A young Latina farmworker with monarch wings flowing off her back and a community garden scene in rich browns, golds and reds are two of the dramatic new pieces of art now hanging in the chambers shared by the St. Paul City Council and Ramsey County Board at the City Hall/County Courthouse in downtown St. Paul.
City and county leaders on Wednesday unveiled four new artworks designed to highlight local cultures and backgrounds. The new art covers the original 1930s murals of larger-than-life white men who were portrayed as towering over Native Americans and laborers.
The new canvasses “are absolutely perfect,” gushed Commissioner Jim McDonough, who helped shepherd the process. “It is absolutely amazing the transformation that this art is bringing to our council chambers.”
Council President Amy Brendmoen also was effusive in her praise of the art. “It’s bright. It’s joyous. It’s feminine. It’s welcoming,” said Brendmoen, who added she was filled with emotion when she first viewed the work in the council chambers.
The process of replacing the art proved fraught with challenges, including questions about what should be represented in the new art, who should paint it and what to do with the chambers’ murals that some found distasteful but others defended as historic. Pioneering Chicago muralist John Norton was commissioned to paint the original canvasses of a voyageur, steamboat captain, railroad surveyor and laborer.
The Norton murals “made people feel intimidated,” said Brendmoen, who along with Council Member Rebecca Noecker advocated passionately for new and more inclusive art.
“This is not about changing the wallpaper in the council chamber,” Noecker said. “What we are doing here today is we are recognizing that art is powerful. Context is powerful. Whose story we choose to tell and how we choose to tell them, that matters a ton.”
A citizen task force organized by the Ramsey County Historical Society interviewed more than 20 artists from across Minnesota who had applied to produce the new pieces. The Historical Society also helped organize community forums to discuss the project.
Four new works
The four selected artists created smaller pieces that were then reproduced on larger canvasses to be hung in the chambers. They include:
• A vibrant image of a Latina farmworker with butterfly wings on her back, symbolizing the migratory path between Mexico and the United States. It was painted by more than a dozen artists in the Latinx Mural Apprenticeship Project, organized by Latino nonprofit CLUES, and includes images of community members, a farm field and corn stalks that symbolize “the origin and sustenance of human life.” The Latino population has been part of the Minnesota story since the late 1800s but their communities have been displaced, said Zamara Cuyun, according to the artist statement. The mural illustrates some of that history as well as the community’s future, she said.
• “Earth Stewards,” a sweeping image of a community garden scene created by St. Paul artist Emily Donovan. Figures in the painting can be seen planting, tending the garden and enjoying the space, Donovan said during the unveiling ceremony. She used natural dyes in the work.
• A Native American floral design on a dark background that’s based on a pair of Anishinaabe leggings from the 1930s, the same period the original murals were painted. Grand Rapids, Minn., artist Leah Yellowbird couldn’t attend the unveiling but in her artist statement said she was inspired by the intricate patterns on the leggings. “The design is what a Native person would have focused on in the woodlands, where they live and how they live, and what they see and feel comfort in everyday,” wrote Yellowbird, who is of Anishinaabe heritage.
• A construction worker in a hard hat, with workers installing solar panels below her. Cloquet, Minn., artist Adam Swanson, who also did not attend, wrote in his artist statement that the work includes industries “that will carry St. Paul and the rest of Minnesota into a sustainable tomorrow.”
Original murals covered
A week before the unveiling, some Dakota artists expressed frustration with the process and said they disagreed with early plans to display the new art alongside some of the original murals. That decision to leave some of the murals uncovered had appeased some “historical purists” but offended others, McDonough said.
When George Floyd died at the hands of Minneapolis police in May, city and county leaders agreed to cover all four of the original murals with the new art. Members of the Dakota community said they weren’t notified of the change or invited back into the process and felt strongly they should be represented in the new art.
City and county leaders said they were committed to rotating more artwork into the chambers and around their shared building.