St. Paul-based artist Seitu Jones had no idea he'd get a surprise gift of $50,000 cash and the annual McKnight Distinguished Artist Award.
Jones' vast creative career is very much community-based, ranging from large-scale public art projects on the Green Line rail corridor to set designs for Penumbra Theatre, and a commitment to food justice through urban initiatives that bring residents closer to the natural world. One such project was "The Community Meal," a half-mile-long outdoor luncheon in St. Paul's Frogtown neighborhood, presented with support of Public Art Saint Paul and as a collaboration with Chicago artist Theaster Gates.
The McKnight Distinguished Artist award is given annually to someone who has contributed significantly to the state's cultural life. A fourth-generation Minnesotan, Jones was born and raised in Minneapolis and has lived in Frogtown for more than 20 years.
Q: Tell me a little bit about your work and background.
A: That's gonna take me about three hours. My work is really, how can I say this? ... I am gonna try to do like politicians, not the one in the White House.
Q: That would be a tweet.
A: The philosophic foundation for all of my work really came from the Black Arts Movement [of the 1960 and '70s] and from black cultural nationalism, and [the idea] that you should leave your community more beautiful than when you found it. All of the work I produce, whether it is in my studio or on the street, has something to do with space and the place. In these times in particular, especially after what happened in Charlottesville, especially after the truth came out of our president's mouth about where he really is, my work is all toward building an equitable society.
Q: So tell me a little bit about your large-scale public artworks, like the work along the Green Line.
A: I have been so fortunate and blessed to carve out a living from primarily public commissions. And that work, it really goes back to what I stated earlier about my philosophic foundations. Each work is unique. Each work is a challenge. Each work is designed and fabricated to a specific site, many times done in collaboration or from inspiration of the surrounding community.
Q: What's it been like to receive the award? I am sure you were shocked.
A: This thing is an honor and it's truly flattering. Sometimes, though, there is not really a lot of joy in a surprise like this, especially during these times. It just means that we have to work that much harder toward a good, collective life. When they first told me, I thought, "God, there are so many other folks who deserve this." I am just one of so many other folks out here who are making good work. So that was one thing.
The other thing is: Am I old enough for this thing? [He was born in 1951.] They quickly told me that I am not the youngest person to ever receive the Distinguished Artist Award and I am not the oldest. I am right there in the middle of it. A lot of the folks who have received this are my peers or my heroes or sheroes in some way or another. So I see how I fit into this particular continuum and I hope I can inspire some folks who continue to tie this line behind me.
Q: You're from the Twin Cities and spent a lot of your creative life here. How has it shaped you as an artist?
A: I was born here and am fourth-generation Minnesotan. I grew up in this big, large, loving family that supported me and gave me all kinds of love and affection and encouragement — and placed demands on me. They expected me to work hard and make them proud. And then beyond my family it was just great community that told me over and over again that I was good, even when I wasn't.
Q: What are your hopes for what you'll do with the McKnight?
A: I am not sure. This was completely unexpected. I have already committed myself over this next year to a bunch of crazy projects. I'm working on two for Walker Art Center, a collaboration with Ta-coumba Aiken for the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden called "Shadows of Spirit" and a series of 40 multiples entitled "We Will Never Stop Planting" for this year's Avant Garden.
I hope to use this as a resource to buy more time — not just in my studio, but time for reflection. That is so important for an artist. We don't have enough time in society, period.