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Lack of Understanding of Minnesota and a Lousy Product? Sound Familiar?

State's quarter ideas are bad, even deadly
Nick Coleman, Star Tribune

Published February 22, 2004

That is one sick duck.

Minnesota will soon get its own quarter, but the final four designs, unveiled Thursday, are as boring as a day hoeing weeds in a corn patch. Three of the four include loons that seem to have lost their head feathers. Our state bird, the common loon (gavia immer), has a glorious black head and beak, but these birds are bald albinos that look as if they are afflicted by loon ticks.

Here's a new tourism slogan: "Minnesota -- Something has gone wrong with our loons, but why not give us a try?"

The commission choosing a design for our state quarter -- which will be minted next year -- is led by Cheri Pierson Yecke, the state education commissioner who has been working overtime issuing new education standards that have to be rewritten. Maybe she hasn't had time to worry about the quarter, but these designs make us look like hicks from the sticks.

Just like the Wisconsin and Iowa quarters.

If you wonder why the Upper Midwest is a blank spot in the national imagination, our quarters make it easy to understand: There is no here, here.

Wisconsin's quarter, due out this year, has a cow head, some cheese and an ear of corn, along with the motto: "Forward." Forward to what? The 19th century? The Iowa coin, also due this year, isn't any better. It shows a one-room schoolhouse. And Flyover Land won't get much help from South Dakota and North Dakota, both due out in 2006: Prairie dogs and sugar beets won't make anyone come see us. That leaves it to Minnesota.

And we are dropping the coin.

"These designs show a startling lack of artistic acumen and imagination about what Minnesota is all about," says Karal Ann Marling, professor of art history at the University of Minnesota. "I'd rather see a box of cake mix, or a roll of Scotch tape."

She is joking, but only a little. The coin designs are supposed to reveal something of a state's history and culture. But the proposed designs say nothing about Minnesota's 3M's: milling, medicine and manufacturing. Instead, they reduce us to hackneyed stereotypes -- pine trees, fishing, sick ducks.

One of the designs -- the least bad of the bunch -- shows an outline of the state, the requisite loon, and a couple of Bubbas in a boat, with one of them standing up in the bow. It looks more like the piney woods of Georgia than Minnesota, but there's another issue: Check this out from the safety section of the Minnesota Boating Guide from the Department of Natural Resources:

"What accident causes the most deaths among boaters?"

Answer: "Falls overboard and capsizing. In a small boat, resist the urge to stand up."

These quarters aren't just poorly designed. They could kill.

Why not Paul Bunyan? Or Herb Brooks? The state seal? Or Ursa Major, the Big Dipper, pointing to the North Star, with the state's motto, "L'Etoile du Nord"?

"It looks like all we do here is sit around fishing," says Marling, who has written extensively on the power of popular symbols, including a book on roadside statuary, "The Colossus of Roads: Myth and Symbol Along the American Highway" and "Blue Ribbon," a history of the Minnesota State Fair.

Marling said she liked the idea of a solitary snowflake on the Minnesota quarter but the United States Mint -- the folks who can't tell a duck from a loon -- vetoed it. And so we are down to four bad finalists, with Gov. Tim Pawlenty supposed to choose the winner by May.

The governor should just say no. And order Yecke back to the drawing board (she's used to it).

"There's only one thing to do," Marling says.

"Start over."