Artist Ellie Kevorkian moved to the Twin Cities in the summer of 2018 to be artistic director at the Soap Factory. Three months later, that killer job vanished. By September 2019 the Soap, known for its experimental art and freaky Haunted Basement, was dead.
Kevorkian, 48, could have picked up and returned to her familiar Los Angeles, or to Omaha, where she’d just left. She was persuaded to stay not by work, but by the compassionate people she’d met in the Twin Cities. After the Soap closed, artists, curators and arts leaders reached out, offering empathy for the loss of the Soap Factory, and for her personally.
“I’ve never had that happen before,” she said.
Since deciding to stay put, Kevorkian has quickly established herself as an arts leader.
She is now a mayor-appointed arts commissioner for the city of Minneapolis (a position she’ll hold through 2023), an upcoming resident at the Collaboration Incubator program at the Weisman Art Museum, and Franconia Sculpture Park’s first-ever director of residency programs.
“She is a step-up-and-get-it-done person,” said Joan Vorderbruggen, a member of the Minneapolis Arts Commission. “She is resilient. She made a choice to come here, her career changed dramatically, and she made it work.”
The Twin Cities vibe felt very different from Los Angeles, where she’d spent nearly 20 years of her art career, or Omaha, where she worked for two years as the artistic director for residency programs at Bemis Center for Contemporary Arts.
“I feel like people here are maybe more engaging, supportive in the sense that you make connections and relationships more quickly, whereas in a larger city there is a little more reticence,” she said. “Here it feels like a necessity.”
Art is in Kevorkian’s blood. She grew up in a creative family between Richmond, Va., and Berkeley, Calif. Her mom is a feminist Texas-born poet and her dad was an artist of Armenian descent who became a professor at Virginia Commonwealth University. Her parents divorced when she was 6, and she moved to Utah with her mom for two years, then to California.
Her Bay Area adolescence was colored by the punk scene in Oakland.
“I led this punk rock lifestyle and then I would go back to Virginia and have to take sewing lessons and learn how to make petit fours, little tea cakes,” she said. “It was the South.”
Her artwork, focusing on the intersectionality of feminism, identity and autobiography, often involves her kids and her twin sister, Soseh (pronounced “so-SEE”), whom Kevorkian views as her “psychic self.” She has shown at the Museum of Contemporary Art Los Angeles, the Museum of Contemporary Art Denver and the Center for the Art of Performance at UCLA, among others.
“I often look through this very feminist lens of what I can and what I can’t do, and I just sort of reject all authority,” she said.
Art and music are an important part of her own family, too. Her husband, Greg Eklund, is a musician and former drummer for Everclear. The couple have two sons, Desmund, 17, and Dekker, 11. Eklund is currently working on a documentary about rural Minnesota polka history.
Her father passed away last summer from Alzheimer’s. His experience as the son of an Armenian genocide survivor is the inspiration for a residency she will be doing next year at the Weisman, where she will think about Alzheimer’s as a continuation of genocidal loss. She’s also on the adjunct faculty at the Minneapolis College of Art and Design.
Given the short time she’s been in Minneapolis, Kevorkian is connected and busy.
Franconia Sculpture Park executive director Ginger Porcella sees Kevorkian’s addition as essential to the park’s growth.
“We both see the potential of Franconia being this outdoor museum that’s beyond a rural Minnesota arts organization, a place that people know internationally,” she said.
But the biggest balancing act for Kevorkian is her dual work as artist and arts administrator. Arleta Little, a working artist who is also program officer and director of artist fellowships at the McKnight Foundation, immediately saw this as Kevorkian’s strength.
“She is committed to her own practice,” said Little. “There is that cycle of study, act and reflect. She has also been very available to paying attention to what the universe may be saying or what lessons may be coming from her lived experience.”
Kevorkian has been reflecting on her move to the Twin Cities.
“L.A. is so different than the Midwest region,” she said. “It feels like looking in a mirror and really being forced to contend with what you’re saying and making sure that there’s meaning behind it.”