In the News: Art, from the heart, blossoms on Chicago Avenue

In the News: Art, from the heart, blossoms on Chicago Avenue

by Kristin Tillotson, Star Tribune
June 4, 2013

Undaunted by the chilly twilight drizzle, around 40 people showed up at Pillsbury House Theatre one evening last weekend for a bicycle tour of the ’hood.

Not everyone might see the appeal in pedaling around a crime-troubled, inner-city area after sundown, but this trip offered a special treat — the chance to spy a bunch of artsy eyes painted on driveways, garages and sidewalks along Chicago Avenue in south Minneapolis, visible only via black lights triggered by motion detectors.

“It was goofy, it was magical, it’s exactly the kind of thing we should be doing more of because it’s so out of the box,” said Rachel Breen, an artist and teacher at Anoka Ramsey Community College who had so much fun she’s coming back with her teenage son to bike the route again.

“Somebody had a big sound system on their bike, giving us a great soundtrack to our ride, and people were throwing open their windows as we went by, asking what was going on.”

The “Eye Site” project is one of 20 separate artistic endeavors combined for cumulative effect in the yearlong Arts on Chicago experiment along the avenue between 32nd and 42nd Streets, a nexus of four adjoining neighborhoods. The effort, involving nearly 40 local artists, is being celebrated Saturday with a day’s worth of events.

This is not art on a grand scale. It’s art on a personal scale, meant to share. Wide-ranging themes and media include murals; mobile poetry and sign-making shops; a “nature tour” spotlighting easily overlooked points of interest like rabbit tracks in sidewalk cement, and temporary installations like “Fiber Sprawl,” an ever-changing knitted sculpture created by locals at “glitter knitter” Steven Be’s Yarn Garage.

“Street presence and familiarity are important,” said photographer Wing Young Huie, whose Third Place Gallery and apartment are at 38th and Chicago. “Several of the projects have had walking tours, so people who are from outside of the area as well as locals are finding out things they didn’t know about this corridor.”

Stephanie Rogers, who leads “urban nature” walks marked by signposts featuring her photographs, was taking pictures of weeds in a parking lot when a man stopped to ask if she was documenting a crime scene.

“I must have looked funny on my hands and knees, taking a photo of what most people think of as nothing,” she said. “I told him that I am a nature photographer. I think that answer surprised him.”

Marcia Howard, a teacher at Roosevelt High School who has lived in the ’hood for 16 years, allowed Rogers to post one of her signs — the one marking the bunny tracks in cement — in her front yard.

“I’ve noticed people walk by, stop and look down at the tracks,” she said. “It’s a great way to take a moment and think about how nature is still asserting its right to be here.”

Building ties through art

With a budget of nearly $420,000 — including $250,000 from ArtPlace America, a national group of a dozen public and private funders — the goal of Arts on Chicago was to increase community engagement and shift the public’s view of the area from semi-shady to “cultural district.”

While the project has a finite timeline, the momentum won’t be lost. A State Arts Board grant will fund a new “Art Block Leader” initiative, through which artists will continue community outreach on a block-by-block basis.

Efforts like Arts on Chicago can help boost home values, said Chris Dennis of Lakes Area Realty. “Look at the reputation of northeast Minneapolis,” he said. “I just showed a house to a musician who wants to live there just because of all the arts around. As soon as you start injecting money in neighborhoods for the arts, it improves home prices and sales.”

While it’s too early to judge whether the project is a success, some of those who live and work along Chicago say it’s made the place feel friendlier — and given non-artists a chance to show their creative sides.

Hai Huynh, who owns Tip-Top Haircut between 37th and 38th Streets, spoke of playing classical guitar for the crowd at an opening at Huie’s gallery. “My father usually just plays for himself when he’s alone in the shop,” said Huynh’s son, who translated his father’s Vietnamese. “But the guy came and invited him and everyone in the community to come over.”

A few doors down, at the corner of 38th and Chicago, the Cup Foods store features photos of neighbors by Huie, whose project “We Are the Other” adorns shop windows up and down the 10-block stretch. Police call the corner a trouble hotspot. A couple months ago, bullets whizzed through the store during a suspected gang confrontation. But Huie’s portraits on the ceiling have helped to draw new faces into the 25-year-old business, said owner Samir Abumayyahaleh.

“This is a very diverse neighborhood,” he said. “Things like this create connections between people they might not have felt before.”

Peter Haakon Thompson, a multidisciplinary artist who calls his primary media “participation, interaction and conversation,” held a series of outdoor workshops so residents could paint their names on signs, lake cabin-style, that will be posted along Chicago.

More important than the artistic merit of the signs, he said, are the spontaneous chats that spring up between the people who stop by to make them, and the sense of place that personal signs connote.

“They meet other neighbors, they talk about where their names come from,” he said. “Everyone has a story about their name. Then they see that name on a post in their neighborhood and think: This is my place, this is where I live. And other people driving by, who aren’t from there and maybe haven’t had a good impression, see a cluster of signs and think: People live here. People with those names.”

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