Local Current Blog

The secret of Square Lake: The tiny festival taking music and film off the trail and into the woods

Photo by Nate Ryan/MPR.

Life can be tough for fans of low-key music festivals. Around the world, fests pair performances with raging stage shows and, all too often, the spectacle absorbs the art. However, anyone who is able to make it to Stillwater, Minnesota, on August 20 has a shot at a door two: the Square Lake Film & Music Festival, an intimate one-day event with a multimedia lineup and a focus on bikes.

While traveling in Japan over a decade ago, filmmaker/educator Paul Creager took in several vibrant, non-commercial outdoor art gatherings, and he saw an opportunity to stage a similar event back home. He’d grown up in Minnesota, spending years on a hobby farm by Stillwater’s famously clear Square Lake. Once he returned home, he transformed that same property into the Square Lake Film & Music Festival grounds.

The grounds are wooded and grassy, allowing people to set up lawn chairs and blankets for the ideal cozy experience. The small lean-to stage, flanked by an old windmill at the base of a gentle sloping hill, forms a natural amphitheater for the audience. Camping tents dot the lawn behind the stage next to a pole barn decked out in colorful art. The artsy haven caps its tickets at about 400, leaving room for contemplation. At the end of most years, Creager says, everyone hangs around, “just taking advantage of the quiet, tranquil location and the stars.”

One of the few major Square Lake shifts began in the mid- to late-2000s. A few years after its genesis in 2003, the festival was going strong—so strong that when Low announced their first Square Lake set, organizers knew they’d draw a large crowd. “We started the bike ride […] because we didn’t have enough parking spots,” says Angela Knudson, the festival’s assistant director, with a laugh. Bike tickets cost only $15.

That bike ride is now a defining trait of the festival, drawing more than 200 bikers to Square Lake. The ride from Minneapolis to Stillwater, about 30 miles on the Gateway State Trail, takes a couple hours at best, not counting the planned breaks taken by the group (who ride en masse).

Bike-savvy volunteers, including Ben Tsai and Jason Tanzman, have been scheming new routes for the last couple years. As it currently stands, the trip to Square Lake starts at the Minnehaha Avenue Hub Bike Co-op, which Tsai helped start in 2002. Next, the group picks up more bikers at Cycles for Change in St. Paul, where Tanzman is currently executive director. Then, it’s a stream of spinning tires from St. Paul to Stillwater. Of the ticket capacity for bikers, Tsai says, “It’s pretty much packed all the time.”

The ride had small beginnings; Tsai and Tanzman were there for the first Square Lake Festival bike trip, when it drizzled and only a few people made it out. Even with the less-than-sunny weather, though, they had a good time. “We [typically] get there around early afternoon,” Tsai says. “There’s plenty of time to go swim in Square Lake or get your tent set up and just chill.”

Bike participation has grown exponentially since year one, according to Creager. It’s become a draw in itself, testing the limits of what people imagine as a “daily ride.” It has also built community among people who begin the ride as strangers. The day after the festival, Tsai says, “new friends group up, grab breakfast in Stillwater, and head back together.”

Creager sees great value in the bike ride. “It’s become a very big aesthetic and philosophical element of the event,” he says. “I’ve noticed that when people bike to the event, they get there and their heart’s pumping. They park their bike, and suddenly they’re in this arts event. People who’ve experienced it that way have a special shine in their eyes when they tell me about it.”

Creager’s eyes still have a special shine when he talks about the time Sonny Knight rolled up to the stage in a ’71 Buick Mercury, or when a sixth-grader got to showcase her animation at the festival, or when Square Lake began accepting international films for submission (they now compose 20-percent of the films screened). Knudson fondly remembers Gao Hong, who played the pipa (a type of lute), and a film score created for “The Red Balloon,” a 1956 French featurette. The latter, she said, was magical.

Square Lake acts as a harbor for the art community, drawing fans of various films and musicians and helping them discover new favorites. This year, the music lineup includes The Cactus Blossoms, ZULUZULUU, The Blind Shake, and Aby Wolf with Eric Mayson. Performing original film scores are Dreamland Faces and Paul Fonfara & the Ipsifendus Orchestra. It’s all a bit eclectic; each year, the festival’s mix of film and music works to surprise people with art they may not have sought out on their own.

Earlier this year, Knudson and Creager, who is also the curriculum coordinator at Gordon Parks High School in St. Paul, spent several months living in India on a Fulbright Scholar grant to research the ways films can create change in communities. “Because we’re named after a filmmaker, it makes sense that our curriculum would connect with film,” he says of Gordon Parks. Also benefitting from his travels is Square Lake Festival, which is sure to mature and grow due to Creager’s experiences. He says he and Knudson are hoping to book an Indian performer next year, and they’ve already started sharing films between their communities.

Like travel, Square Lake Film & Music Festival is meant to be an adventure. Spending the weekend on a scenic trail, both in a literal sense and through new expressions of culture, seems like the ultimate choose-your-own. No matter how you plan your itinerary—biking or not biking, standing by the stage or heading to a food truck—Square Lake should be an event of discovery and friendship. Creager says, “Every second of the day is really full of art.”

This article was produced as a part of a collaboration between 89.3 The Current and The Growler, a monthly craft beer lifestyle magazine covering the best stories in beer, food, and culture. Find this article online and in print in the August edition of The Growler.