Twin Cities’ rich cultural scene owes a debt of gratitude to 20th century trailblazers

Each day leading up to the April 14 announcement of the Minnesota Book Awards, we highlight one of the thirty-two finalists. Today we feature 2012 Minnesota Finalist:

Pioneer Modernists: Minnesota’s First Generation of Women Artists
Julie L’Enfant

Afton Press

Category Sponsor: Xcel Energy


In Pioneer Modernists, Julie L’Enfant uses a host of sources, including previously unpublished papers, to tell the untold story of a groundbreaking generation of Minnesota female artists who played a significant, yet often-overlooked role in the development of art schools, galleries, and other institutions that make the Twin Cities the major cultural center it is today. The book was inspired by a 2007 show at the Minnesota Museum of American Art of work by Minnesota women who were “working artists before they could even vote for the president of the United States,” Minnesota Historical Society curator Brian Szott wrote in the introduction.

An excerpt from Pioneer Modernists:

Clara Mairs was an imposing and lively presence in Minnesota’s artistic community and a prolific painter, printmaker, and maker of decorative arts. She had a ringing voice and sharp wit. We have little direct record of her opinions, however. Virtually no letters have been found, nor did she, it seems, keep a diary. Only a few interviews remain. Otherwise, one must speculate on her ideas and working methods, capitalizing on what others have said about her. In many cases one must let her enigmatic work speak for itself.


Julie L’Enfant is chair of liberal arts at the College of Visual Arts in Saint Paul. “Even art historians aren’t familiar with these artists now, although a lot has been published about them and they were all very well known in their day,” Pioneering Modernists is her fourth book.

Reviews and more:

“Wanda Gag, subject of L’Enfant’s foreword, I had heard of, but the other subjects of this great book were complete unknowns to me. Each is important and deserves mention in a fantastically assembled volume like this.”
– Minnesota Book Awards judge

“If you like painters, read this. If you like 3D arts, such as sculpturing, read this. And if you’re a general fan of women’s history, all the better!”
– Minnesota Book Awards judge

“The women in this book are amazing, truly marvelous… grand dames, gloriously on stage, so to speak. They help make the twentieth century remarkable and memorable.”
– Barbara Flanagan, Star Tribune

“Lavishly illustrated and handsomely designed, Pioneer Modernists is a well-researched and lively read, full of keen insights about the difficulties the women encountered in their professional lives.”
Mary Abbe, Star Tribune

In this interview, just four questions – asked by MPR’s Marianne Combs and answered by L’Enfant.



Award winners will be announced at the 24th Annual Minnesota Book Awards Gala on Saturday, April 14, 2012 at the Crowne Plaza Hotel – Saint Paul Riverfront. The opening reception begins at 7 p.m. followed by the awards ceremony at 8 p.m. New this year: a post-awards “Epilogue Celebration” The Gala is sold out, but you may be placed on a waiting list in the event of last-minute cancellations by calling 651-222-3242. Click here for more information.

Have you read Pioneer Modernists? What are your thoughts? We welcome your comments!

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