Photo Credit: Sher Stoneman
For about six years, I lived in an artist warehouse on the Mississippi River in Northeast Minneapolis. It was referred to as an artist warehouse—rather than a scrappy complex where some of the units didn’t have windows and people lived illegally—because of the gallery on the ground floor.
This building was home to an angry carpenter and Law and Order fan, several entrepreneurs selling marginal products, an out-of-work bartender, two writers, a Jamaican who cooked outside on a propane stove, and at various times a flower shop, an exercise studio, and a pirate bar started by a man who’d lost a leg in a motorcycle accident. All of these people interacted in various ways. We shared a garden and a back porch, where my husband took on all comers in chess.
But, what gave the building a certain dignity was the gallery. Art has a way of legitimizing even the most off-the-radar people and ideas. It encompasses open doors and open-endedness, heady themes, a diversity of viewpoints, and an imperative to experiment. There is a built-in expectation that someone will do something daring.
Once, years ago, I thought I would be a painter. I got out my canvas and acrylics and brushes. I planned to paint a man in a chair, which seemed like a good, standard place to start. He’d be sitting, not squirming around creating hard-to-capture angles. He’d be brooding.
I set out, all bravado and no training—nor, it turned out, any natural skill. I painted the head, the body, the chair, but the result was as one-dimensional as a roadkill squirrel. The painting was such a failure, in fact, that I tried to save it by turning it into an abstract. I swirled over the distinctive shapes. But, that didn’t look like much either. Ah, I thought. I’ll turn it into a sunset, the safe haven for amateurs the world over. But, mine was an ugly sunset. A brooding sunset.
I shoved the painting down the garbage chute at the apartment complex where I lived.
So, I am not a painter. Nor am I a dancer, an actor, a singer, or a puppeteer. What I am good at is appreciating art and its tenets. And I did so many times at the gallery in our building on the Mississippi. Every month or so, there would be an opening that doubled as a party. There was always wine and live music.
And there was always a wild mix of high and low art: from moody paintings of workers in their cubicles to a coffin made of old doors to lamps constructed of musical instruments and parts of the demolished Lowry Avenue bridge. The gallery owner let just about anybody, including building-dwellers, have a shot at the white wall.
The openings were attended by a wide swath of people, from smarty-pants aficionados to dabblers straight off the neighborhood pedal pub, and also lots of dogs. Once, the ubiquitous Scott Seekins, who had some paintings on display, stopped by the back porch for a bratwurst. It was odd to watch the prim, white-clad artist eat a brat. But at the gallery, people had a common language even if they didn’t.
Did I occasionally storm out of our apartment at 2 a.m. in pajamas to disperse a crowd of art fans discussing life’s little problems on the back porch? Yes. But, there was never a time when I wasn’t glad the gallery was there, giving us all cover for our weirdness.
Jennifer Vogel (B.A. ’92) can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.