist maneuver through the process. The sculptures were finished early and open to the public for over six weeks. Along with the long production process on site, as well as both the outdoor and indoor gallery hours, the project had strong visibility within the Brainerd Lakes community. The artist was quoted in the annual Labor Day Progress edition of the local Brainerd Dispatch newspaper on the importance of the NP site. Driessen met with and interviewed many attendees to the National NP Convention, and was present for the local History Day events. Anyone parking within the NP complex or using the four NP event centers experienced the outdoor RoundHouse Wedge sculpture.
The Forecast Public Art Midcareer Project Grant supported me in orchestrating and presenting a large-scale interdisciplinary public art project within the unique historical and culturally relevant setting at the Northern Pacific Center. Assisted by many generous regional artistic and community collaborators, I am sincerely grateful for the impact the Forecast grant has had and will have on my artistic career.
~ Artist Pete Driessen
An MSAB Artist Initiative grant was also awarded to the project, which doubled the budget and impact. As a public art project in the making, Driessen collaborated with Brainerd locals, businesses and institutions, often setting up creative initiatives. This fiscal exchange invited commercial involvement and shared grant monies with the Lakes Region economy as public art.
The artist would also like to thank
Besides the two main granters (Forecast & MSAB), the key economic partners assisting, supporting or sponsoring the project were NP Event Space, Northern Pacific Center, Driessen Water, TuckUnder Projects & Pavilion, Ace Hardware, Allegra Printing, American Earth Anchor, Blakeman Pumping, Brainerd Community Ed., Brian’s Welding, BuyCasters.com, Crow Wing County Historical Society & Museum, Don Wille Logging, General Rental, Joel Sisson Productions, Midwest Machinery, Music General, Nisswa Dock, Prairie Bay, Quality Equipment, Roundhouse Brewery, Simpson StrongTie, Tiny School of Art & Design, United Rental, The UPS Store, Widseth Smith Nolting, as well as numerous individuals. This group does not include the many local stores, gas stations, fast food restaurants and more that were positively economically impacted. The artist is sincerely grateful for the impact the Forecast grant has had and will have on his artistic career. Special heartfelt gratitude to Jen Krava and Forecast Public Art staff and all who helped on the project.
The McKnight Foundation generously enables Forecast to provide Professional Development Grants for mid-career artists seeking to expand their work in the field of public art. Forecast mid- and early-career grants are designed to support independent projects, leadership development, professional development, risk-taking, multidisciplinary approaches, and collaborative problem-solving in the field of public art.