Meet the 12 Twin Cities artists of the year for 2019

Xochi de la Luna

Xochi de la Luna Emma Wondra

Meet the muralists, dancers, screenwriters, and comics who stood out in 2019.

Xochi de la Luna

Xochi de la Luna is a self-described weirdo.

“That’s what I’ve always been,” says de la Luna. “What I do is put on events where other weirdos thrive.”

One of the busiest artists in town, on any given night de la Luna may be a standup comedian, musician, event producer, emcee, or performance artist. They enjoy the challenge and reward of combining arts.

“I like to bring people together,” de la Luna says. “We have such a rich arts scene locally, but it can still feel very segregated. Dancers stick with dancers, comedians stick with comedians.”

Xochi is co-founder and producer of Vector 9, a monthly variety show that features black, brown, indigenous, and LGBTQ performers. Last summer, it celebrated its two-year anniversary. They also co-produce the (nearly) weekly standup showcase Uproar at Du Nord Craft Spirits.

“Uproar is probably the thing that I’m most proud of from 2019; seeing it grow from a very local showcase into something that has become much larger,” says de la Luna. “We have acts from Los Angeles, Kentucky—all over the place.”

As a performer, de la Luna is likely best known as host of the monthly cabaret Mother Goose’s Bedtime Stories, which also celebrated its two-year anniversary this summer.

As a comic, de la Luna stayed busy this year with Uproar as well as performing at other shows around town, including Maggie Faris’ annual Pride Comedy Blowout at Sisyphus.

“Comedy has been its own therapy for me,” they explain.

Regardless of the medium, de la Luna doesn’t feel the need to edge out other artists for stage time. Instead, they choose to create more opportunities to showcase talented folks.

“There is this scarcity mentality sometimes locally,” they explain. “I’m trying to show people that it’s not a competition, and that we all have our own beautiful thing to show.”

—Patrick Strait

Ashwini Ramaswamy

Ashwini Ramaswamy Arun Kumar

Ashwini Ramaswamy

How does an artist emerge from an intergenerational, accolade-rich family business with her own identity? If you’re Ashwini Ramaswamy, you follow in your family’s footsteps. You also veer brilliantly in new choreographic directions with Let the Crows Come, a work of enchanting beauty, arresting movement, and inventive intelligence.

Crows was the first step in a new direction for me, which is making new work for non-Indian dancers using the principles of Bharatanatyam,” she says.

The project began four years ago. “I had a fleeting idea: I saw a connection between a DJ remixing a song without losing its essence and being an immigrant born here with multiple cultural backgrounds.” She sought out Liquid Music founder Kate Nordstrum for advice. Soon after, Nordstrum commissioned the piece.

Residencies followed, and so did grants and fellowships. Meanwhile, Ramaswamy worked with Jace Clayton (aka DJ/rupture), Brent Arnold (cello), and Prema Ramamurthy (classical Carnatic) on a score for Crows using ancient musical structures as departure points for electronic explorations.

Ramaswamy based her solo on Tamil Sangam poetry, Sanskrit texts, and Hindu rituals. She asked Alanna Morris-Van Tassel to give deep, full-body expression to her illustrative gestures. She asked Berit Ahlgren to manifest her Bharatanatyam movement in slow-motion reverse. Individually, their contributions are captivating. Together, the three illuminated the dance form’s future. And with that, Ashwini Ramaswamy arrived.

Next, Ramaswamy will tour Let the Crows Come. She’ll also be assisting her mother and sister with Ragamala’s next large-scale project, Fires of Varanasi.—Camille LeFevre

Theaster Gates

Theaster Gates L-R: Image by Sara Pooley; Bobby Rogers for the Walker Art Center

Theaster Gates

For years, Theaster Gates has been collecting abandoned objects large and small: buildings on Chicago’s South Side; books, magazines, and furniture from the Johnson Publishing Company; “Negrobilia” from the Edward J. Williams Collection. “Assembly Hall” brought selections from these collections into three immersive environments at the Walker Art Center.

The rooms rang out with Gates’ passion for the histories of African-American material culture, resurrecting undervalued or underappreciated things with unflinching honesty, and a revelatory juxtaposition of the reprehensible with the remarkable. “It’s the first time many of these collections have left the South Side of Chicago,” says curator Victoria Sung. “The exhibition is a deep dive into Theaster’s heart and brain.”

