The large black and white photograph shows a 9-year-old Elizabeth Suszynski when the “storyboard of my life was empty” and her future bleak.
“It was a socialist country,” she said of her native Poland. “You could do nothing on your own.”
Years later, as a young woman, she emigrated to a new home in the promise of America, “where you are the master of your life,” she said.
Suszynski’s photo and story are part of a new project called “Speaking of Home” that is being installed in four downtown St. Paul skyways. Created by Nancy Ann Coyne, an international artist, designer and photojournalist, the project seeks to connect the meaning of home for 58 immigrants to Minnesota with the lives of the thousands of people who pass through the skyways daily.
For at least the next six months, the project will display the personal stories of people from Romania, Kenya, Laos, Sweden and dozens of other countries to leave one home in search of another. Their own words accompany the photographs:
“Home is a place of being anchored down. I feel I contribute to the society through my job and volunteering in the local Muslim community. Having come from a war-ridden place, security is important and it means not being attacked, robbed, or fearing that bombs would fall on your house.” — Tamim Saidi, Afghanistan.
The project, years in the making, is a partnership with the city, Alliance Bank Center, US Bank Center, Town Square and the Securian Center. It is funded in part by the National Endowment for the Arts, the Minnesota State Arts Board and local foundations.
“Home is the place just to be you. The fact that we run our own lives, independent of other people’s expectations, makes me feel like we truly found ourselves here in Minnesota.” — Nese Yurttas, Turkey.
To Coyne, a photojournalist whose work has taken her to battlefields and refugee camps, the idea of using immigrants’ own family and personal photos instead of taking her own was critical to conveying a shared sense of home, to telling their family stories. Above each panel is the word “home” written in the subjects’ native languages.
“I hope it helps people feel empathy, compassion, understanding,” Coyne said of photos that convey common themes of family, love and hope. “The beauty of the project is people can be interactive with it in the way that they choose to be.”
“This photograph reminds me of our hard times in Austria and why we left to begin a new life. We first became indentured agricultural workers in Alberta, Canada. A decade later, we came to Minnesota where my husband joined the University of Minnesota geology faculty.” — Olga Zoltai, Hungary.
Coyne said she hopes the project provides a place for immigrant voices and histories, but also transforms the skyways and attracts more people to downtown St. Paul. “Speaking of Home” is the first public artwork installed in the publicly owned St. Paul skyway system.
Its 47 bridges serve thousands of people every day going to and from work and lunch and shopping. The St. Paul City Council last year passed a city ordinance permitting artwork to be displayed in the skyways.
“The terrible political and economic environment in Poland during the 1970s led to my unexpected, permanent stay here. Minnesota really became my home when I started my own family. People by nature will often discriminate against things new or different. When I got my first job, some people welcomed me while others accused me of taking the job from Americans.” — Elizabeth Suszynski, Poland.
Suszynski made her way to America 41 years ago and found a life of “limitless possibilities.” She reconnected with a fellow Pole, whom she would marry here, and created a home of her own.
Now a contract coordinator for the Minnesota Department of Administration, Suszynski was approached about the “Speaking of Home” project three years ago.
She said she hopes passersby will look at the photos, read the biographies and be inspired by people who made a leap into the unknown to find a new home.
“It is a wonderful project because it actually shows how people started their life again and what their values are and how they perceived this country when they arrived,” she said. “I think we can all learn something from everybody’s life.”