Legendary Minneapolis artist Aldo Moroni knew everyone. Whether he was working late into the night at his corner studio in the California Building, firing up clay towers in his kiln or enlisting helpers to build the miniature civilizations that became his signature, art and community were his life.
Moroni died Sunday at his home in the A-Mill Artist Lofts in Minneapolis. He was 67.
After getting a diagnosis of stage four pancreatic cancer last September, Moroni toiled to finish his final project, "M.EX. — Mesoamerican Experience," representing all the civilizations of Mesoamerica to present-day Mexico. The project transformed from one he planned to finish on his own to one that he hopes, eventually, the community will complete.
"He's the impresario, the straw that stirred the drink," said John Kremer, a longtime friend who owns the California Building and Casket Arts. "He could always turn out a crowd and make an event happen. That performative part of his art was part and parcel of how he created."
Moroni was raised in Oak Park, Ill., the fourth of nine kids in an Italian-American household. His grandfather Harry and a friend ran the Corona Café in downtown Chicago. Moroni grew up in the café, and the tall buildings influenced his creative vision.
He came to the Twin Cities to study at Minneapolis College of Art and Design, graduating in 1976. One year later, Walker Art Center director Martin Friedman put him in the exhibition "Scale and Environment, Ten Sculptors."
Moroni's thing was creating and destroying "mock civilizations" as a commentary on humanity's relationship to the built environment. He did it with the Tower of Babel, a nature-focused project called "Fragilearth" and even one titled "Trumptopia." Over his storied career, he won three McKnight fellowships.
Artistic community and social life were one and the same for Moroni. His daughter Maxamillia, 29, recalled walking down Central Avenue in northeast Minneapolis with her brother Giovanni Batista, who is autistic, and he stopped to wave at everyone. "I asked him, 'Why would you do that?' and he said, 'Well, I have to say hello to all of dad's friends.'
"Everywhere we'd walk in the city, there'd be someone there who knew my dad."
To Scott Coran, Moroni's best friend since 1972, the artist was a mentor, teacher, student and guide.
"Some people get knowledge and they hoard it," Coran said. "Aldo was like 'No, no, you share everything you know — that's what you're supposed to do.' "
Artist Jodi Reeb first met Moroni in 1993 as a student at MCAD. Her six-month internship turned into a lifetime friendship. Moroni taught her about the discipline of showing up to the studio every day.
"He was almost like a dad or an uncle," said Reeb. "He just wanted to check in with me and see what my progress was."
Artist Matthew Gerhard, 59, met Moroni more than 20 years ago when they were hired to paint the Shoreview Mall. By the end of the job, they'd become fast friends — and the only two left standing. Gerhard kept working with Moroni, who taught him how to make clay buildings.
"I loved him," said Gerhard. "He was a great man, always kind and friendly to everyone he saw."
Moroni was always political in his art, and Kremer thinks he held on long enough to vote.
"He had a clear set of beliefs, and opinions that wouldn't offend other people," he said. "There was respect all along. Maybe that's his key — humor, respect and he was an incredibly gifted listener. It'll be an irreplaceable loss."
Moroni is survived by six kids, Benjamin and Aldo Moroni III, from his first marriage to Sarah Sterlacci; Dante, Maxamillia, Michel Angelo and Giovanni Batista, from his second marriage to Kim Moroni; and his siblings Harry Moroni, Kitty Ryan, Frank Moroni, Judy Martin Veatch, Molly Moroni, Joe Moroni and Nancy Bangiola.
The family will hold a private mass in Chicago and a memorial next summer in Minneapolis.