The John Biggers Seed Project builds on a public-art legacy

John Biggers Seed Project
The Line

Just a handful of years after its creation, a vibrant mural on a freeway sound wall at Olson Memorial Highway and I-94 leading into North Minneapolis came down to make way for the Heritage Park housing development. That was in 2001.  

The “Celebration of Life” mural used symbols to convey a mythological tale about the beginning of life. According to Mary Altman, a public-arts administrator for the City of Minneapolis, the mural was a locally and nationally acclaimed work of African-American art.

John Biggers, a prominent African-American artist originally from North Carolina who died in 2001, led the mural’s creation in 1996. He also collaborated with a number of local artists on every aspect of process. “It was completely a community effort” with a large impact, Altman says.

After the mural was demolished, Altman adds, “We knew we had to do something else with the community. There were lots of conversations about what to do next and what the next work would look like.”

Today the former mural has inspired a new public artwork in the same part of town: the John Biggers Seed Project, an installation of porcelain enamel panels. After a planning process that began a dozen years ago, a variety of stakeholders including City officials and community activists developed Seed.

The City of Minneapolis, Obsidian Arts, Chicago Avenue Fire Arts Center, and the University of Minnesota’s Urban Research and Outreach Engagement Center (UROC) are partnering on the ambitious project. Thirteen mid-career and emerging artists, led by four master artists, will contribute to the new public art piece, which will be mounted in October on the Olson Memorial Bridge that spans I-94. The artists will also fabricate a new railing to replace a chain-link fence.

The goal of the project, in part, Altman says, is to create a public artwork that “celebrates the community” and signifies “something positive to identify the community as you enter.”

Just as the “Celebration of Life” mural advanced the careers of the artists involved, the Seed project is “something more permanent than a mural, to help the artists evolve and develop their careers,” she says.

Master artists

For the “Celebration of Life” mural, Biggers created a black-and-white sketch as a starting point for other artists to riff off of. Additionally, the city held collaborative design workshops to refine the work. Similarly, Seed has four master artists leading the charge: Willis Bing Davis of Ohio, Jon Onye Lockard of Michigan, and local artists Seitu Jones and Ta-coumba Aiken, both of whom are veterans of the “Celebration of Life” mural.

Davis and Lockard, who were Biggers’ peers, were selected because “they knew his work intimately and their own work has similar characteristics that are rooted in African culture and African-American culture,” Altman says. As educators, they could also “communicate their ideas clearly to emerging artists.”

Davis and Lockard will fulfill Biggers’ role, by developing an initial concept for the Seed piece. From there, Jones and Aiken will lead the mid-career and emerging artists in fleshing out the idea. The artists will divide up the tasks, with some people working with enamel in the studio, and others assisting with the firing and fabrication of the work.

Besides the hands-on aspect of the project, the artists will participate in a yearlong training program on African-American art, local history, and career development. The program also includes art-history lectures in February and March that are open to the public.  

Continuing the legacy

Aiken, a Seed master artist and St. Paul resident, jumped at the opportunity to participate in the project, in part because Biggers’ “weaving of symbology” into his work was so new, Aiken says. “The whole history of African-American art was in his hands,” Aiken says. “Now the legacy is getting ready to be passed on. I wanted to be a part of that.”

Working on the “Celebration of Life” had a profound impact on Aiken. Biggers, whom Aiken describes as a selfless visionary, made many of the artists involved “come alive.” “I realized there was something in my work that got enhanced after just looking at his work,” Aiken says.  

In addition, the artists came to rely “no longer on just basic knowledge, but spiritual guidance. Anytime there was a roadblock, it got opened. Anytime there was an accident, it wasn’t severe even though it should’ve been,” he says.

The mural, then the largest public-art piece in the area, stood for “something valuable and great that had never happened in the Twin Cities before,” he says. He’s disappointed the mural was torn down. “These things happen. We try to move on. But it was a hard one for me.”

Biggers imparted an important lesson, Aiken adds. “Once you do a piece, you have to let go. It belongs to the community,” even though “the community has to be stewards of the work.”

The mural also planted a seed.

“We needed something that healed all that had gone on, something that would bring back the spirit of the mural,” he says. That’s why the Seed project is operating in the same vein, “so we can leave a trail to plant seeds for the future.”

Seed isn’t about duplicating the former mural. The whole group will develop “the best possible imagery” for this new piece, through workshops, research, and sharing ideas.

Ultimately, the Seed project will be built to last. The City is still raising money for the project, but is nearly at the goal with half a million dollars dedicated to Seed, according to Altman.

Art as community change

Chris Scott, a Saint Paul ceramic artist and a photographer, is a fan of Biggers’ work — which is what drew her to participate the project as one of its 13 mid-career or emerging artists. But she’s also interested in seeing how her work might translate into a two-dimensional public-art piece, which is new ground for her.  

The others artists involved, who work in a variety of mediums, bring a wealth of experience to the endeavor. “You want to tap your neighbor on the shoulder and ask them about what they’re working on,” Scott says. More broadly, however, Scott wants to be involved in community change.

The North Side often gets a bad rap. But having worked in that part of town, Scott says, she’s been exposed to “a lot of positive things happening that people don’t know about.”  Because public art can be a force for social good, she has high hopes for the Seed project.

“It’s exciting to think about how many people will see this public-art installation everyday,” she says. “Just the idea of making it accessible in that way is important.”

This article is reprinted in partnership with The Line, an online chronicle of Twin Cities creativity in entrepreneurship, culture, retail, placemaking, the arts, and other elements of the new creative economy. Anna Pratt is The Line’s development news editor.

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