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By Kirstin Wiegmann, Forecast Public Art

There are more than 120 languages spoken in the Twin Cities Public Schools, a diversity that many may envision as the demographics of, say, New York or Los Angeles.  In 2008, artist and designer Nancy Ann Coyne, developed the first Speaking of Home project, animating the Minneapolis skyway system to begin telling the stories of people who call the Twin Cities home and explore the diversity of the region. This was the first-ever public art installation in the skyway systems of Minneapolis.

Rendering of Speaking of Home installation in the skyway over Minnesota Street, in downtown St. Paul.

After receiving a Research and Development Grant in 2005 from Forecast Public Art, Coyne engaged key city stakeholders to consider how the Minneapolis skyways could be re-imagined for public art. Once she received their approval for the idea, she built relationships with 23 individuals from various countries, each with a different language and each with a different reason for coming here. She interviewed each of them, gaining a deep understanding of what “home” meant to each, and then presented their stories along with their photographs—images that traveled with them from their former homes.

What is a skyway? Informally, skyways are where Minnesotans go to avoid the cold. First built in 1962, skyways are sometimes considered awkward and strange, yet often described as functional and necessary. These catwalks, sky bridges, or skywalks (as they are sometimes referred to in other cities) are a type of “pedway” consisting of enclosed or covered bridges between two buildings in an urban setting. Given the frigid temperatures of the Twin Cities and the windy downtown streets, skyways are essential to people wishing to remain comfortable throughout the coldest months of the year. In fact, there are folks who never step outside all winter. They wake up, drive their car from a heated garage out into the snowy world, park in an enclosed garage inside a building, go to lunch and shop using the skyway system and then go home without ever touching a snowflake!

Generally, skyways aren’t infused with evocative designs or architectural features; in St. Paul they are designed to be neutral and go unnoticed. Speaking of Home challenges us to see skyways through a new lens, inviting us to begin viewing our community in a different way. From the street, one marvels at the monumental, semi-transparent, black and white portraits filling the windows as some 20,000 daily skyway walkers parade behind the images. This parade appears to activate the installation, giving the immigrants a dominant place in the urban landscape.

The Twin Cities cultural landscape continues to shift with ever-increasing diversity. The City of Saint Paul will host an expanded version of Speaking of Home in 2012, showcasing the stories of 58 Twin Cities residents in four skyways with added programming. Accompanying the photographic installations will be extended interviews accessible via smart phones and QR codes. The project includes a multitude of opportunities to expand engagement with schools and community groups as well as a variety of special events and artistic activities to enliven the surrounding community.

Speaking of Home has made many friends and established several meaningful partnerships since 2008, and we look forward to sharing with you stories of individuals and groups involved in this exciting public art project. Stay tuned for interviews, overviews and images!

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