Gates is also a maker. The Walker acquired one of his paintings in 2010. In 2017, the museum commissioned Gates’ Black Vessel for a Saint, a salvaged statue of St. Laurence, the patron saint of librarians and archivists, for the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden.

“One of Theaster’s primary roles as an artist is to care for objects that already exist, reconfiguring them in the world with poetic interventions and remembered cultural histories,” says Sung. Gates reinvests the abandoned with meaning. In our consumer culture of obsolescence and forgetfulness, Gates’ practice is indeed profound.—Camille LeFevre

Work by Julie Buffalohead

Work by Julie Buffalohead Star Tribune/Brian Peterson

Julie Buffalohead

A St. Paul-based artist and member of the Ponca Tribe of Oklahoma, Julie Buffalohead populates her work with mischievous raccoons, upside-down crows, and coyotes. For “Storytelling,” Buffalohead’s current solo exhibition at the Minneapolis Institute of Art, she explores themes of displacement, white saviors, cultural appropriation, and violence.

In 2019, Buffalohead was awarded a Guggenheim fellowship, had a solo show at the Denver Art Museum, and was part of a number of group exhibitions, including the blockbuster “Hearts of Our People: Native Women Artists” at Mia.

“I really like the fact that Native women are being honored,” she says. “We sort of live in the shadows in a way. It’s nice to be recognized in that respect.”

Buffalohead’s mixed-media work in the show, The Garden, is an indictment of the Walker Art Center’s Scaffold debacle at the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden, and exemplifies Buffalohead’s knack for serving pointed criticism with humor.

Interestingly, the Walker owns the work, and lent it to Mia for the exhibition. “I think why people are drawn to that piece is that I’m making a commentary about something that happened not only in the Native world but in the art world,” Buffalohead says. “That isn’t always done. You don’t always criticize the institutions that are supporting you.”—Sheila Regan

Ashley Mary

Ashley Mary Beth Cath

Ashley Mary

Ashley Mary’s work has taken her to the beaches of Tulum, Mexico, the busy city streets of Scottsdale, Arizona, and the woods of Wisconsin. A painter and muralist, she has also collaborated with a swimwear line (Summer Salt) and a local jewelry designer (Larissa Loden), among others.

“Primarily what I do is murals, paintings, and product design,” she says. In her own words, her pieces are “abstract, colorful, textured, and playful.” Recently, she was tapped to paint an Evereve storefront, and was commissioned to make a piece for Google’s Los Angeles office. “That was a total ‘pinch me’ moment, getting to paint in the Google offices for two days by myself,” she says.

The Tulum trips, where she created colorful pieces both inside and out for a resort, were a highlight of 2019. “It was fantastic to see my mural in the middle of the jungle on a building,” she says.

What has surprised her the most about her career thus far? “Every single damn thing,” she admits. “I never intended to own my own business, and I never intended to do art full-time.”

Murals, however, are her passion, and she’s excited about what’s next. “I want to do them in unconventional spaces,” she says. “I’m learning as I go.”—Kara Nesvig

Pedro Pablo Lander in 'Dona Pepa'

Pedro Pablo Lander in 'Dona Pepa' Nic La France

Pedro Pablo Lander

Whether Pedro Pablo Lander is dancing in contemporary spaces, performing at drag and burlesque venues, or reading to kids during the much-loved Drag Story Hour, their exuberance, fearlessness, and allure dazzles onstage.

Last June, Lander’s Holy Donã was one of the highlights of Red Eye Theater’s New Works 4 Weeks Festival. In the outlandish, spectacular performance, Lander drew on their experience training to be a priest.

“I grew up extremely Catholic,” they say. “I was in seminary for a year. That created a rupture in my life... I had to get it out of my body.”

Lander was interested in finding the connection between Catholic rites and drag culture. In the BDSM-filled piece, Lander’s character, Doña Pepa, is crucified on a giant cross. They performed the first iteration of the show at a queer cabaret in Puerto Rico. After that, they were invited to show the work at Red Eye.

“To put it out there at this scale—for me, that was a lot of closure,” Lander says.

