Artists respond to the new light-rail link in a show at St. Paul’s Minnesota Museum of American Art.
With the advent of the Green Line rail link, Minneapolis and St. Paul have the potential to revitalize some neighborhoods that struggled after Interstate Hwy. 94 sliced through the cities in the 1960s.
While the Green Line’s long-term impact is not yet certain, the Minnesota Museum of American Art asked several local artists to respond to it at its inception. Parts of their projects are on view through Oct. 19 at the MMAA’s Project Space, a sunny downtown St. Paul gallery adjacent to the new light-rail line.
The show features photos by Xavier Tavera, Katherine Turczan and Wing Young Huie, who focused on businesses, communities and individuals living near the line as well as surrounding buildings and rail infrastructure.
Rail passengers and community members can even audition for roles in a Green Line-themed play that’s being scripted over the next two months via community workshops, conversations, storytelling and theatrical performances guided by theater artist Ashley Hanson and playwright Jessica Huang, who have been working with the Center for Hmong Arts and Talent, the African Development Center, Springboard for the Arts and people they’ve encountered on the trains and nearby streets.
“The project will culminate in a play that will take place on Green Line platforms,” said curator Christina Chang. “After each scene, the actors and audience will take the train to the next station for the next scene, which will be intimately related to that station and the surrounding community. If it’s Frogtown, for example, the plot and scene will refer to Frogtown’s history and experiences.”
Portraits of promise
Each of the photographers claimed a unique element of the Green Line’s community impact. Tavera, known for his large color portraits, documented the owners and employees of about 30 businesses along the University Avenue route and recorded interviews with some of them. It’s a multicultural, multiethnic mix of young and old in myriad enterprises — recording-arts high school, steakhouse, hair salon, mortuary, bar, auto repair shop, arcade, secondhand store — that reflects the avenue’s gritty reality and latent promise.
Tavera is a master at capturing personalities and telling environmental details in a single shot. With her Kool-Aid red hair and blue nails, “Alia,” a recording arts student, radiates insouciant confidence as she poses in a sound-mixing studio, her future in showbiz just a few clicks away. But the shoeless guy in filthy jeans and grimy oversized sport coat sporting a Vegas ball cap isn’t a persuasive notary public despite the signs taped to his shabby storefront. The young Asian couple beaming proudly outside a meat-market deli look like up-and-comers, as do a cheerful auto mechanic and a smiling scholar who runs the Da’wah Institute, an Islamic community center. But the yellowed calling cards and unused cans of Endust in the gloomy secondhand store suggest that its grumpy old proprietor is just waiting to be bought out.
Setting aside her previous work in large-scale portraits, Turczan concentrated on rail infrastructure, snapping close-ups of shadows falling on tracks and platforms, picturing couplings and wires, capturing glimpses of rivers, trees and buildings as the train zipped past — the dome of the State Capitol, the Weisman Art Museum. Tacked up in ribbons and grids of black-and-white images, her pictures echo the stop/start/whiz-and-flow of the trains’ motion without telling much about the cities or neighborhoods through which they pass. Like commuter travel in general, her pictures offer anonymous slices of blurred time.
A street photographer by trade, Huie is serving as consultant and guide for Hanson and Huang’s theatrical endeavors. Samples of his 2010 photos taken along University Avenue are on view, along with a slide show of new images employing his techniques for enticing community participation. Typically these are casual photos of people holding chalkboards on which they’ve written messages, questions or dreams. The festive, upbeat quality of many of the pictures hints that maybe this time a new transit system really will knit cities and neighborhoods together rather than slice them asunder.
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