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Anderson Center Serves Artists, Scholars
By Leif Enger
June 19, 1998
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A. P. AndersonArt and science are sometimes thought to be strange bedfellows; but in one southeast community there's a bed - or at least a boarding house - happily shared by both. The Anderson Center for Interdisciplinary Studies is the legacy of A.P. Anderson, who tried to build a better world through physics, poetry, and puffed wheat. Anderson's mansion - called Tower View for his lighthouse-like water tower - lies just outside Red Wing, and for the last three years has housed artists and scholars from all over the world.

Kiwanis Club member: After we sing "My Country 'Tis of Thee," our Pledge of Allegiance today will be led by Gretchen Witte of the United States Military Academy at West Point.
The Kiwanis club eats Thursdays at the St. James Hotel in Red Wing - hometown of the famous boots and crockery jars. Today's menu is ham and cheese, tomato soup, and romantic poetry. Colorado professor Jeffrey Robinson's been working on a book at Tower View for three weeks; one condition of his stay is that he read to the club. Percy Shelley, William Blake, Thomas McGrath.
Robinson: The vegetables please us with their modes and virtues! The demure heart of the lettuce in its circular court. Baroque ear of quiet under its rustling lace. It pleases us - the bold strength of celery, its green Hispanic shout!
Robinson professes poetry to the Kiwanis for 28 minutes, 16 seconds - a few of those sitting in back are actually counting. But most, like Lorraine Halvorson, don't want it to end.
Halvorson: I enjoyed it a whole lot! I'll never think of cabbages the same again...and I'm not all that familiar with the Anderson Center, only that good things are happening out there.
Anderson CenterWhat's been happening here for a long time - since long before it became "the Anderson Center" - is a spicy goulash of art, science, and history. In 1876, a 13-year-old farmboy gave water and directions to seven strangers on horseback looking for Northfield. The riders were the James and Younger gang, whose fortunes were about to dip; the boy was Alex P. Anderson, who would ascend to fame as a scientist and inventor, and who would offhandedly describe his encounter with the outlaws in an essay about Silurian fossils - an odd fusion typical of Anderson. Raised a farmer, he studied phrenology, the science of reading character by feeling the bumps of the skull. Later as a botany professor, he researched tornadic winds. He was a poet and memoirist who published a 600-page collection of his work, yet is remembered for what happened in this room - a marriage of steam and grain that produced America's breakfast.
Robert Hedin: The huge steam machines with pulleys and that sort of thing commanded most of the room, and when the explosion would occur, the air would fill with puffed wheat or puffed rice.
During his experiments, says Anderson's grandson Robert Hedin, this lab sounded like a battlefield, smelled like a bakery, and looked like a snowy morning. At the time, breakfast cereal was new, and the nation was entranced by its supposed health and spiritual benefits. Quaker Oats bought the rights to the puffing process, advertising its new cereal as the ]eighth wonder of the world. Anderson got rich, but not predictable. He wrote poems about Beethoven and singing electrons, sermons on success, epic fables about pocket gophers. He was interested in everything.
Hedin: The spirit of Tower View is deeply rooted - it is rooted in the sciences, it is rooted in the arts. It is rooted in the generosity of spirit.
In 1973 - thirty years after Anderson's death - his heirs deeded the property to the Red Wing School District. The district held classes here, established an alternative high school, and in 1992 decided to vacate. It was then that Hedin, himself a poet and teacher, proposed creating the Anderson Center.
Hedin: I'd worked at the university level for 25 years, and I know too well the kind of fragmentation and specializations that have occurred there. Artists don't necessarily talk to other artists, and artists certainly don't talk to their scientific colleagues. It seemed only natural to try to reconcile that chasm.
In result, a visitor to Anderson's opulent home might hear Phyllis Golden's improvisational jazz, or Jeffrey Robinson's theories on visionary poetics, or a lecture on archeology or medicine. Might walk into the lab where Anderson puffed his rice and stumble onto Art Norby's emerging bronze sculpture of a Korean War GI.
Norby: I created him in full combat gear; if you get 10 to 15 feet away from him, because of his great height, you'll be looking him right in the eye, and you'll see a very, very intense countenance. He has a good strong jaw - he's tired, but he hasn't given up.
Norby's design was chosen as Minnesota's official Korean War Memorial; it'll be mounted at the state capitol in September, making it the most high-profile production at Tower View since the cereal. But most residents aren't working on anything so public, and, in fact, word about the Center has only begun to spread. The Center doesn't offer cash grants, trips, or publication - only time, and a quiet place to work. Jazz composer Phyllis Golden says, it's enough.
Golden: I'm actually here for a whole month, which to me is a gift beyond belief. I'm able, in the musical expression, to get beyond boredom, in other words to be redundant to the point where I have to get to something new, and that's only possible if you've got the time to do it.
After three years operating under the Red Wing School District, the Anderson Center has raised enough funding to support itself; but Robert Hedin says for all its energy and small successes, the Center is still an experiment. Which is fitting. A.P. Anderson, whose portrait hangs above the mantle, did experiments his whole life; planting, mixing, stirring it up.
Hedin: I admire him a great deal. And I don't think I'll ever attain that kind of complexity. But if you take all the kinds of people who stay here, and put them together - you might come up with the spirit of A.P. Anderson.
Photo of Alex Anderson: Alex P. Anderson, 1862-1943 © Hedin, Chesley, Anderson, and Sargent.
Photo of Tower View: © Connie Bickman.