A Jerome Hill Fellow, Lander is planning a trip to Argentina in 2020 where they will work on a piece about migration and revolutions. They hope to show the work in the Twin Cities next summer.—Sheila Regan

She She

She She Judith Kostroski

She She

Jenny Jorgensen and Kate Worum, the duo behind She She, knew they’d made it when the Mall of America invited them to create a massive mural on its walls.

Jorgensen is an interior designer by trade, while Worum is an illustrator. They met at a dinner party that ended with the two sitting on the floor looking at wallpaper samples. Both felt that there was something missing in the wallpaper industry. Thus, She She was born.

A quick scroll through She She’s Instagram (@bysheshe) reveals both whimsy and sophistication: Glam chandelier illustrations set the tone for a dining room, adorable butts make a bathroom cheeky, colorful palm fronds transform a nursery.

“We want to create wallpaper that isn’t a complement to the room, but uniquely is the room,” explains Jorgensen. “We hope—and believe—that the storytelling and thoughtfulness behind our patterns create an experience... that is more of a lifestyle than a product.”

She She has created designs with Delta Faucet, the aforementioned blue floral mural at MOA, and a piece for Sunbrella using ice cream.

While these are major achievements, the two feel that their biggest accomplishment this year was launching their online store. Three designs are currently available: the beloved “bums” print, a rustic cabin design, and a pretty, pastel lilac bird print.

Bringing She She’s work into your home will get even easier in 2020. “We’re going to be heavily focusing on a cohesive collection of products that include textiles and home goods,” Jorgensen says. “We’re really excited to continue to cover the world in art.”—Kara Nesvig

Scott Z. Burns

Scott Z. Burns Chris Pizzello

Scott Z. Burns

Though his credits include films such as Side Effects, The Laundromat, and The Informant, screenwriter-director Scott Z. Burns, a Golden Valley native and U of M grad, took on an unprecedented challenge in The Report.

The story follows lead investigator Daniel J. Jones (Adam Driver) into a seven-year deep dive of the “enhanced interrogation techniques” used by the CIA on suspected terrorists following 9/11. Ultimately, Jones produced a 6,700-page report, of which only a 500-page summary was publicly released.

“What I found so profoundly moving about the plight of Daniel Jones is this guy spent seven years trying to uncover the brutal realities of what our country did and it was lost to the next news cycle in 24 hours,” Burns says. By making a movie about it, he hopes to save the story from the dustbin of history.

The film was released in theaters this fall. Burns says he has not experienced any backlash from political figures or other operatives named in the film, likely because by the time he came to the story in 2014, it had already been litigated publicly.

“It was my job in the film to depict it in as bipartisan and authentic a way as I possibly could,” he says. Then, with a laugh: “That being said, if I turn up dead sometime in the next few weeks, please call the authorities.”

Hopefully that won’t happen, because Burns is currently at work on a new scripted TV musical series set in Minnesota. His collaborator? Craig Finn from the Hold Steady. Look for that project in 2020.—Erica Rivera

Moe Yaqub

Moe Yaqub Image courtesy the standup

Moe Yaqub

A former child actor in Pakistan, Moe Yaqub moved to America eight years ago for college. At the time he barely knew the English language, and certainly didn’t aspire to standup comedy success. Three years ago, that all changed.

“I wanted to get back into acting. So I was thinking, ‘Who is on TV that looks like me?’” he recalls. “The only person I could think of was Aziz Ansari.” Google soon led him to discover Ansari’s standup sets and Acme’s open mic nights. “So I went down and performed. This all happened within the course of like, an hour.”

A few years later, Yaqub has developed into one of the funniest and most captivating storytellers in the Twin Cities across any medium. In 2019, Yaqub managed to score national exposure on SiriusXM radio. He also won the House of Comedy’s Funniest Person with a Day Job last summer.

As for his goals for 2020, Yaqub is hoping to produce more shows locally.

“I want to break the stereotypes about people from Pakistan,” he says. “I have this whole rollercoaster of emotions, and I want to tell people that story in a funny, engaging way.”—Patrick Strait

Jack El-Hai

Jack El-Hai Author pic by Elizabeth Barnwell

Jack El-Hai

On Saturday, November 10, 1951, the Klein brothers—Kenneth Jr., 8; David, 6; and Danny, 4—went to play at Farview Park in the Hawthorne neighborhood of north Minneapolis.

