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Shuttered Lake Street store becomes ‘Elsa’s House of Art’ in honor of immigrant entrepreneur

Elsa Rezene, who died of cancer in 2004, moved to the U.S. from Eritrea in 1966 and later established Elsa’s House of Sleep. The business’ shuttered Lake Street location is the site of a new public art project.

The project is produced by a group of neighborhood volunteers called 36th Avenue Revitalization and Transformation (ART).
The project is produced by a group of neighborhood volunteers called 36th Avenue Revitalization and Transformation (ART).
MinnPost photo by Sheila Regan

The spirit of Elsa Rezene shines through a new public art installation outside of the shuttered Elsa’s House of Sleep furniture store on Lake Street in Minneapolis. Called “Dream Sequences,” the project finds inspiration from Rezene, an immigrant from Eritrea who was an artist, seamstress and business owner before she died of cancer in 2004.

“She was always a constant optimist,” Rezene’s son, Tetra Constantino, said. “She had this constant outlook that hey, that can be accomplished no matter what it was.” 

The project was curated and organized by retired founder of Forecast Public Art Jack Becker, with technical support and project management by Krista Pearson. It’s produced by a group of neighborhood volunteers called 36th Avenue Revitalization and Transformation (ART). 

Rezene loved to make beautiful things. When she moved to the United States from Eritrea in 1966, Rezene started out her career as a seamstress and would also make jewelry. According to Constantino, Rezene often chose her materials carefully, like bison horn and brass beads. 

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In 1971, she ran a storefront called Ethiopian Exquisite, where she sold jewelry, handmade clothing, incense, and oils. It wasn’t easy. Rezene and her husband, Gillon Constantino, were the targets of racist slurs and threats. A Minneapolis Star article in 1973 notes that a white man came into the store on Hennepin Avenue and called Constantino,  the “n” word, and that the shop was shot-up twice. Another store the couple owned on Lake Street was burned to the ground. 

Still, Rezene was determined to save up money so that she could sponsor her other family members to join her in the U.S. 

“She was six months pregnant with my brother when she flew back and picked up her five brothers and sisters and her mom,” said Constantino, who now manages the Elsa’s House of Sleep business out of its St. Paul location on University Avenue.

Artwork by Katrina Knutson, Hawona Sullivan, and Jordan M. Hamilton.
MinnPost photo by Sheila Regan
Artwork by Katrina Knutson, Hawona Sullivan, and Jordan M. Hamilton.
Growing up, Constantino remembers traveling to different neighborhood festivals selling her wares like incense oils. In 1997, she opened a new furniture store on Snelling Avenue where she sold mattresses and also rugs, artwork, and lamps. 

When he was in college, Constantino remembers doing deliveries for the business, where his brother also worked. “I unintentionally took an interest in it,” he recalls. “Whenever she said, ‘Hey, you know, we need you to come in and do this or do that,’ I was, I just love doing it.” After he graduated, he began working with his mom for an intended three months, which turned to years. His brother, sister, and his wife have all worked at the business at various times. 

The business moved to University Avenue in 2002 and then opened a second location on Lake Street in 2012. “The whole purpose of that store was to reconnect with the neighborhood that my mother loved,” Constantino said. “Her very first store was on Lake Street.” 

The building had been vacant before the family bought it and fixed it up. In 2019, they decided they wanted to renovate the building. They closed the store and began using it as a storage facility for their Saint Paul store while they organized a planned renovation.

Hawona Sullivan: "Oklahoma Emma with Salt"
MinnPost photo by Sheila Regan
Hawona Sullivan: "Oklahoma Emma with Salt"
Then, the upheaval of 2020 happened. The pandemic and then the civil unrest after George Floyd’s murder delayed a planned re-opening of the building.

During the unrest, Constantino spent the night at the store on University Avenue, which had its windows smashed, and closed that location for a week when phone lines shut down. They also had periods of appointment-only operations because of the pandemic and online sales. Then, in October of 2020, vandals set the back of the Lake Street building on fire. “That set us back, because that was not really in our calculation,” Constantino said.

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Constantino says the business plans to reopen the Lake Street location by the summer of 2023. Like the St. Paul store, it will incorporate local art and artisans, while also selling home furnishings. 

In the meantime, he was approached by Jack Becker about being a part of the neighborhood revitalization efforts of the 36th ART. 

“I was super super happy that he had reached out,” Constantino said. “He really brought this together.” Constantino was particularly happy to have artist Ta-Coumba Aiken involved with the project. “Ta-Coumba and my mom were friends,” he said.  Constantino even still has the portrait Aiken made of his mother back in the 1970s. 

For the project, Aiken has created a 52-foot mural painted on canvas that hangs along the north-facing wall and then wraps around the corner to the west-facing wall. Characterized by Aiken’s signature bold, flowing lines, with colorful abstract gestures behind it, the work situates the building in the aesthetic ethos of south Minneapolis.

Gordon Coons: "Man Transforming into Healer"
MinnPost photo by Sheila Regan
Gordon Coons: "Man Transforming into Healer"
Also on the west-facing wall is a series of paintings by Gordon Coons called “Man Transferring into Healer” (2018), featuring the Ojibwe figure of a “Makwa,” or bear. On the east-facing wall, Ron Brown’s afro-futuristic digital images sparkle with energy and powerful iconic Black faces.

Hawona Sullivan’s work in the project merges archival photographs with bird imagery and symbolic textures. Other works by Jordan M. Hamilton, Christopher Harrison, Katrina Knutson, and Zarra TM transform the plywood covering the building into a vibrant outdoor gallery.

The project also includes a photograph of Rezene, and on the placard is a quote from Rezene as remembered by her son: “It’s never too late to start dreaming.” 

According to a press release, the outdoor exhibition will be open through April 20, 2023. A celebration is planned for late January, dates and times TBA. For now, you can view the exhibition at 36th Avenue and East Lake Street in Minneapolis.

Editor’s note: This article has been updated with the correct spelling of Zarra TM’s name.