It’s difficult to resist the temptation to press Aaron Dysart on what his first big project will be as St. Paul’s newest city artist. But he’s been on the job with Public Art St. Paul only three weeks, and giving life to the ideas that spring from partnerships with the city’s Public Works, Parks and Recreation, and planning departments takes time.
“Whatever it is,” Dysart said, smiling, “it’s going to be amazing.”
Expectations are that it certainly will be engaging.
Dysart joins an organization that, since 1987, has helped weave art and artists into the neighborhood fabric of St. Paul, using the city’s public places — parks, streetscapes, bridges and other structures — as platforms for projects ranging from an inner-city sculpture park to images and colors cast upon clouds of steam floating out over the Mississippi River.
He starts his new job at the same time Public Art St. Paul has moved into new street-level offices next to the Amsterdam Bar and Hall on Wabasha Street from its old, mostly hidden offices on the southern edge of Lowertown.
There’s a new executive director, Colleen Sheehy, at the helm of the private nonprofit, and Dysart joins Amanda Lovelee, a city artist for the past three years who in 2014 helped create the Urban Flower Field at the site of the future Pedro Park. The project transformed a vacant downtown lot into a site for scientific research and public art with pots of flowers, a soaring mural and an outdoor gathering space.
“All art is a different way to communicate,” he said of Public Art’s diversity of projects.
While Public Art St. Paul raises its $800,000 annual budget through fundraising and grants, the organization works closely with St. Paul city departments to display and install its works. In fact, Dysart and Lovelee have work space in a City Hall office.
“I think it’s a new kind of interaction with the public,” Sheehy said of the organization’s move and hiring of Dysart, a sculptor with 14 years’ experience whose connections to Public Art go back to 2008.
Back then, he had a fellowship in the City Art Collaboratory program. He also was one of the artists involved with District Energy St. Paul’s Plume Project, a series of three temporary art works that transformed District Energy’s steam plume into a canvas for projected light displays.
Such relationships have planted the seeds for ideas on a variety of ways to bring art into people’s daily lives, such as Everyday Poems for City Sidewalks — featuring original poetry by St. Paul residents stamped into sidewalks — and the installation of artistic stop sign posts and rain gardens in a number of neighborhoods. Through its Spider Workshops, the program offers young people a chance to make environmental-themed art each summer beneath a billowing tent supported by a spider sculpture.
The way Dysart explains it, when you have artists work with scientists, plumbers, electricians and scores of other city employees, creativity will spring from ongoing collaboration.
“There is a trust that if you put the right people in a room, something beautiful will come out,” he said. “I know it will.”
While Dysart is counting on his newfound connections to the city to help ideas sprout, the program is working with another artist — Chicago sculptor Jim Duignan — to create the Utopian Podium. He is building a podium using reclaimed wood from sites across St. Paul, including old Midway Stadium, the Palace Theater and the Lowry Building.
The podium will be displayed in Ecolab Plaza downtown and other sites, Sheehy said. It will be used to give the public a place to raise its voice, Duignan said.