In the summer of 2019, a new work appeared in the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden. Unlike some of the monumental sculptures in the park, which strike imposing silhouettes on the Minneapolis skyline, the project—by St. Paul–based artists Ta-coumba T. Aiken, Seitu Jones, and Rosemary Soyini Vinelle Guyton—is made on a decidedly human scale, both in its physical form and its concept. As one explores the Garden, their project, Shadows at the Crossroads is embedded in the park’s pathways, inviting one to stop, read, and reflect.
Approaching their practices from different disciplinary perspectives Aiken, Jones, and Guyton have each built bodies of work that are grounded in an interest in history, the sharing of stories, and the transformative power of art to change communities. While both Aiken and Jones have had distinguished careers as solo visual artists and practitioners of public art, as a duo they have also worked together for decades, creating projects that encompass painting, sculpture, public works, and environmental design. Guyton, a writer, poet, environmentalist, and master gardener who is a co-founder of Minnesota Black Women’s History Project, has worked for years to research ways that African American women have navigated and contributed to Minnesota’s cultural and historic landscape. Working as a collective, the three artists came together in 1992 to make Shadows of Spirit, a work of public art commissioned by the City of Minneapolis for Nicollet Mall, a pedestrian street in the heart of the city’s downtown. The project honors significant figures from the region’s cultural history in the form of human silhouettes, cast in bronze and embedded in the street’s wide sidewalks. Poetry by Guyton is inscribed on the seven shadows, which each celebrate stories of “Minnesota’s heroes,” some known, others unsung.
In 2016, the Walker and the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board embarked on a renovation of the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden, a project that addressed the aging infrastructure and plantings of the park, which was constructed in 1988. Doing this also afforded the opportunity to bring new sculptures into the outdoor spaces, and to re-site some of the existing works in new arrangements. Many of the works in the Garden are based on the human figure. In these early stages of the project, the Walker commissioned Aiken, Jones, and Guyton to continue the project with seven new shadow sculptures in the Garden, which is less than two miles from Nicollet Mall. For the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden, the artists developed Shadows at the Crossroads, in which they identified a group of seven more individuals to be honored and celebrated.
The selection of individuals to be represented in the project was guided by extensive research compiled by Guyton, who then wrote poems honoring each individual. The seven subjects range from specific historical figures to more general impressions, but each focuses on an important, but under-recognized story from Minnesota’s past. While Guyton’s poems capture the struggles of the past, they also shed light on the incredible strength and persistence of individuals. As the poet describes, “We wonder how people made it over, there is so much courage, vitality, and hope.” Harriet Robinson Scott, for example, was the driving force behind the infamous Dred Scott case. Hoping to keep her daughters together, she pushed to sue for her family’s freedom. The poem created in honor of Scott is an acrostic, in which the first letter of each line spells out the word “DAUGHTERS:”
Always anxious, aggrieved
Unsettled, sense of urgency until
Gruesome grip of enslavement that
Haunts my heart, haunts the land is lifted.
Threats, taunts, trouble, interwoven chains. For you I
Endured, Endeavored, not to be Erased.
Resisted, insisted, persisted for you to build a
Shelter from the storms.
In addition to Harriet Robinson Scott, the other shadows in the piece represent Maḣpiya Wic̣aṡṭa (Cloud Man), Eliza Winston, Siah Armajani, and Kirk Washington, Jr. The two remaining sculptures are dedicated to childhood and to the members of the Walker Art Center Teen Arts Council (WACTAC), who helped with the creation of the work. Like the Nicollet Mall version of Shadows, each poem was prepared to be matched with a silhouette, traced from contemporary “models,” then executed in either bronze, etched concrete, or a water-activated material.
WACTAC : TRACING SHADOWS
Like other public artworks by the artists, the making Shadows at the Crossroads involved a large cast of collaborators.
