The crossroads of Chicago and Lake in south Minneapolis hasn't much to recommend it in the way of visual stimulation, except the iconic Roberts Shoe Store sign — "Hardly a foot we can't fit." But if you looked closely up Chicago Avenue you'd notice a window of the store that is filled not with Red Wing boots or T-strap dancing slippers, but art — paintings, drawings, small sculptures, multimedia conceptual pieces.
This is the aptly named Shoebox Gallery, conceived and curated for the past 11 years by photographer and performance artist Sean Smuda, who occupies a third-floor studio above the store.
Now that the 77-year-old Roberts store is closing for good around Thanksgiving, a casualty of megamall and online shopping trends, so must the 11-by-8-by-2-foot Shoebox.
For its final exhibit, titled "Closing/Opening," Smuda has displayed works by 33 mostly local artists, after putting out an open call to anyone who had previously shown in the micro-museum. The exhibit is coming down on Black Friday, Nov. 28. The final day includes a special show in Smuda's studio from 3 to 8 p.m.
"It's a great note to leave on," Smuda said. "I'm calling it the end of an aura."
U of M art professor Diane Katsiaficas chose to show two different works using actual footwear — boots and sling-back heels — as their base. Painter Justine Di Fiore, who contributed an oil portrait of her grandfather, said that her family used to buy their shoes at Roberts. Smuda connected with Shauna Pineiros, whose mixed-media piece is called "E, Green Line," in a novel way.
"I was looking out my window and saw her, dressed head to toe in black like Charlie Chaplin with a bowler hat, picking up trash next to the mural on the side of the Latino cellphone store," he said. "I thought: Should I go talk to that woman? Yeah."
Art in storefronts is a common sight now, with the Made Here project adorning empty downtown spaces and its precursor doing likewise in the nearby Whittier neighborhood. But back in the early 2000s, the Shoebox was a pioneer, bearing silent witness to the neighborhood's partial transformation from a haunt of rampant drug dealing and drunken stumblebums to the somewhat spruced-up home of Midtown Global Market in the old Sears tower.
"It's been a real positive thing to have something like that out visible on the street," said building and shoe store owner Mark Simon, who never felt the need to make a formalized deal with Smuda. "It wasn't an issue of taste, because I knew his would be different from mine. I had more display space than I needed, and I trusted him."
The Roberts building itself, featuring several tall-ceilinged, light-drenched studios upstairs, has an artistic history of its own. Author Robert Pirsig wrote much of "Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance" in his second-floor space while he was working as a tech writer at nearby Honeywell. Artist and former tenant Michael Sommers has a cartoon-style piece in the final show illustrating how he once got out of being mugged at the corner by reminding his would-be assailant that he lived in the 'hood, saying, "I'm the man with the big, big head!"
Smuda has hosted many an avant-garde gathering in his studio, including a party for Shoebox's final show — which began with members of the local dance company BodyCartography Project contorting and writhing in an empty window adjacent to the little gallery.
Later on upstairs, "Jaime Carrera was doing a performance piece in the middle of the studio, shaving his pubes right when the Walker's curator of photography walked in," Smuda said.
Smuda, who will remain in his studio, has no current plans to revive or relocate the Shoebox, about which he's compiling a book and interactive project incorporating neighborhood history. But he's open to possibilities.
"I want to see what goes in there, and if they want to work with me, maybe," he said.