In her 14 years as a full-time artist, Hend Al-Mansour has certainly done more serious and renowned projects. Her paintings and screen printings exploring themes of Arab female equality have been exhibited in galleries from the Middle East to the United States.
But it’s a tree — more accurately, a 9-foot-tall stump of an old elm in front of her house — that became a Merriam Park fixture and captured the attention and conversation of passers-by and visitors. A few years ago, Al-Mansour painted three vivid images of pre-Islamic goddesses upon the stump in acrylic and house paint, a job she said took only a couple of days and, she admits, is not her best work.
“I wanted it to be better than that,” said Al-Mansour, a Saudi-born former medical doctor.
Then, thanks to an infestation of carpenter ants, a city crew last week cut it down.
Since then, all kinds of folks have pitched in to save the dismembered trunk and its goddesses, including the owner of a local gallery and artists’ gathering spot.
“I want it,” said Webb White, owner of the nearby Whimsical Alternative Coalition Political Awareness Consortium (WACPAC), a sometimes art gallery, sometimes chess club meeting place that has an Al-Mansour mural on one of its walls. “We hope the whole project doesn’t go bad yet because of those damn ants.”
None of this would have been necessary, of course, if not for the ants.
It seems an area resident noticed the tree was showing signs of decay and carpenter ants and called the city. A city crew came out and told Al-Mansour and her husband, David Penchansky, a professor at the University of St. Thomas, that the tree would have to come down.
“They told us that somebody had complained, that it was a safety thing,” Penchansky said.
Al-Mansour contacted a neighbor, Julie Reiter, to let her know.
Reiter, who is executive director of the Union Park District Council, was also a fan of the tree.
“The art on the stump has been a bit of a landmark for my family since we were on the market for a house in Saint Paul quite a few years ago,” she said in an e-mail. “It’s the kind of placemaking enhancement — along with Little Free Libraries and front yard benches and things — that makes a neighborhood more friendly and livable, and we were so happy to find a house not too far away from it.”
Springing to action
So the neighbors have decided to save the stump.
White called Reiter’s office asking for help contacting the city, to be sure the city didn’t take it away when it was cut down. Reiter called Parks and Recreation, which oversees the city foresters, and “my call for help must have gotten through.”
A week ago Friday, at 7 a.m., a crew cut the tree down. But Cy Kosel, a natural resources manager for the city, said that as long as the tree could be saved in a “closed environment, we had no problem handing it over” to neighbors.
White and others loaded the trunk onto a truck for a trip to a storage space in North Branch, Minn. There, White said, it will be fumigated. If it works, he hopes to mount the trunk and its paintings at WACPAC, where Al-Mansour plans to touch it up and make it look nicer.
Al-Mansour, who was born in Saudi Arabia and attended medical school in Cairo, practiced medicine in Riyadh for 17 years. But, while participating in a research fellowship at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, she was diagnosed with cancer and underwent treatment. It was then, she said, she realized her life needed a different direction. Soft-spoken, she acknowledges her family always wanted her to be a doctor. It was no longer what she wanted.
“I had always wanted to make art. Even as a child I wanted to draw,” she said. “The reasons for being a doctor became less urgent.”
She began commuting to classes at the Minneapolis College of Art and Design. In 2002, she earned a master of fine arts. In 2013, she earned a master of art history from St. Thomas.
Shortly after she left Mayo 18 years ago, Al-Mansour met Penchansky, an author and professor of the Hebrew Bible at St. Thomas. They fell in love and got married. In 2012, they moved to their home in Merriam Park and Al-Mansour set about beautifying the stump in front of their house. The goddesses she painted are Al-Lat, goddess of fertility; Al-Uzza, a warrior, and Manat, goddess of fate.
One day last week, Penchansky and Al-Mansour showed several of her projects in progress in her basement studio, including a set design for the Minneapolis dance company Jawaahir. She loves to draw upon strong women throughout Arab history, her husband said.
“I think she has a very original voice, and a lot of people notice that,” he said of her drawing, painting and sculpture work. “It’s been exciting to watch her.”
Neighbors, too, have come to love their neighborhood artist — and her art.
“She’s a really cool person, kind of spiritual,” said Darlene Levenson, who lives a few doors down. “We’re so proud of her, too.”
At first, Levenson said, neighbors felt outrage when they heard the city was cutting down the tree. Then, they appreciated that city officials were willing to give their tree a chance. Now, they hope it — and Al-Mansour’s goddesses — can find new life in the gallery nearby.
“It was the pride of this neighborhood,” Levenson said. “It made us more unique.”