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A Line or Two: Honoring an Offbeat Minnesota Artist

Though has yet to be featured on the Twin Cities Public Television series of that name, James L. Bakkom is a true "Minnesota Original." An artist with a quirky sensibility and a wide range of styles who has never been content to simply beat a path from studio to gallery and back again, he's made signal contributions to our theater, television, and film scenes. And this weekend, thanks to the Independent Film Project Minnesota Center for Media Arts, we're getting a chance to take a close look at Bakkom as a production designer for TV and movies—including his work on Sweet Land, probably the most successful and beloved Minnesota indie film.

"The Film and Artistry of James R. Bakkom" opens Friday, October 5, with a reception for the artist at IFP Minnesota's digs, 2446 University Avenue West in Saint Paul. There's more to come too; a documentary on the artist, directed by 2009 IFP Fellow Mark Wojahn, will screen at the Twin Cities Film Fest on October 15, and attendees at the IFP opening will be able to see a preview clip.

The exhibition, put together by Wojahn in collaboration with the artist's son, conceptual artist/photographer/filmmaker Matt Bakkom, will display production drawings, film stills, and video from Sweet Land and other film projects, including local director/writer/actor Patrick Coyle's Detective Fiction and Into Temptation. The idea is to both celebrate Bakkom and, as the organizers put it, show "the importance of the [production] designer to the final look of a film."

A Guthrie Apprenticeship

Bakkom's story is intimately connected with the history of another Minnesota original, the Guthrie Theater. After graduating from Yale with an MFA, he was recruited by the brand-new venue to be property master. At the Guthrie he worked with Sir Tyrone Guthrie's longtime collaborator, the legendary Tanya Moiseiwitsch, founding designer of Canada's Stratford Festival and one of the pioneers of contemporary theatrical design, helping give the Guthrie a visual distinctiveness that was often commented upon in the early years. Bakkom went on to work elsewhere in regional theater, and then, in the 1980s, in television. His fifteen years as a set designer with Edina-based Northwest Teleproductions connected him with film directors, including Patrick Coyle.

It looks like Bakkom's personal web site has just gone offline, landing back in the arms of GoDaddy—I hope a new one is in the works. I got a glance at it before it dematerialized, though, and Bakkom's sensibility as a gallery artist seems to resonate with offbeat Minnesota storytellers like Kevin Kling, Garrison Keillor, and Loren Niemi. He paints serene Midwestern landscapes but also draws quirky "Scare Crows"—a liberal one to scare conservatives and a conservative one to scare liberals, for example (although, since they are devoid of actual political symbolism, both look like they could both scare and amuse anybody).

Veteran creators like him, working a bit below the radar and remaining loyal to their idiosyncrasies as well as their professionalism, have played a big role in making this corner of the world as interesting and vital as it is, and it's a pleasure to see such heroes honored.

The Film and Artistry of James R. Bakkom
Opening Friday, October 5
5:30—8:30 PM
IFP Minnesota Center for Media Arts
2446 University Avenue West, Saint Paul, MN
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