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I was about 20 years old the first time I entered a painting into the Minnesota State Fair Fine Arts Competition. It didn’t get accepted. Fair enough (pun), the painting sucked. In fact, the oil paint might have still been wet when I dropped it off and nails poked through the back of my shoddy makeshift frame, that can’t help ones chances… I then entered numerous more times only to have my ego repeatedly dashed against the jagged rocks of the unrelenting shores that is the Minnesota State Fair Fine Arts Competition.

For about the next 10 years my pride floated aimlessly in a sea of doubt as I wondered if I would ever one day see my work on those hallowed walls, perhaps next to a photograph of the midway at night, flanked on the other side by a lovely rendering of a cow at pasture.

Oil painting by Nicholas Harper titled Sophie depicting a woman with big hair holding an owl that has been blindfolded

Sophie | by Nicholas Harper | Oil on panel | 2017

To the uninitiated, the Fine Arts Building is located in a fairly remote part of the fair to the northeast, far from the cries of the midway rides and the screams of adoration that emanate from the grandstand. Void of beer halls and cheese curd stands this area is a bit of a destination. To its credit, it doesn’t smell like manure and one can walk fairly confidently without having to keep an eye out for random cow pies in the street.

This area of the fair has always been one of my favorites. Even as a child I had learned to enjoy the respite from the crowds and chaos and find interest in those things often overlooked. Machinery Hill for example, sits just kitty corner from the arts building and was a yearly highlight of any trip to the fair. Rows of brand spanking new tractors, earth movers and various other machines I know not what they did lined the streets, a metallic forest clad in the unmistakable green and yellow of John Deer, the red of Toro and the trademarked yellow of Caterpillar.

To the right of the arts building sits one of the best milk shakes available at the fair, courtesy of the Kiwanis. What are the Kiwanis you ask? I wonder that too and every year I make a note to self to find out. This year will be like all the rest I’m sure, as at this time next year I will make another mental post it, google the Kiwanis.

To the left of the humble but foreboding art building, the best coffee available is on sale, Swedish egg coffee. Coffee being my drug of choice, this egg stuff is what the kids would call “the good #@$%” and is offered by the very best of dealers, the Lutherans.

What I have just described is my trifecta State Fair experience, a must every year: machinery hill, a malt, a cup of coffee and finally a perusal through the arts building, even if I don’t have a piece on exhibit myself. I know that’s four things, but trifecta sounds cool. And sure, I do all the other stuff too, from visit the animals to getting some curds, even buying skulls from Heritage Center if the price is right (yeah, you can buy animal skulls at the State Fair), but nothing defines the fair quite like an afternoon spent in the NE corner.

In 2006, some ten years after applying to the fair for the first time, a painting of mine was accepted! She was titled Paris and represented what I thought to be one of my most striking paintings to date. She sat proudly in an atmosphere of blues and golds, flowers and lace, her long neck still a fairly new invention of mine. Her hair was reminiscent of a beehive, possibly alluding to her stature as a queen of some fictiscious land, an island kingdom perhaps, one that I had come upon quite by accident but as the result of years of floating and drifting in an attempt to find my artistic direction and purpose. Paris and her long neck was my oasis. Too much?

Although I did my best to temper my anticipation on the evening of the arts competition preview night, my sweaty palms and shaky voice betrayed any attempt at not coming off as overly excited. My mother and sister had driven separately and had arrived much earlier than I. As I approached the front entrance I could see my mother, sitting on a chair, a huge grin across her face. She looked to be introducing herself to every person that walked by. Strange I thought.

I was quick to learn the reason for the grin. Not only had Paris been accepted into the fair, she had won the first place blue ribbon! “Well holy hell on a cow in a pasture somewhere in the middle of Stearns County!” I thought to myself. Not only had I gotten into the fair for the very first time, my painting was the freaking blue ribbon winner? I still pinch myself to this day to make sure it’s real and have slept with my blue ribbon under my pillow ever since. That last part may be untrue, but it also might be very true.

