A few years ago, in the outdoor plaza Mankato dwellers call the Bar-muda Triangle, a bronze sculpture of a toddler was erected outside the Blue Bricks Bar and Eatery, naked to his underwear, gazing up to the sky, his mouth open in an expression of pained delight. The baby was wearing too-large shoes, as though he’d stepped into his grandfather’s sneakers. Blue Bricks Baby, as the work came to be called, was part of Mankato’s Walking Sculpture Tour, an initiative by arts organizations and businesses to revitalize Mankato’s downtown. Since 2011, CityArt Mankato has brought in sculptures by artists across the country and placed them throughout our city. Blue Bricks Baby was part of the 2018 collection—a piece by Susan J. Geissler titled Big Shoes to Fill.

There’s often something uncomfortable about physical renderings of the human body that attempt realism. Some call this the uncanny valley phenomenon. Think of the dolls in the toy aisle at Target, or even animated figures in television and film. As strange as it is to see body parts intentionally exaggerated in these renderings—gaping eyes, bloated heads—somehow this is more acceptable than a figure attempting accuracy. Blue Bricks Baby attempted, and naturally fell short. His skin was orange. He had merely the suggestion of teeth. Was he smiling? How could one be certain?

The sculpture tour is one of my favorite parts about Mankato, a rather unremarkable place to live, population forty thousand or so and surrounded by stretches of farmland in southern Minnesota. Each year we get a fresh collection of sculptures. From that collection, a local business will sometimes purchase one to remain here permanently. We also keep the winner of the People’s Choice Award. One can vote for a favorite sculpture online, or fill out a paper ballot, accessible at stations downtown. After a time, the votes are tallied, and the winning sculpture is purchased and becomes part of Mankato. In this way, we as a community express what we like, what speaks to us, what seems like it belongs here.

Sculptures we’ve purchased so far: A giant steel dinosaur called Godzilla. A boy reading a book, holding an ice cream cone, with a dog leaping up on him—this called Saturday Distractions. Green Sea Turtles, featuring two turtles swimming across the flora on a sea floor. Guidance, a stacking of stones and a flurry of birds. Maestro, a young boy in shorts and a too-big tuxedo coat, raising his conductor’s baton high, standing before what looks like a xylophone that passersby can plunk on at the maestro’s direction.

I’d like to see the voter demographics. Who are the people taking the time to fill out the voting sheets and drop them into the little boxes downtown? Which sorts of people are those who vote to keep statues of boys reading books and directing imaginary orchestras? Noelle Lawton, who coordinated the sculpture tour, told a local newspaper, “Art is in the eye of the beholder. For whatever reason—whether it be sentimentality or nostalgia—the general public is really drawn to representational art that brings them a good feeling.”