Of Beards And Men: Fine Art at the State Fair

Updated: 08/31/2013 12:35 PM
Created: 08/23/2013 5:35 PM
By: Josh Rosenthal

Thousands of artists enter the State Fair's Fine Arts Competition every year, but only the best of the best make the cut.

When it comes to fine art though, the "best" isn't necessarily what you'd expect. For instance, one of Joseph D.R. OLeary's photographs made it through two rounds of judging and into the actual State Fair Fine Art Exhibition.

OLeary's subject matter of choice? Men's beards.

"I started this project, and it just kind of got bigger and bigger and bigger and bigger," he laughed.

It started because the graphic artist and photographer had a fascination with beards.

"You know like there's philosophers with beards. Jesus had a beard," OLeary explained.

He decided to make a coffee table book full of pictures of men with beards. His instructions for the men were simple: bring a couple changes of clothes and some props that help illustrate who you are as a person.

That idea, however, wouldn't work without the beards, so OLeary printed postcards reading, "IS YOUR BEARD READY FOR ITS CLOSE-UP?," slapped on his email address, and distributed them all over the Twin Cities.

Yes, he got some funny looks.

"Are you just like collecting photos of bearded men or what?" OLeary recalled one man asking. "But anyway, it was like really a legitimate project."

From there, he started a Kickstarter page to raise money for the project, now named Of Beards and Men, and ended up raising more than $40,000. Then the media took notice -- international media, like the Huffington Post and the UK's Daily Mail.

"It's like every time I go on [the web] in the morning," he smiled, "I get these Google alerts that pop up and it's like 'Of Beards and Men is in Australia.'"

Next, the beards started to roll in. They didn't just come from Minnesota either. Bearded men from all over the country made the trek to OLeary's tiny Columbus studio.

So who exactly agrees to pose for a book like this? The answer might surprise you.

Andrew Joyer is a fourth generation farmer from Lino Lakes. He's got sheep, he's got crops, and it turns out -- he's got a Minneapolis Beard and Mustache Club membership.

When he first heard about the Of Beards and Men project, Joyer recalled wondering: "what's this guy doing wanting to take pictures of men? Where does he live? Is it in a dark basement?"

Reservations aside, he agreed to take part in the project.

"I'm like, you know what? The mustache isn't ready," Joyer told OLeary at the time. "I'll call you when it is."

A month or so later, he left his sheep and drove to the studio.

The result? A picture featuring Joyer's beloved leather jacket and his beloved garden hoe -- that ended up being OLeary's State Fair entry that made the cut.

Joyer said OLeary's picture succeeded in capturing who he is really is.

"Andrew has been caught," he laughed. "Yeah, it's fantastic."

That, according to OLeary, turned out to be the point.

"It really wasn't about the beard at all," OLeary said months after taking the picture. "It ended up being about these men and who they were."

And who they were, at least according to the State Fair, was fine art.

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