Home Is Where the Art Is

Artists and city planners are shopping for a new home for a north-side landmark

It's not that Seitu Jones is the kind of artist who thinks every creation must last forever. On the contrary, says Jones, it's not uncommon for public works of art to be torn down, moved, or merely left to disintegrate outside in the elements. It has happened to his own work many times. "Artists have to get used to the fact that once they make something, they don't own it anymore," he explains. "They have to let go."

But "Celebration of Life," the mural that graces the intersection of Olson Memorial Highway and Lyndale Avenue North, is different, Jones says. He feels protective of it and the artists who created it. As a child he lived in Sumner Field, the public-housing project that used to stand behind the mural. And in many ways he still considers the place home. "It was designed for that particular site," Jones says. "It was a link to the community that was right behind it, Sumner Field, which has always been home to the most recent immigrants to Minnesota, whether they were from the Iron Range or Mississippi or Laos."

Roderic Southall worries that if the mural at Highway 55 and Lyndale Avenue North goes into storage it may be forgotten
Tony Nelson
Roderic Southall worries that if the mural at Highway 55 and Lyndale Avenue North goes into storage it may be forgotten

In recent months, however, Jones has had to make a reluctant peace with the fact that the mural will be moved to make way for a giant redevelopment that will entirely replace the housing project that once sat just northwest of downtown Minneapolis.

Painted on a concrete sound barrier under the direction of Jones and longtime Twin Cities artist Ta-coumba Aiken, the 200-foot mural was finished in 1996 following an entire summer of painting by 15 local artists. It was the first time Minnesota had allowed something to be painted on a sound barrier. And it was the first time nationally acclaimed muralist John Biggers, who died last month at the age of 76, had let other artists re-create one of his original images.

The mural depicts the continuum of life using symbols of African folk art and Asian and Native American designs set against a striking blue background. It tells a story that can be read from left to right beginning with the birth of the universe. Biggers preferred the piece be read from the midpoint: Going left means traveling back to the dark origins of creation. Going right allows the viewer to experience the light of being. Wash pots and scrub boards, and symbols of the womb as a source of rebirth, are used throughout the work. The mural was meant to honor and inspire a community that had seen more than its share of hardship. When it was finished, artists and city officials hailed the piece as a "landmark" and a "gateway" to the near north side.

More than five years later, the mural looks oddly out of place. Whereas the two upright concrete slabs used to hold a neighborhood in a 90-degree embrace, they now straddle a giant vacant lot. In 1992 residents of the public-housing projects and their advocates sued the city and federal governments, claiming officials had segregated them into decrepit housing. The lawsuit--known as Hollman--was settled in 1995, and as a result in the intervening years all 770 units of public housing that once surrounded the mural have been demolished, their residents forced to move. Some of the people displaced by the bulldozers took the city up on an invitation to participate in public meetings to plan the new development that would be built on the site. One thing the former residents asked was that the mural be allowed to stay. It is part of the community, they argued. It belongs here.

In coming weeks the City of Minneapolis is slated to break ground on a new 900-unit residential district on the site. Under the terms of the Hollman settlement, the redevelopment must include 200 public-housing units. But other than that, there's little contemplated in the blueprints that could be called affordable. City officials hope the project will attract more professionals with money to spend to the downtown area. And one thing's for sure: With developers hoping to sell many units in the $200,000 range, the gray concrete sound barrier that blocks the planned neighborhood's view of the downtown skyline is going to have to go.

It would be easiest to tear the mural down. But, while many promises made to the former residents of Sumner Field have been broken, city officials seem committed to keeping the mural in the community. Months of meetings between city leaders and some of the artists who created the mural have resulted in a few proposals for relocating the art that look promising, says Lois Eberhart, the city's near-north-side manager for Open Space and Infrastructure. Fifteen sites have been considered so far, she says, and the artists have rejected some. They vetoed a plan to use the mural as a backdrop for a soccer field, for instance, as well as several ideas that involved separating the mural into sections and spreading it around the redevelopment.

"There are a lot of things to consider when talking about moving the mural," Eberhart says. "We have to think about what the original intent of the piece was and also about how it can best be included at the new site. It's always been an icon in the community, and we are going to keep it."

There are no estimates yet of how much it will cost to move the mural, Eberhart says, nor any plan for financing the relocation. A small piece of city-owned land where Dunwoody Boulevard intersects with the off-ramp from Interstate 394, just north of the Walker Art Center and the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden, is widely considered the most promising new home for the piece. "If it went there it could be an extension of the sculpture garden and it would also remain a gateway to the near north side that would be very visible from downtown," she explains.

Unfortunately, the spot is a former wetland with soggy and unstable soil. If the huge concrete structure has to be placed on pilings to keep it from sinking into marshy ground, costs could rise dramatically. Also, if the Dunwoody site is ultimately chosen, the mural most likely would have to be stored somewhere for a couple of years while other parts of the redevelopment, including a boulevard linking downtown to the new community, are built.

Artist Roderic Southall, who was involved with the creation of the mural and the meetings about its future, fears that the giant painting could be damaged in the process. "It could deteriorate rapidly in storage," he says. "Moisture and heat could be problems. It's just paint on concrete and it won't hold up well." Worse still, he says, as years go by it could wind up lost and forgotten. "What if people who have helped us aren't around anymore when it comes time to take it out again?" he asks. "[City council president] Jackie Cherryhomes has really been our angel on this project. She respects the wall as a piece of art and she believes it should stay in the community. Someone else might not feel that way."

And even with a strong commitment, finding the money won't be easy, says Jack Becker, artistic director of the St. Paul-based nonprofit consulting organization Forecast Public Artworks. Unlike such cities as Seattle and Phoenix, Minneapolis doesn't make developers include public art in construction projects that are paid for with tax dollars. In 1988 the Minnesota Legislature created the "Percent for Art Program," which encourages government agencies to dedicate one percent of construction budgets to public art, Becker explains. "But since the requirement is optional, money usually gets used up in the development and there's nothing left over for art."

Becker, whose organization has helped find funding for many public art installations, including Wing Young Huie's Lake Street USA project, did a report for the city on opportunities for public art in the Hollman redevelopment about a year ago. Some of the ideas included sculptures, an amphitheater, and ways in which the large amounts of clay in the soil in that area could be used to create pieces near the sculpture garden. He says he hasn't heard anything from the city in recent months, but he remains hopeful that funding will be found for some of the suggestions.

Jones is one of many artists who have been consulted about adding other works of public art to the new community. Even if money becomes available, Jones wonders, who would the art be for and would they appreciate and care for it?

"Right now I just want the mural to find a new home where people welcome it," he says. "I wonder whether people will take care of it. Everyone was worried that it would be vandalized when we first put it in. But we knew it wouldn't because people saw it as a part of them. It was theirs. They wanted to protect it."

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