Working-class neighborhoods don’t wear their art on their sleeves, but that doesn’t mean they don’t have culture. In fact, you’ll find some of the most ambitious artists go about their business in just such unlovely communities. Cheap rent allows creative people freedom from worrying so much about the bottom line.
The Hamline-Midway neighborhood of St. Paul has an old-school urban grit peculiar to longtime blue-collar neighborhoods: dour industrial complexes next to big box retailers, cheek by jowl with the stalwart mom and pop businesses who’ve refused to cede territory to either of them, accompanied by a dizzying assortment of hole-in-the-wall Hmong, Latino and Somali storefronts, which cater to the large immigrant populations who’ve made their home here.
Drive along the main neighborhood thoroughfares of Snelling and University Avenues, and the landscape is relentlessly practical; work gets done here, and there’s little that suggests otherwise. Except, right in the beating heart of this working-class urban core, a keen eye can spot a series of enormous, inordinately whimsical garden planters, overflowing this time of year with annuals; the giant pots are embellished with a mosaic patchwork of brightly colored tile, beads and glass.
There are, in fact, 10 such planters — the legacy of a grand community art project undertaken with neighborhood residents in the summer of 2006, spearheaded by Mosaic on a Stick. “The Stick” is an artist-owned mosaic supply shop, community classroom and studio located near the famous Minnesota State Fairgrounds (hence the name). It’s a bright spot of color in this neighborhood.
As you walk in the door, it’s impossible to look away from the wall of jars containing candy-colored tiles in every conceivable hue. On a table nearby is a riot of vivid bits of glass and beads and various glossy whatnot — the abundance of shiny pretties makes a magpie of anyone who enters the joint. Your fingers itch to pick them up, to make something.
And indeed, you can learn how to do just that — “Trash to Treasure Mosaics” is a perennially popular offering, or there’s the family oriented beginners’ class that takes folks through the process of making something smaller, like a picture frame.
Lori Greene, the proprietor and a well-regarded artist in her own right, says the number of class regulars has grown exponentially in the three years since I last interviewed her. The shop’s vibe is so inviting and the offerings so accessible, so fun — it’s no wonder.
Greene was among a small group of artists awarded the prestigious Bush Foundation’s Artist Fellowship last year. She says it inspired her to take the next step: putting together the paperwork to apply for nonprofit status for The Stick. She’d like to broaden and expand the reach of her community art and educational efforts, get more and better equipped space for her students to make and store their work.
“You should see those back rooms — it’s higgledy-piggledy back there, jammed with half-finished pieces too heavy for students to haul back and forth,” a colleague pipes up. Greene nods, “I need more than double this space, I think — for a dedicated gallery to show students’ pieces, more room to work, maybe even a little café.”
What does she most want to do that she’s not doing now? She says, after seven years, the shop is outgrowing both its space and the entrepreneurial model. Her heart’s in education, in developing the talent and ambition of future generations of artists.
“I want to reach out to kids of color, give them the practical skills to make a living as an artist, maybe working to create art for their own communities.” Greene says, “I was one of only 20 students of color when I went to art school. I want more young people of color to see that a creative field can be a viable career path.”
Visit Mosaic on a Stick: 595 N. Snelling Ave., St. Paul, 55104; 651-645-6600. Find a current list of classes offered by the shop, as well as information about community art projects, past and present, on The Stick’s website.