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We're all connected. We're all one. We know as much from Coors and Coke commercials, and from the hard-body yoga instructor down the street who reminds us that every living thing is part of the whole, as she pushes us to do things to our body that are more Army of One than oneness. But Allen Christian, the proprietor of the anti-gallery House of Balls in the Warehouse District of Minneapolis, knows firsthand about connectedness. He learned from an experience that very likely didn't befall the likes of Rumi or Rob Brezsny.
"In 1992, a photographer friend of mine and I were in the Rossmor building in St. Paul," Christian says, sitting in a thrift-shop chair surrounded by a cavalry of his found-object metallic creatures and bowling ball sculptures. It was "this seven-story building that housed artists until they turned it into condos a few years ago," he continues. "We were up there and we heard a woman screaming. We looked down and this guy was beating the fuck out of a woman. We called 911 and went down and apparently five guys got out of a car. The last thing I remember is waking up the next morning throwing up blood. My family didn't recognize me. My face was swollen. Every bone in my face had been kicked in."
He glances at the plump white-and-beige cat lounging on the floor at his feet. Belly-up, grinning, looking for someone to scratch her tummy. Or, not. Christian laughs softly. "This is House of Balls," he says, then continues:
"The month before it happened, I had actually met the plastic surgeon who operated on me. Before the surgery I told him what had happened, and he said, 'Are you kidding me? My brother-in-law is the one who found you.' And one of the guys who assaulted me—I believe that somehow I, as a member of society, created him. He robbed an ATM that night, and you could say that we create these [violent criminals] out of neglect, out of denial, out of not standing up and speaking up when we see when something's wrong.
"It was this series of events that really led me to believe that I have a choice here: I can either close the world off, or I can really open it up and embrace it and trust that I was just in the wrong place at the wrong time that night. By giving of oneself, you kind of leave yourself open to the goodness of people. I think 99 percent of humanity...I think we're good people. That's why I leave the door open. I've been ripped off, but I'm not going to lock it. I'm not going to keep it closed. I just want to believe that that's not the world I'm going to live in."
So he doesn't. When I walk into House of Balls on Second Avenue North—it's half-hidden below street level—I find two sleeping cats guarding the premises. I look around at the artwork for 10 minutes, floating away on the opaque lights and the lush electronic music that bathes the room. Soon this neighborhood will fall into the beery orbit of the new Twinsville, but for now it feels more like the antihero's lair in V for Vendetta.
From the subbasement comes the sound of a power tool and metal-on-metal, so I climb down the stairs to find Christian working with welding goggles on, oblivious to the outside world. Including me. I stand there for five minutes, not wanting to startle him. I could be any one of the downtown denizens and street dwellers who have passed through the House of Balls door at all times of day and night.
With sparks flying around him, Christian is touching up his latest creation—a life-sized contraption of steel-piped body parts topped with a BINGO game tumbler and a World War I infantrymen helmet. When I finally do interrupt, his surprise is that of a laid-back party host who has been expecting you, who has known you forever.
"I've been here for 20 years," he says. "Friends come in, and complete strangers. Certain people just can't get over the fear of walking in here. It goes against anything they have confronted in their lives. The sign says 'open,' but they look through the door and it just doesn't quite make sense. I can be out there inviting them in, but it's just not going to happen."
Nowadays artists and gurus of all stripes are preaching oneness, love, and the value of solitude—and making good money on the self-help circuit for their efforts. Then there's Christian, an electrician by trade, who employs a workingman's approach to his art and collects no cover charge to tour his cabinet of wonders. (Individual pieces are for sale.) Every nook of the small gallery harbors a beaming, grimacing jack-o'-lantern face, festooned on bowling bowls, frying pans, silver platters, ashtrays, and the like. Christian is the choirmaster to this silent chorus, whose song is a counterpoint to America's addiction to stuff.
One piece features two giant 10-cent coins with the words, "It's Time for a Pair a Dimes Shift." Another is a 20-year-old statue whose ghostly black figure could be the harpy cousin to Rodin's Burghers of Calais, draped in a tattered American flag. Another is a portrait of Christian's parents, both of whom died in the last four years, honored with the words, "Till Death Do Us Part."
"It's hard to put into words what I'm trying to do," Christian says. "On some level, I think it fills a spiritual void." Christian, who is 49 years old and a divorced father of two, attended Ascension Catholic Grade School and North High in north Minneapolis. "In many ways, thematically, I kind of go back to the Catholic religion I was raised in but don't practice anymore. But those ideas about ascension and crosses...over the years [crucifixes] have come back into the work. And at this point in my life, they're really this symbol about taking flight. It's not about hanging there, deathlike. It's actually about spreading your wings. The whole posture, the gesture, is about flying.
"I believe we are creating our own heaven and hell here. We can choose what we want it to be, what kind of energy to take in and put out. It's a futile effort to know what lies beyond, so why not embrace the idea that we can make this heaven?"
Christian trails off, distracted by the sound of a chair rolling across the floor and the loud high heels click-clacking on the office floor above. "Sometimes," he says, "I just grab that broom and slam the hell out of the [ceiling] up there."
Jim Walsh can be reached at 612.372.3775 or firstname.lastname@example.org