Reflecting Upon Shadows of Spirit

In 2013, I interviewed Seitu Jones and Ta-coumba Aiken about their experiences and recollections for the Artistic Significance Report that I was producing for the Minneapolis Arts Commission. The City needed to determine which works should return to the Mall and the report was intended to aid their decision-making. No records were found regarding the selection process, or about the artists and the public art they had created, so I interviewed the living artists and researched those who had passed away. Over time, the interviews and research constituted an historic archive; a permanent document of the early 1990s work that will reside at Minneapolis Central Library.

Composit photo of Seitu Jones and Ta-coumba Aiken

Seitu Jones and Ta-coumba Aiken

Following are excerpts from my conversation with Jones and Aiken about the inspiration for Shadows of Spirit, the process of creating the work, and in retrospect, what it has meant to their artistic careers.

Regina Flanagan: Tell me something about the intention for the artwork. What is the main concept for the work? What inspired you to create it? What governed your choice of materials? How did it evolve?

Seitu Jones: Artist Ta-coumba Aiken, poet Soyini Guyton and I created art (for the Nicollet Mall) that is experienced in common ways; inset in the granite paving. The artwork, composed of cast bronze shadows inset in the pavement, honors the folks that built Minneapolis – waves of people. (The work includes) the shadows of folks who came before; seven individuals. I did research at the Minneapolis Public Library and identified: Dred Scott, an enslaved African-American man who unsuccessfully sued for his freedom; a Dakota woman; the first documented Chinese immigrant who was also a member of the nearby Wesley Presbyterian Church; writer Meridel LeSueur, who had seen Haley’s comet twice; Nellie Stone Johnson, a union organizer and the founder of the Democrat-Farm-Labor party who had a tailor shop on Nicollet Avenue; and a person involved in the 1934 labor strike.

Ta-coumba Aiken: We went for a walk on the Mall and saw shadows. Then we took photographs of people’s shadows on the solstice. People (viewing the artwork) read the shadows and look at their own shadows; and people realize that they exist, too. No names are attached to the shadows; the work will endure without names. The poems (texts on the shadows) are like comments about something that happened. So there is a weaving and crossing of existence between the viewers, their own shadows, and the shadows on the Mall; the past and the present. We wanted people to care about the existence of the individuals referred to in the shadows, without screaming about it.

SJ: I took photos of real people walking on Nicollet Mall during four specific times of year – the winter solstice, spring equinox, summer solstice, and fall equinox. The shadows inset into the pavement are lined up to these four events. (The metaphor is that) we stand in the shadows of those who came before.

RF: How does it relate to your other work and aesthetic concerns of that time period?

TA: (Working with) history is a part of my DNA. I had just completed the large painted murals on the grain elevators at Good Thunder, MN. But for the Nicollet Mall project, I didn’t want to do a work that was as representational as my murals.

SJ: This was the first infrastructure project for both me and Ta-coumba. We wanted to integrate work with the Mall rather than (impose) “plop art,” so we chose to embed the work into the pavement. It was our first six-figure budget and we had to manage the process and the funds. It was challenging because we used a group of fabricators. We produced full-scale maquettes in foam-core with plastic letters that became the molds that were destroyed (in the casting process). The bronze surface couldn’t be slippery, so we used millet, the grain, to produce a granular, pebble-like surface. The bronze surface is very textured.

RF: What has been the impact of the commission on your subsequent work? What came before and after the 1988-92 Nicollet Mall commission?

SJ: The project gave me an understanding of how to approach integrating artwork in the streetscape. It was the first time that I started to use the language of design. One or two years afterward, both Ta-coumba and I received Bush Foundation Fellowships.

TA: Seitu and I received the fellowships in 1992, shortly after the Nicollet Mall project. As I was finishing the Mall project, I also responded to a national call from the City of Saint Paul to work on the 7th and Robert Streets Municipal Parking Ramp. I was selected for the project and designed cast wall reliefs for the exterior, and etched glass for the skyway link.

Two images of artworks at Robert Street Ramp by Ta-coumba Aiken

Both the Nicollet Mall and the parking ramp projects used more durable and sustainable materials – bronze and concrete – than my painted murals. Thereafter, I created mosaics for the Chicago and Lake Transit Center in Minneapolis, and the fireplace on the fourth floor of the Minneapolis Central Library. In between projects with sustainable materials, I continued to create many murals. My paintings are sketches for large-scale public art.

I had a solo show at the Walker Art Center in 2001, and at the Minnesota Artists Exhibition Program gallery at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts in 2007. I did some curatorial work for Honeywell Corporation, and at Intermedia Arts in Minneapolis. (My focus was to) get beyond race stereotypes, i.e., that you don’t have to depict black people (in artworks). I have been able to travel around the world because of my art.

Two images from "Create the Community Meal" by Seitu Jones

CREATE: The Community Meal. Seitu Jones, 2014. Photo: Andy King.

To read about CREATE: The Community Meal by Seitu Jones.

Ta-coumba Aiken website.