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image of state fair commemorative artwork, an illustration depicting various fair activities

Courtesy of the Minnesota State Fair

In late spring 2019, Minneapolis-based cartoonist and illustrator Kevin Cannon learned that he had been chosen as the Minnesota State Fair’s commemorative artist for 2020.

“It’s a huge deal,” he told MinnPost yesterday by phone. “It sounds hyperbolic, but I can’t think of a bigger honor as a Minnesotan and a cartoonist than to be able to do something like this. I was thrilled beyond belief.”

He was asked not to tell anyone except his wife, Maggie, until the official announcement months later. “I’ve never had to keep a big secret that long, and it was hard not to spill the beans.”

The announcement came in January 2020, and he met his Feb. 28, 2020, deadline. Cannon knows all about deadlines; his cartoon maps have appeared often in the Star Tribune, and he has illustrated several children’s books and “The Cartoon Introduction to Philosophy.”

The 2020 commemorative artist became the 2021 commemorative artist. The art didn’t change much. Cannon’s intent from the start was to create something aspirational, a representation that transcended any specific year. “Something that would last for all the days that weren’t the 12 days of the State Fair,” he said. “To be able to relive that experience.”

The original, unveiled late Tuesday afternoon before a small crowd at the fairgrounds, is a 22½ x 30″ painting done in ink and watercolor. Cannon usually works digitally, using scans and Photoshop, but “the State Fair is such a special occasion I didn’t even question it when they asked for an original watercolor painting.”

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A vivid and humorous cartoon map of the fair from the North End Event Center to the International Bazaar, the Grandstand to the Cattle Barn, the Haunted House, the Mighty Midway, the Dairy Building, the Giant Slide and the Space Tower, Cannon’s art is jam-packed with details, including crowds of people. We counted 20 human figures just along the bottom edge. Even Cannon doesn’t know how many he drew, but he thinks it might be fun for someone else to count them.

If you bring home a poster or check it out at the fair, where it will be widely available (the original will be on display in the Fine Art Center), you’ll want to look at it through a magnifying glass. The closer you get, the more you see. It’s almost like watching an animated cartoon. There are things happening everywhere. If you’ve been to the fair, and especially if you love the fair, you’ll find many of your own memories in Cannon’s witty, light-hearted, big-hearted drawings.

We had questions. This conversation has been edited and condensed.

photo of kevin cannon discussing his illustration

MinnPost photo by John Whiting

Artist Kevin Cannon discussed his illustration

MinnPost: What changes did you make to bring the art from 2020 to 2021?

Kevin Cannon: We had discussions about, you know, do we address the COVID issue? Do we put people in masks? I’m really glad we decided against that, because just on a drawing level, that would have been a pretty big pain in the butt. So except for changing the dates and adding a little banner that says “Great Minnesota Get-Back-Together,” everything is pretty much the same.

MP: Do you hide things in your art, like Martin Hanford [“Where’s Waldo?’] and Richard Scarry [“What Do People Do All Day?”]?

KC: First, I would like to tell your readers that there is no Waldo. I’ve been looking at comments online and it seems like every other one is “Hey, is Waldo in there?” or “Where’s Waldo?”

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Sometimes in my maps I will do very specific references. Like I’ll hide Bob Dylan in the background or something like that. But because this is such a big, sort of universal image, I didn’t want to tie it down with specific references that aren’t related to everybody. Even the performers on the stages aren’t representing real people.

But I did include family members. If anybody is looking through the map and sees, like, a couple with, you know, holding a baby or something, there’s a good chance that I’m related to them.

If you look to the middle part of the water tower, I’m straight to the left, probably an inch. That’s me with the beard, and my wife with red hair, holding our son on my shoulders.

MP: The press release mentioned “a secret message winding throughout the painting.”

KC: There is, and that’s all the information I want to give. I wanted at least one thing that people could hunt for. Basically, it’s a message that’s cut up into maybe 12 or 13 different parts. Once they find one piece, I think it’ll be pretty obvious how to piece them together.

MP: Have you included a favorite joke?

KC: I love jokes about people literally biting off more than they can chew. One of the fun parts about being a cartoonist is that I can overexaggerate sizes and relationships. So we have people with huge corn dogs and Pronto Pups, people taking bites out of huge ice cream cones. Things like that. People maybe enjoying the fair too much.

MP: Can you walk us through your process?

KC: First was the research phase, where I spent a lot of time on the ground during the 2019 fair, taking visual notes and photos and trying to get a sense of the layout. And noticing small things, like the benches. They’re kind of like little sculptures, some of which I’d never noticed before. I wanted to make sure that those were on the map.

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After that, I literally went to the drawing board. I took an actual map of the State Fair, cut up the blocks, and tackled each block one by one. I did sketches based on photographs I had taken and others from the State Fair [archives]. I worked up a little caricature portrait of each block, pieced those together into kind of one big sketch, and sent that off for approval. From there, I was able to actually draw the thing.

I light tabled the rough sketch onto the final paper, and then the pencil and then the whole thing. And then the watercolor. So it was many different steps in many different layers to get to the final draft.

I’m used to drawing on very small pieces of paper. Even if it’s for a big map, I’ll scan them in and piece them together in Photoshop. This was a huge piece of watercolor paper. I created something that imitates a typewriter. It was a sort of MacGyver move, with an old shelf and an old wrapping paper roll. It allowed me to roll the page to have the top right in front of me, so I could just sit and draw that way instead of having to lean over and kill my back.

[This series of photographs illustrates Cannon’s process and his invention.]

MP: There’s a lot of lettering on the finished piece. Who checked your spelling?

 KC: I left that to the State Fair.

MP: Is there anything else you’d like to add?

KC: I just want to emphasize what a huge honor it is to be a part of this, especially as we get to go back to the State Fair for the first time in two years.