You might have seen Reggie LeFlore’s art writ large on the Herkimer in the Lyn-Lake neighborhood, on a billboard above Hennepin Avenue, on the boarded-up State Theatre, on Milkweed Coffee shop on Lake Street, on the wall of a building in St. Paul’s Creative Enterprise Zone.
A new exhibition at Gamut Gallery in Minneapolis is a chance to see it smaller and up close, to study the vivid colors, strong shapes and skillful drawings that capture and communicate personalities and narratives. “Setting the Groundwork,” LeFlore’s first solo show in Minneapolis, opened at the end of May and will stay up through most of June. Everything in it was painted for the show, using spray paint and acrylic paint markers on canvas. His work is reference-based – his portraits start with photographs – and done freehand.
The 35 paintings are arranged in six chapters centered around six themes in his life: youth, collaborations, Black experiences, storytelling, street art and self-identity. If you walk through the show in order, the first painting, “Lil’ Reggie,” is the artist at age 4-5. The last, “The Storyteller,” is the artist today at work on a future project, a graphic novel based on a story he’s been developing since high school.
LeFlore arrived in Minneapolis in 2015, a young Black artist from Omaha, where he had some success with “fun projects, pop culture things.” He left those behind when he learned that people who were buying his work “had strong negative opinions about Black folks and Black lives in the United States. So I jumped off that pop culture train and started trying to think more conceptually about the work I do. That can be challenging because I don’t have a degree or any sort of formal education in artmaking.” But he did have technique, talent and skills.
LeFlore’s art is informed by graffiti, graphic design, street art culture, urban life and comic books. He calls himself a visual artist. Since his pop culture experience, he has more clearly defined his own boundaries and purpose. After George Floyd was murdered by Minneapolis police, he said no to requests and commissions that didn’t fit with his beliefs.
“I did one piece, and there was a very specific reason why. And that reason was because I wasn’t told to do it. I was tired of being hit up by people on social media to paint performative signs like ‘End systemic racism’ and ‘Rest in peace, George Floyd,’ because a lot of that was a source of trauma and pain for me.
“As a Black artist, there was more that I wanted to do than just fall in line as the next artist who’s painting George Floyd projects. I almost got to painting a couple of murals early on. One person commissioned me to paint a George Floyd piece on Lake Street, but a business owner who was putting up money for that project wanted their business to be included in the mural in some sort of way. And there’s no amount of money in the world you’ll pay me to advertise somebody’s business on a project rooted in pain.”
Another potential commission wanted a mural done in a hurry. “He was very pushy and rushy.”
LeFlore finally said yes to Milkweed Coffee Shop because they said “Paint whatever you feel like painting and we’ll honor that.” While he was at work on the mural, “a guy came up and he was asking me questions, and he had opinions about buildings being looted, and this and that. And I gave him my strong opinions, and we had a dialogue. We had a back-and-forth.
“I think he left the conversation informed. It felt like he understood my point of view as a Black artist and a Black man. And I felt the dialogue was worth it.”
LeFlore’s Milkweed Coffee mural is now with Save the Boards to Memorialize the Movement, a grassroots organization that collects and preserves plywood artwork created in response to Floyd’s death. “I’m giving them free rein to do whatever they want to do with it, because it’s a Black-led project.”
His next project, or one of his next, will likely be a graphic novel based on “The Overseer,” an Afrocentric/Afrofuturistic story he’s been working on for years. LeFlore describes it as “the journey of a demigoddess and her interwoven tales of destiny, her heritage, and her encounters with the fate of humankind.” His mural in the Creative Enterprise Zone is a glimpse into “The Overseer,” as was his triptych on the State Theatre’s boarded-up front, which was taken down last month.
Meanwhile, the goal of “Setting the Groundwork” is “to inform people of my own experiences as a visual artist as they pertain to my Blackness, my collaborations with others and how I like to tell stories. And how I view myself.
“When the George Floyd murder happened, I became inspired to start putting more of my Black futures stuff out there. I didn’t want to paint projects that gave people pain and trauma. Folks have been asking me to put more of that Black joy and Black love out there. It’s feeling good.”
“Setting the Groundwork” closes on Saturday, June 26. Gamut Gallery is open Wednesdays-Fridays, 11 a.m. to 6 p.m., and Saturdays 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Note: This Saturday, June 12, Gamut will celebrate its ninth birthday with house music and a makers’ market. LeFlore will be there painting.
Arts news to know
The Ordway will reopen in September, the Arts Partnership announced on Friday. The Partnership is the four organizations that share the space: Minnesota Opera, the Ordway (presenter of theater, dance, music, family events and educational programs), the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra and the Schubert Club.
The Schubert Club announced part of its 2021-22 season at the end of May. We’re expecting season announcements from the other three partners. Christine Sagstetter, the Ordway’s interim president and CEO, said in a statement, “This is the longest that Ordway stages have been dark in our 356-year history. Our organizations are thrilled to soon welcome return and new guests alike to create special memories at the Ordway once again.”
The Ordway has used pandemic time to upgrade its air filtration system, install high-efficiency MERV 13 air filters and implement enhanced cleaning practices throughout the building.
“With cautious optimism,” the always excellent Chamber Music Society of Minnesota has announced plans for a 2021-22 season at Hamline’s Sundin Hall, which intends to reopen in September. Without getting into specifics, Co-Artistic Directors Young-Nam Kim and Ariana Kim will present their season opener in early October, their annual family concert in December, guest composer/performer Caroline Shaw in February 2022 (postponed from June 14, 2020; it hurt to cross that one off our calendar) and a new dinner concert series at Café Biaggio in June.
The Minneapolis Institute of Art has secured more than $19 million in five major gifts for its operations and endowment. These gifts will endow the position of deputy director and chief operating officer; fund the creation of a new curator of Latin American art, and the position itself in perpetuity; support the creation and funding of another new position, Chief Diversity and Inclusion Officer, and ensure that it is not subject to discretionary budgeting; and support conservation, research and programming for the museum’s collection of South and Southeast Asian and Chinese art and reinstallation of the galleries.
This is far brighter news than Mia shared during the pandemic: a $1.23 million budget deficit, its first in 27 years; a 15% pay cut for the leadership team, and a pay freeze for all nonunion staff; 39 staff members permanently gone, including 17 voluntary separations and 22 layoffs. Katie Luber had been Mia’s president for less than two months when COVID-19 forced everything to close and hard choices to be made.