During one of the coldest nights of the year, a fortunate few were warming up inside the Walker Art Center. Those who braved the blustery weather were not only greeted with a new, more accessible entrance connecting the sculpture garden to the galleries and a new destination restaurant but also a huge new commissioned mural. Created by Duluth-based, Ojibwe artist, Frank Big Bear, The Walker Collage, Multiverse #10 is 40 feet worth of collages made using images from art history, everyday Native American life, and the Walker’s permanent collection. It is a powerful visual anchor that draws visitors inside off of Vineyard Place. Just after the work’s December unveiling, one could not only visit the stunning mural but also receive a thorough education from a new set of experts of the work—members of the Little Earth Arts Collective, a cohort of youth based in the Minneapolis Little Earth Residential Community.
One visitor, who stopped in after visiting the Holidazzle festival in nearby Loring Park, was pleasantly surprised to see the mural and have the Little Earth guides on hand to answer questions. In an attempt to take in the incredible amount of imagery on the piece’s 432 panels, she asked the two Native youth, “Can you tell me what to look at in this piece?” Having been trained in arts education and workshops over the course of ten weeks, one adeptly answered using the Socratic method: “Well, where are your eyes drawn to? What do you see when you look at the mural?” A family of four stopped by and were taken in by Big Bear’s chosen medium: “How in the world did he make this?” Due to their experience making their own collages with Big Bear a few weeks prior, the pair knew firsthand how painstakingly difficult making the massive work was: “Let me tell, you cutting all those magazines and putting them together to make something important is not easy.”
The Little Earth Arts Collective didn’t become experts on the Frank Big Bear piece overnight. These Spotlight Talks were the culmination of a Walker program aimed at both helping Native youth see the arts as a viable career path and teaching valuable job skills such as organization and public speaking. Fifteen teenagers participated in the workshops, which ran for 10 weeks, from September until their final public talks during the December 1–4 Walker Open House Weekend. The trainings tackled skills like resume-building and featured one-on-one time with artists, including Big Bear. At one such workshop, participants were led in writing exercises by Twin Cities–based rapper and spoken word artist Alexei Casselle. He encouraged the teens to reflect on their personal identities by sharing his own background through a spoken word piece about being mixed-race and having both black and white family members. Impressed by Casselle’s spirited performance, the youth set to work creating their own identity pieces. Through exercises like the six-word memoir and identity-mapping, they reflected on their identities as women, artists, students, siblings, tribal members, Natives, Minnesotans, and daughters. Casselle, an ally to Native people who’s been active in fundraising in support of water protectors at Standing Rock, was impressed with the Little Earth teens and their ability to share and reflect on their identities. The exercise would become the foundation for the confidence the youth would bring to the remainder of the program.
With a sense of humor and perseverance, participants transformed, in just 10 weeks, into community art docents and experts of the Big Bear’s gigantic artwork. One of the most inspiring parts of the program was the honesty with which they approached their work. While many arts professionals and other adults approached Frank Big Bear with a reverence reserved for the famous, the youth approached him like any other Native person they knew. One described Big Bear as “shy and quiet,” while another was surprised he just seemed like a normal guy. The youth were encouraged to ask questions of the artist in preparation for their roles as docents for the mural. Like: “Frank, why did you include so much nudity?” When he replied that it was just “for fun,” the youth knew better: “I know that the artist included all of these images for a specific reason. He was trying to make statements about art, women, and other things he cares about.”
The teen skills-building workshop program isn’t the first partnership between the Little Earth Arts Collective and the Walker. Throughout the years, they have worked with the Guerrilla Girls on their big Twin Cities “takeover” in 2016 and several other teen-focused programs through the Walker’s education department. Yet, the engagement between the Walker and Native youth has not always been so successful or long-lasting. One participant spoke about how uncomfortable she typically feels when inside the museum. She becomes self-conscious and worried about “being a person of color and wondering if I really belong here.” Another mentioned that the space “seems to be for white people or fancy people but not my family.” For years, many Native people have criticized the center for its lack of inclusivity for Native arts and people.
One person trying to change this is Maya Weisinger, the Walker’s Access and Audiences Coordinator. Her role is a new one, intended to better integrate inclusive practices at the Walker, including those concerning the Native community. She began to build the partnership between the center and the youth arts collective by simply having coffee dates with Heidi Hafermann and Joe Beaulieu, staff members at Little Earth. She attributes the success of this most recent collaboration to this relationship and trust-building: “It is one of the most important things about creating a more inclusive space. I really believe there should be one person who just spends all of their time meeting with people. I think it often goes overlooked how powerful showing up and listening can be.” Together, the three arts and youth advocates designed a program for that would re-welcome Native youth into the Walker, pay them for their time and commitment, and create opportunities for the Little Earth residences to gain professional experience in the arts and culture field.
Such efforts by Walker staff seemed to make all the difference. According to all involved, the partnership with the Walker was a big success. Hafermann remarked on the growth of the Little Earth teens as the 10-week program progressed: “It was wonderful to see their confidence in their voices grow as they worked with Maya and the Walker.” She also spoke to the importance of Native youth interacting with the arts, especially given the nationwide underrepresentation of Native professionals in the cultural sector. “Joe and I are so happy to see them form their own relationships with folks in the arts.”
Walker staff are equally impressed with the youth. “They pushed themselves to do things they didn’t want to do, and definitely didn’t need to do when they could be tackling many of the other issues in their lives, and things that were big challenges to them,” Weisinger said. “I’m very motivated by this and very thankful for their energy.”
But staff at the Walker and Little Earth are not the only ones calling the program a success. The youth themselves have been appreciative of the opportunity to work with the museum. Some say they joined the arts collective to meet people and make friends, while others saw it as an opportunity to get income and improve their financial situation. But many received even more than they bargained for. “After meeting Frank Big Bear and talking to him about his art, it just makes me want to meet more artists,” commented one Little Earth youth, who was surprised to find that she felt more comfortable inside the Walker and is now considering a career in the museum field.
Like Weisinger, who has pledged to keep strong the relationships she formed with Little Earth, every party involved in the project was transformed by the passion and dedication exhibited by these youth. As an arts and culture professional, I, too, am more confident in the future of my field after watching these Little Earth teens excel in this art project. Toward the end of the program, I watched the youth give their spotlight talks about Frank Big Bear’s mural in the brand new Walker entrance. As they answered question after question and shared with the public their new-found confidence and knowledge about the piece, I grew emotional. It filled me with a tremendous sense of pride and awe to see these youth grow into community art docents. The future of Native arts and the museum field is as bright as the youth of Little Earth.