2007 came in a hurry and riding high from the previous years victory I was ready to defend my championship! The team had stayed sharp in the off-season and we took to the field paintbrushes blazing. I submitted the new painting with the confidence of a champion and the heart of a battle tested warrior. Victory was near and victory was assured.

Not accepted.

2008 came in less of a hurry, but again, the team was looking sharp. We had realized how easy it is for those at the top to fall and so approached the new season with a bit more gravitas. 2007 was our fault, we took it for granted thinking a victory was inevitable, our bad. But not even making the playoffs? That was unacceptable. 2008 was the year of our redemption.

Not accepted.

“What the holy hell in a pig farm in the middle of a Pipestone super cell?” I was the darling of 2006! I was the man! If you were a betting person, I was the horse most likely to take the race by a full length!

2009, not accepted.

The team was downtrodden and loosing confidence. Time to regroup and get a new coach. I wonder if Anthony Robbins is available?

2010 saw Nicholas Harper return to the track. My painting didn’t place, but still, it hung on the walls of the Great Minnesota Get-Together™. This horse proved it wasn’t ready to be the glue for some 4H kids class project or the adhesive for a seed art portrait of Bette Midler. Nope I still had some stride left in me and proudly made my return hanging between a lovely pencil sketch, a self-portrait, and a photo realistic painting of a classic red convertible at a drive in burger joint that was adorned with black and teal checkered flags.

I approached the next two years with the somber respect this art fair had come to demand of me. Like nature, she was nothing to be messed with lightly. Sure, she could rain sunshine and warmth upon you, but in an instant she could whip up a swirling wind and rip your abode from its footings sending it and you into the next county, only to let her light break through the clouds in the very next instant, as though nothing had happened.

I handled the “It’s not you, its me” rejection letters with poise. By this time I had begun to understand why my team couldn’t win the championship every year, that the fans wanted new stories, new heroes. As badly as I wanted to be a legacy franchise, I knew I would have to take my ups with the downs and that a career isn’t made over night, it takes time.

I returned to the walls of the arts building with a new painting in 2013. Again, we didn’t place but we made a fair showing. This pony was learning the ropes and taking each year in stride and presenting itself with grace, win loose or draw. Besides, if anyone ever gave me any grief, I could always point to my one championship ring from back in 2006. “Yeah” I would banter, “I took my ride atop that rocket ship of fame and glory, had my time on the top pedestal. It was no big deal…” I would say while concealing the very smallest hint of a grin.

The next three years proved to be a triple crown of “go submit your art somewhere else buddy” as I failed to break through the front doors of the submission process, one that had become even more cruel. Now one had to first submit via the internet and get accepted online before even getting a chance to submit the actual work in person. Not only was I not making the playoffs I wasn’t even being allowed on the court. Benched.

But all that ends this year. Not only did I beat the first part of the submission process online, I have made it, for the forth time in 22 years onto the walls of the Minnesota State Fair Fine Arts Competition! That’s right, I’m in baby! And believe you me, I’m gonna put my heart out on the field this year and do whatever it takes to come home with a ribbon, first, second or third, doesn’t matter. I have two pillows on my bed and one of them is lonely. (Cause I keep my 2006 blue ribbon under the other, remember?).

The fact of the matter is it’s out of my control whether or not I take a ribbon. It’s up to the fickle fates of the fine art fair gods, or jurors as they are more commonly called. Either way, I won’t know until I approach the front doors of the art building on preview night and come into view of my mother. Will she be grinning ear-to-ear? We’ll have to wait and see. And really, it doesn’t matter, as I know she’ll be grinning ear-to-ear win loose or draw. Besides, as the old saying goes, I’m just happy to be there, and that’s fair enough.

Cheers and see you at the fair!


  1. I’ve only been accepted twice. A friend of mine was not accepted one year and she judged the following! I am going this evening and will look you up! Loved your article! (also your paintings!)

    • Yeah, it’s a fickle fair for sure! And thank you so much, glad you enjoyed it and the art! Be sure to say hi if you see me tonight!

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