2012 Artists of the Year

From poets and directors to comedians and dancers, the Twin Cities are teeming with creativity

"With humor, the equation is tragedy plus time equals comedy. I am just at tragedy right now. That's where I am in the equation," Notaro confesses, and even she seems uncertain that cataloging the mordant absurdities taking over her life will be funny whatsoever, but she presses forward — and it is.

The criteria determining who is hailed in year-end lists are usually commercial in nature: album sales, film and TV appearances, a breakthrough into broader national and international markets. But at the most fundamental level, the artist's goal is to use a particular form to process personal experience and locate the vastness of the universal within the tight boundaries of the specific. It's tough to imagine someone doing this more gracefully than Notaro. She's a comedian who finds herself at an almost unimaginably unfunny point in her life, yet through her mastery of craft and purity of intent transforms the moment into something resilient and life-affirming.

Bryan Miller is a Minneapolis-based writer and comedian who this year appeared in the Boston Comedy Festival and on The Late Late Show with Craig Ferguson.

Dan Huiting

Kate Casanova's Mushroom Chair
Kate Casanova's Mushroom Chair

By Jeff Gage • Photo by Erik Hess

Dan Huiting doesn't waste time pulling us into his videos. From the very first shot, we know where we are and where we're going. A lone microphone stands against a hazy blue backdrop. Bright red chairs sit in front of an out-of-focus movie screen, then we cut to a pair of blurry neon roulette wheels. The early-morning sun breaks through the treetops, almost blinding us, on an empty, snowy dirt road. Huiting has a crisp, bold style, full of rich colors and quick cuts. No one captures the energy of a music scene better than he does — not just of the music, but of the crowded, swirling nightlife of a concertgoer.

Ever since he first developed the "City of Music" series with Mpls.tv — a collection of filmed local music performances that has since been picked up by Pitchfork and led to full-time work with the TPT TV series MN Original — Huiting has established himself as one of Minnesota's most exciting artists, but he's more stylist than documentarian. Perhaps that's the legacy of a craft honed through live performances. His camera never lingers, moving instead with eager, inquisitive gestures, as though learning about its subjects on the fly. As Huiting has moved into more full-fledged studio work, he's found creative ways to expand his vocabulary — with aerial shots of the countryside using a camera hung from an airplane, as Andrew Bird whistles the background music; or with the time-lapse that accompanies Kathleen Edwards's hustle from tour stop to tour stop.

Yet if Huiting's craft is making music videos, his art, at its core, lies in storytelling. He is a keen observer with a knack for subtlety and nuance. With just one shot he can capture something vital about a person, be it in P.O.S.'s smirk or the way Margaret Lane reaches for a note on her tiptoes. When we're lucky, that sensitivity can inspire an artist to open up in more meaningful ways, as when Channy Leaneagh invites us into her practice room, the room that was once her ex-husband's. In these moments we are pulled toward these artists as people, not just as performers.

Jeff Gage is City Pages' editorial administrator and a regular contributor of music criticism and profiles.

Lawrence Ferlinghetti

by Eric Lorberer • Photo by City Lights Publishing

Artists make stuff. In poems, paintings, performances, and countless other forms, they give shape to ideas. Poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti did that this year in his Time of Useful Consciousness, the latest volume in his ongoing epic about Americans "steering toward democracy/ even as they plundered everywhere." It's a book made for our era: The title is "an aeronautical term denoting the time between when one loses oxygen and when one passes out, the brief time in which some lifesaving action is possible" — as apt a metaphor for our current condition as any.

However, the Beat Generation icon also did something else this year. After he was named the recipient of a prestigious award from the Hungarian branch of the literary organization PEN — one that comes with 50,000 euros, which ain't chicken feed — the 93-year-old poet turned it down, on the grounds that part of the purse is provided by the oppressive Hungarian government. "Since the policies of this right-wing regime tend toward authoritarian rule, and the consequent curtailing of freedom of expression and civil liberties, I find it impossible for me to accept," Ferlinghetti wrote. He suggested the money be used to support Hungarian authors whose work embodies the fight for social justice, but the award-givers wouldn't have it.

Ferlinghetti's stance in 2012 nicely mirrors the one he took back in 1957, when he was brought to trial for publishing Allen Ginsberg's Howl and Other Poems. His victory against censorship then is one to which every reader in America owes a debt, and it's inspiring to see the thread continue. But perhaps Ferlinghetti's most laudable action happened even earlier than his principled refusal: He actually asked where the cash prize came from. Few of us, artists or otherwise, remember to follow the money, when more and more it's the only question that matters. So kudos to a poet who's made a career of "constantly risking absurdity," for getting up on the high wire again and showing us how to fly.

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