Remains of the Spray

A crumbling mill and its prodigious graffiti make for an unauthorized museum of industrial art

One flight up, graffiti cover the walls of offices, a backdrop to the rusty light fixtures that hang, wires dangling, from the ceiling. It's tempting to take a Polaroid of this scene, scribble "Your Future" on the back, and send it to the corporate barons of today. Success is fleeting, it would say: Someday, your corner office could look like this.

That's not a bad fate, all told--especially when the painting is done directly on the bones of the former factory. On Floor 5, six silver rectangular chutes rise up from the floor: Tagged on the edges, they look like something from the Walker Sculpture Garden. A rectangle of iron bars on the wall of Floor 6 becomes a frame for an unsettling piece painted entirely in cerulean blue--gear cogs and a bottle, punctuated with the words Manic Depression, Schizophrenia, and Burning Alive. Nowhere to Run From Yourself. A Floor 8 structure that looks like a silver rocket ship carries an eerie man and the question Till the End of the World?

But it's the roof that is the pièce de résistance.It offers a penthouse view of St. Anthony Falls, which powered this industry, stretching off in the distance in one direction. Look the other way and the downtown towers--city hall among them--are close at hand. On the downriver side, four small water towers and the Gold Medal letters loom over the black roof, where taggers have left their mark. The brick side walls are the territory of more accomplished painters, who have thrown up art like the elaborate Hot to Trot, which begins with a kicking leg in a fishnet stocking.

Gold Medal graffiti (clockwise from left): A portrait by the prolific Squid; a throw-up adds some volume to the desolate floor; a colorful piece on the roof has a leg up on lesser tags
Gold Medal graffiti (clockwise from left): A portrait by the prolific Squid; a throw-up adds some volume to the desolate floor; a colorful piece on the roof has a leg up on lesser tags

On the façade of the building, three pedestals rise up, culminating just below the roof of the building. There stand a trio of statues done by John K. Daniels (a prolific sculptor probably best known for the Leif Ericson of the state capitol and the bison in front of the Allianz building on Hennepin Avenue near the Walker). Two crouching primitive men--one with a mortar and pestle, the other holding a quern, a hand-powered grindstone--flank the modern miller, who's posing proudly with a roller mill. Ironically, like many of the laborers he represents, he has lost his right arm during his tenure here. The miller's good arm cradles a resting pigeon who will soon be forced to find a new roost.

As the sun sinks in the sky, an eagle appears, flying almost at roof level and then rising with the air currents until it's soaring over the city, over streets and schools named for the flour-milling families: Washburn, Crosby, Pillsbury, Dunwoody, Bell. For years, local painters and sculptors have toiled over grant applications addressed to those same names. But in this abandoned factory, artists who never asked for a penny of that money have thrown down plastic caps and claimed a crumbling piece of largess for themselves.

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