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Robinson goes on to mention a particular curiosity about one artist--a sculptor at the time--who left with the rest. Robinson met her on their daily bus commute through Minneapolis. "We discovered we were both artists, so we ended up having these incredible conversations about art," she recalls. "I miss that kind of energy."
Something about the vividness of Robinson's recollections and her curiosity, decades later, about this lost cohort led me to track her down. What were this artist's feelings about her old home, at 20 years' remove? Her name popped up online as an art instructor in Massachusetts, and a call to information turned up the right person--fortunately, she'd kept her maiden name professionally, even though she'd married in the interim. Caught at her current home in Concord, Massachusetts, that artist, Kathleen Volp Leonard, remembers Robinson after some prompting.
"Oh my god," she says, slightly breathless as she recollects the bus rides of her youthful days. "That's incredible....There was such an incredible community of artists in the 1970s, it just amazes me. It was an explosion of great artists. An eclectic atmosphere."
Volp was successful for many years after she left Minneapolis for New York, creating illustrations for such publications as the New York Times, Ms., and GQ. In time, though, she tired of New York and reverted to being a painter and teacher (as opposed to a highly paid illustrator), and she moved to more pastoral Massachusetts, where she now lives with her husband and two growing kids. In many ways she doesn't seem to have gotten over the community she left behind in Minnesota.
"I tremendously miss the Twin Cities. There was always an openness there. I know I'm guilty of idealizing here, but there's a world of difference between people there and people on the East Coast."
It's difficult to tell how representative Volp's response is. Do artists put on rose-colored glasses regarding their former lives in Minnesota? Or are artists truly better off for having gotten out of here?
"I'm not convinced artists have it easier anywhere else," says Paul Shambroom, who has lived in the Twin Cities for 28 years, having moved here from New Jersey. "You don't necessarily need to live where you sell."
"New York is a rather stressful place and kind of expensive," says Todd Norsten when asked why he does not consider moving there, despite showing and traveling there regularly. "I'm partially tempted, but I have a real community and the land here [in Minnesota]. I like fishing on the Mississippi and duck hunting. I don't see that happening in New York....I'm not into the stress of living in New York. I'm kind of tempted, especially career-wise, but I'd rather have a life than a career."
Ex-Minnesota artists often struggle to pay the rents in bigger cities, and they struggle to keep their lives under control. Craig Finn, who now resides in Brooklyn, says he is energized by the big city, but there are difficulties. "New York is very inspirational," he says. "The stimulus and hearing things constantly, overhearing people on the subway. I write tons of lyrics just sitting on the subway....Still, with New York, it's so much more of a hassle just to get up and go to work, then come home. I expend so much energy. I go on, then all of a sudden it's a year later."
Adam Schindler knows it will be challenging once he goes to Los Angeles to start his filmmaking career. "I'll start sweeping floors--I don't care. As long as I'm there and meeting people who are doing it....I just want to go and eat ramen out of a cup, if that's what it takes."
New York and Los Angeles are not the only expensive places to be an artist. A number of ex-Minnesotan artists complain about the relative expense of living outside the Midwest. Volp laments the cost of her adopted town of Concord: "You should see all the McMansions they're putting in. We can't afford to stay."
"It's hard to be an artist in the Bay Area," says Matheson, "especially after the dot-com boom. In the Twin Cities, people have more control of their time. Because it's cheaper, it leads to a whole cultural feel that's different. San Francisco has gone from Bohemia to a Bohemian theme park."
While many artists who leave Minnesota have had some success in the wider world, most manifest a nostalgia for the community at home. In fact, ex-Minnesotan artists have a tendency to gather with their like whenever possible. "It's funny," says Esther Robinson, who often entertains Minnesotan friends at her house, "I definitely have an East Coast brashness, but I also have a Midwest heart--sentimentality, loyalty. I love my friends." She quickly adds, though, that she would never consider going back.
Today Todd Griffin and Robinson have the kind of existence one imagines for two young and talented New Yorkers. They hustle jobs, rush from theater to film studio to music club. In New York, Griffin has all but given up seeking theater and acting work, saying the scene is too cutthroat and thankless for his tastes. Still, he has managed to reinvent himself as a musician over the past two years, recording two albums of moody music, Tortuga and Light in the Aisles, that were well-reviewed by--who else?--St. Paul music writer Jim Walsh.
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