With 2020 nearly behind us (yay!), I’m looking back on some positive accomplishments during this pandemic year. Last time I looked at my book Better Politics, Please. This time I wanted to look at the “Community Cairn” public art project in West St. Paul.
The actual art park in West St. Paul started back in 2016. A bank foreclosed on a house and donated the land to the city with the stipulation that it remain park land. The city had a plan to make an art park, but no money to make it happen. They added some sidewalks and a bench, but otherwise it remained empty. I had inquired about the park a few times, but nothing was happening.
Way back in 2007, I started a public art mapping site (now defunct) called Start Seeing Art. So I knew firsthand how amazing public art can be and how much of it we have in the Twin Cities.
Except West St. Paul. Our little first ring suburb is a desert of public art. We have a couple commercial murals and a few cookie-cutter bronze statues. That’s it.
So I loved the idea of bringing public art to West St. Paul. The challenge was how did we make it happen.
In 2019 I met with Jack Becker at Forecast Public Art, looking for some insight into how we can fund public art. Jack had a ton of great ideas and ultimately sent me across the street (literally) to the Minnesota Regional Arts Council (MRAC). They have funding through Minnesota’s Legacy Amendment, where a portion of sales taxes goes to fund cultural, arts, heritage, sports, and water projects throughout the state.
Now that we had a funding source, we worked with the city to start an art park subcommittee of the Parks and Recreation Advisory Committee. We started sharing ideas, held an event in the park to get community input, and started writing our grant.
Given all the limitations of the site and funding, our vision was to create a catalyst for public art. We didn’t want to do a single sculpture and be done. We wanted to create a first step. Something that would spark more public art, both in the art park and around West St. Paul.
We finally narrowed in on a mosaic sculpture, something the community could be involved in creating and something that could be the first of several works at the art park. We worked with Lori Greene of Mosaic on a Stick, an artist I remembered from my Start Seeing Art days (in fact, I used to live in the neighborhood where her shop was and walked by her shop on a daily basis on my way to the bus).
We submitted our grant in late 2019 and in March 2020, just as the world was shutting down, we learned that we received the grant.
Of course the pandemic shutdown meant all of our careful planning was up in the air. It wasn’t even clear if we’d be able to do the project during 2020.
But we persisted, and changed plans, and tweaked things, and in August we started rolling things out. Our planned community event went virtual with an online video and survey (which actually drew in more people than we expected). Our plan to have community members help by gluing tile was deemed too risky, so we switched to writing thematic words on tile, which again involved more people. We originally planned to hold an event in partnership with a senior organization, but that wasn’t going to work with the shutdown. But switching to writing tiles meant the project was portable. We were able to drop off tile kits at two senior centers in the area and allow some of our most isolated residents to participate in the project.
Around 300 people in the community were involved in the project’s creation in some way.
In November, in the aftermath of the election and all the uncertainty, the sculpture was installed and we held a dedication event.
What It Means
In the video above, I try to explain what this project means. That portion of the video was shot during the dedication event. A few days earlier at the installation, I couldn’t quite describe my elation at seeing the finished project.
I just kept smiling like an idiot.
After all the work and uncertainty, it was finally there. It was bold and bright and wonderful. It made me so joyful to know our community came together—in the midst of an incredibly dark year, a year where we often couldn’t be community—to create a powerful statement about who we are. To create something that could spark so much more creativity and art and wonder right here in West St. Paul.
And I just smiled.
After finishing the installation and everyone else left, I stayed. I kept walking around the sculpture, marveling at what we’d done. At one point I just had to sit down on the blue bench and take it all in.
Stay hopeful everybody.
This project involved the contributions of a lot of people. Our subcommittee did a lot of the legwork. Dave Schletty with the City of West St. Paul did so much. Local artist Carolyn Swiszcz brought artwork and energy and heart. Joan Hutter rallied local gardeners and envisioned ways to add more than grass to the park. More than a dozen people donated to our GoFundMe. Several local businesses chipped in. One longtime resident, who moved away in 2020, made a large matching donation to help us get the rest of our funds. She called it her going away present to West St. Paul. And a big, big thank you to artists Lori Greene and Juliette Myers, as well as Adrienne Sherman who helped with the installation.
The generosity abounds.
I could use a break from all the planning and working on this project, but the question of what’s next always comes up. I’m hopeful we can do more in the art park and more around West St. Paul.
There are lots of wonderful dreams. One of my favorites is to use the art park as a staging ground for large-scale sculptures. Host them in the art park for a period of time and then permanently install them elsewhere in the city, at other parks, schools, etc. Of course that’s a pretty big and bold vision that would require a lot more funding.
I’m hopeful we can at least do a small project in the next year and keep the momentum going.