To begin making the new piece, the artists collaborated with the Walker Art Center’s Teen Arts Council (WACTAC) and the group’s coordinator Simona Zappas. Seitu Jones worked at the Walker Art Center in the education department in the early 1990s, and during that period he helped establish WACTAC. Created to make space for teen voices, the group was the first museum-based teen arts program in the country. Aiken had also created spaces for youth at the Walker with his installations in the museum’s Art Lab in 1991 and in 2000. The artists entrusted WACTAC with a key role: making and tracing shadows. First, the teens met with the artists to discuss the origins of Aiken, Guyton, and Jones’s project and their own experiences with shadows. After working through the conceptual underpinnings of the public art project, the teens collaborated with the artists to capture and outline shadows on large sheets of butcher block paper. The teens’ personalities and style brought hints of character to each silhouette. Aiken and Jones paid close attention to the time, location, and angle at which the teens traced the shadows. The teens then helped the artists select seven silhouettes from a large and varied selection of tracings.
When the artists returned to the studio, they assigned an identity to each shadow, matching Guyton’s verse to the physical silhouettes.
In order to transfer Guyton’s poems from paper to the final bronze sculptures, the artists and poet needed to create a positive mold of each written work. The Minneapolis-based, artist-run studio Create Laser Arts used a laser printer to recreate the poems on blocks of fiberboard. The letters were made to a particular height and thickness, so that each positive mold would be sturdy enough for the bronze casting process. Once the molds were complete, the poems were ready for the foundry.
It was then time to turn the paper tracings into the sculptures that we see in the Garden today. Jones and Aiken headed to the Anurag Art Foundry in Stillwater, Minnesota, the same foundry that fabricated the sculptures for their Nicollet Mall project in 1992. Headed by Bill Cole and his son Zach, the family-run operation has been pouring bronze for over 30 years. In fact, Zach was just a young teen in 1992 when he helped his father with Jones and Aiken’s first pour.
With the WACTAC teens in tow, we gathered at the foundry to learn more about the casting process. First, Jones and Aiken designed a foamcore template for each shadow. Then, to give the sculptures texture, the artists coated each template with millet, a grain native to Minnesota. From the template, the Coles constructed a resin-bonded sand mold to hold the bronze. Then, about 250 pounds of bronze ingots were melted to a sweltering temperature of approximately 2,500 degrees.
Finally, the molten bronze was carefully poured into the mold—a process that was equally sublime and graceful. As Seitu Jones described just before the pour, “it’s a real discipline…this choreography, you are going to see these guys almost dancing back and forth.” After the pour, it was time to check out the Cole family farm, it was early spring and a number of calves had just been born.
In spring of 2019, we met the artists back at the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden to select the location for each piece. The artists placed the shadows at “crossroads”—significant points of intersection along the main garden pathways. They explain: “The importance of ‘the crossroads’ has reverberated through African American folklore and informed its significance in popular culture. Our idea is a manifestation of our fascination with the energy a door, hallway, gateway and tunnel may have on ones approach or exit of a place.”
For the bronze sculptures, the artists worked again with Bruce Yerigan, who helped with the reinstall of the shadows on Nicollet Mall. Yerigan and his team carefully routed out the concrete and embedded the sculptures into the sidewalk. Two pieces—dedicated to Siah Armajani and the WACTAC members—were etched directly into the concrete by Bulach Custom Rock. A subtractive process, the team removed layers of concrete aggregate, leaving behind subtle shadowy impressions.
The final sculpture—dedicated to Kirk Washington, Jr. is the most ephemeral of the group. It was created by spraying a water-resistant material directly onto the concrete. The result is invisible when dry, but when it rains the silhouette contrasts with the surrounding concrete which is darkened by the rain.
The history of place plays an important role in the artists’ practice. Before installing the sculpture dedicated to Maḣpiya Wic̣aṡṭa (Cloud Man), the artists poured libations to honor the indigenous inhabitants of the land and to acknowledge the ancestors that came before us.
As the project was nearing completion outdoors, Guyton published a chapbook of her poetry for each shadow in the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden. Shadows at the Crossroads: Poems by Soyini Guyton shows each poem on delicate, handmade paper and can be requested for in-person viewing from the Rosemary Furtak Collection of Artist Books in the Walker Art Center Library.
There is no one way to view Shadows at the Crossroads. The artists hope that visitors will happen upon the works as they gradually move through the Garden and, in encountering these figures, make new connections to those whose lives have impacted this place. At particular times of day, visitors might even be able to line up their own shadows with the sculptures, or, as the artists describe, “to stand in the shadows of those who came before.”
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