Art and tents made in Minnesota

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August 27, 2012 // UPDATED 5:48 pm - December 27, 2012
By: Linda Koutsky
Linda Koutsky

Heat waves are a perfect time to soak up some culture in climate-controlled exhibit halls, so I’ve made a pact to support as many of our local museums as possible this summer. 

I love Works Progress Administration art, so I thought I’d check out “1934: A New Deal for Artists” at Minnesota History Center. In the midst of the Great Depression, President Franklin D. Roosevelt created Public Works of Art Project. He felt art would lift the American spirit, so artists were hired to make works that reflected the “American scene” and our values of hard work, community and optimism. Starting in December of 1933, artists began painting the people, places, celebrations, workers and landscapes of their regions. The completed pieces were shown in public buildings across the country. The program lasted only six months but its spirit continued on in the Works Progress Administration. 

Paintings in this exhibit are on loan from the Smithsonian American Art Museum. Scenes include a bustling New York subway, bulky longshoremen awaiting a ship, the Golden Gate Bridge under construction, a busy barber shop, migrant workers, miners and Main Streets. Several of the 56 paintings are by Minnesota artists. 

The exhibit really captured the American scene for me. What would that scene be today? Would I ever think to make a painting of my coworkers at their desks? Or the guy who helps me at the Apple Store? Or an event at my favorite bookstore? Those are my American scene. We really should be documenting our places today. Even though we take photos wherever we go, will any of those be around in 80 years?

My other favorite painting was of a grain elevator at an industrial site. I knew it looked familiar but I wasn’t sure if Harris Machinery was still in business. So I finished up at the museum and headed west on University Avenue. Sure enough, Harris Warehouse and Canvas was still there. 

Harris Machinery has been in business since 1903. They started out repairing, replacing and rebuilding boilers, but the company has changed and grown over the years. Today the main building is filled with camping and outdoor gear, military surplus and canvas products. Harris sews canvas products on-site. They’ve been making custom boat covers, fish houses, tents, fire department hose covers — you name it — since the 1940s. You can pick out your canvas and they’ll make it right there for you. 

Military surplus collectors love to dig in deep bins of used clothing and they won’t be disappointed here. Harris supplied the crew from the movie “Red Tails” with 40 pairs of A-10 flight pants. You can bring your treasures here too because they buy, sell and trade.

Plenty of machinery still exists at Harris too. In fact, it’s a museum of machinery. Mysterious pieces of equipment are packed on the shelves of several buildings and in sheds in various states of habitation, and they line the paths of dirt trails crisscrossing the property. It’s easy to imagine how these machines must have roared in the 1930s.

Tucked in the shadow of one of the last grain elevators by the university, the neighborhood around Harris is changing rapidly. The property is up for sale, but Marc Harris plans to continue on in another location. There can’t be many fourth-generation business owners left in Minnesota, but he’s in it for the long haul. Just like his great-grandfather Sig Harris who was quarterback on the original 1903 University of Minnesota Little Brown Jug football team.

I showed Marc the painting in the exhibit catalog. The guy on the street might have been his great-grandfather. He said there have been a lot of album covers shot on his property. So years later I guess the creativity continues.

Do you know of any third-or fourth-generation business owners? Write to WeekendTourist@