The Writing on the Wall

Divining the future of a city one mural at a time

Leisa Luis, Stephen Lick,
and community


3325 Garfield Ave. S.

Michael Dvorak

NSP Substation

Minneapolis * 1996

You could argue that an NSP substation is no less monumental an aesthetic blot on the community than a sound wall. Once again, the structure suffers the curse of utility. A city couldn't exist without such places, but the barren presence of such buildings takes its psychological toll. Exhibit A: this squat brick bunker plopped on the corner of Garfield Avenue and 33rd Street, resting solidly in that spot like a mausoleum, though without a crypt's gothic grandeur. The very presence of this building threatens to suck the vitality of the neighborhood into its brownish vacuum.

How dynamic the change, however, once the box was rechristened Garfield Aquarium. Although the structure of the building remains fundamentally unchanged, its mood has been transformed by the addition of several fanciful panels. Where once there were brown, windowless rectangles, now exotic fish appear to swim, as if the entire building were filled with aquatic life. Swimming in squiggles of aquamarine blues and greens, the fish peer out through bulbous eyes at the non-aquarium world beyond--a realm that now must compete to be as colorful and intriguing as this imagined fishworld.



José Curbelo, Constanza Carballo, Wolf Bellecourt, and others


2300 Cedar Ave. S.

Minneapolis * 1998

And yet more brick boxes. I never knew that there were so many scattered throughout Minneapolis until I embarked upon this survey. This particular box huddles in the corner of a small park within the shadows of the confused loop of overpasses that tangle Highway 55 into the fabric of south Minneapolis. Surrounding the box are two baseball diamonds and two basketball courts, along with a standardized notice--protected by a caged metal window--welcoming you to a "federally recognized Weed & Seed community."

The two walls of the building that José Curbelo and his crew, Creative Energy Murals, have decorated promise to improve the tenor of the neighborhood--without any federal recognition. Native American in theme, the mural is bathed in browns and blues, with totemic stone animals somberly dominating the foreground. A border of paint-splashed rocks surrounds the two-sided piece, creating a kind of protected artistic space, safe from the encroaching traffic, which treats the neighborhood as nothing more than a way to get from downtown to the airport.



Roger Cummings, Peyton, and others


1890 Glenwood Ave. N.

Minneapolis * 2000



Ta-coumba Aiken and Harrison Neighborhood Association


1889 Glenwood Ave. N.

Minneapolis * 1987



When you've been scouting murals a bit, you begin to see the urban landscape differently. It doesn't take long. Your eyes become more active, seeking a place, not to rest, but to be stimulated. When there is less to observe, those eyes grow anxious. Driving north out of downtown Minneapolis on Glenwood Avenue, for instance, you start to think like a graffiti artist. Blank stone walls no longer assume a neutral character. They annoy, agitate, oppress you with their lack of imagination, with their stolid insistence on being drab.

The first full-bodied splash of life you encounter along this path is little more than an advertisement, a tumble of brightly colored popcorn spilling into an array of lollipops and ice-cream scoops. This is the Popcorn Palace, a north Minneapolis sweets shop, and a small but welcome reward for enduring the industrial blandness of the past few miles.

Next up are two very different pieces of mural art, on opposite corners of Morgan and Glenwood.

One is a rococo tangle of graffiti, a dense thicket of bubbled and jagged lettering from which faces and hands emerge. The other is a more conventionally boosterish neighborhood panorama: a mix of colorfully rendered local landmarks and neighbors, including one woman perched atop a mailbox. The difference between the old and new styles is jarring, but soon your eyes settle. All murals are slightly jarring in their unexpectedness; they set themselves apart from the uniformity of their surroundings. Soon you see what these two pieces have in common--a formal restlessness, an exuberance, a desire not to be expected no matter how many times you've seen them before.



Ta-coumba Aiken


Life Skills Development Center

905 Selby Ave.

St. Paul * 2000


When you talk about murals, sooner or later you wind up talking about children. There are many reasons for this. Some are coincidental: Artists paint in summer, artists want volunteers, and kids have a lot of free time between June and August. Some are idealistic: Many artists envision their work as part of a community-outreach project, and young people are the most open to their ideals. And some are practical: There's no better way to scrounge up funds for a community project than to say it helps the kids.

But even when youth aren't involved in the creation of murals, a great deal of public art has a childlike quality to it. When a mural's style leans toward the realistic, it gilds the everyday with a wide palette of color. When its style tends toward the abstract, the mural typically chooses the expansive chaos of curves and curls over the mathematical foreboding of edges and angles. Such is the case with Ta-coumba Aiken's fantasia of swerves and swirls, from which distinct heads and hands boisterously emerge. And, fittingly enough, this mural is found in a playground.

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