They never came home.

Days later, Minneapolis Police concluded (with miniscule evidence) that the boys had wandered down to the Mississippi River and drowned. Though no bodies were found, police closed the case. But the boys’ parents, Kenneth and Betty, didn’t buy it. They would continue to search for answers for the rest of their lives.

One of the Kleins’ search efforts was to place an advertisement in the Star Tribune every year around the anniversary of the disappearance. In 1997, a local writer, Jack El-Hai, happened to see the ad and called the phone number listed. He spoke the parents, and published an article about the case in Minnesota Monthly.

But El-Hai’s interest in the story was far from over. He kept in touch with the Kleins, and, in 2013, he received an email from a Wright County sheriff’s deputy, who was investigating the case in her spare time. The details of the boys’ disappearance, the ongoing investigation, and new theories about this mysterious tragedy are cataloged in El-Hai’s new book, The Lost Brothers.

The book has already spun off into a Twin Cities PBS podcast, Long Lost, which features interviews with Klein family members and parties involved in the investigation as well as audio from KSTP’s 1951 coverage of the disappearance. El-Hai hopes that the book and the podcast “will jog some memories, encourage people to come forth with information maybe that they heard second- or even third-hand.”

Because the case is almost 70 years old, and most of the people who were involved in the investigation are dead, a break is unlikely. But since the release of the book, El-Hai has received a few tips.

No matter where the Klein case leads, El-Hai is already working on his next book, a narrative nonfiction story about a patient who had a successful face transplant following a suicide attempt. That story, surprisingly, has a much happier ending.—Erica Rivera

Amber Bjorn (far right) in 'Blood Nocturne'

Amber Bjorn (far right) in 'Blood Nocturne' Alex Wohlhueter

Amber Bjork

Theater artist Amber Bjork breaks the fourth wall to interrupt storytelling and allow artists to question their roles in plumbing historical records. She did so, for example, in Winding Sheet Outfit’s 2018 show Blood Nocturne, about a woman with the dubious distinction of being history’s most prolific female murderer.

“We had separate responses: people being thankful that we underlined this female story by breaking out and talking about it, and others who really did not like it,” remembers Bjork.

Founded in 2012 by Bjork and Kristina Fjellman, Winding Sheet has since produced some of the hottest tickets on the Fringe scene. That includes this year’s droll and poignant show about Edward Lear, and a Twin Cities Horror Festival entry that unpacked the creepy layers of Lewis Carroll.

In addition to densely researched detail and pointed moral questions, Winding Sheet shows are distinguished by creative vignettes, ingenious props, inventive movement, and haunting original music.

This year, Bjork wants to produce a new show about “a really esoteric, traditional Swedish vision quest.” That sounds like another eye-opener, which is exactly what Bjork likes. “I enjoy it when people go and want to learn more,” she says. “That’s my favorite reaction.”—Jay Gabler

Keith Hovis

Keith Hovis Image courtesy the artist

Keith Hovis

Musical theater is experiencing a renaissance, and it’s not just the Hamilton effect. Keith Hovis is part of a generation of young theater artists who love musicals—but who are ready to start telling some new stories, in new ways.

This year saw the Park Square Theatre premiere of a full-length version of his Jefferson Township Sparkling Junior Talent Pageant, a sweet but subversive show that originated as a Fringe production in 2017.

“It was a lot of work,” he laughs. “I ended up writing about 17 different drafts.” That included over 30 songs, which were whittled down to about 20 that made the final cut.

Hovis followed that springtime show with a wildly inventive, rapturously received Fringe original: Edith Gets High, starring Debra Berger as a woman who likes to toke up and play video games. A malicious troll attacks, taking Edith on an odyssey that shreds stereotypes while also poking affectionate fun at gaming tropes.

“What does it mean when the thing you love the most turns against you or is made to be a space where you don’t feel welcome?” asks Hovis, citing the questions he wanted to explore.

You can expect to hear more from Hovis, and soon: Two upcoming projects include a Tyler Michaels collaboration and a musical created specifically as a podcast.

“In the Twin Cities, we’re a very strong scene,” he says. “But we also have the ability to take more chances.”—Jay Gabler