Art for Social Change Community Partner

Community Partner Feature: Chicago Avenue Fire Arts Center

Four people standing in a line, looking very proud.

Collaboration with community partners brings HECUA’s model of transformational learning to life. We know that the 15-20 hours a week that students spend interning with a local organization is just as valuable as the time they spend inside the classroom. Periodically, we feature the community partners who make experiential learning possible.

The Chicago Avenue Fire Arts Center (CAFAC) is one of HECUA’s Minneapolis-based community partners. They have been a longstanding partner of our Art for Social Change program. We zoomed in with Heather Doyle (Artistic Director) and Victoria Lauing (Executive Director) to hear more about their work and how their relationship with HECUA supports their efforts to “spark creativity and fuel community.”

[This interview took place after on Friday, June 12th 2020. CAFAC is located at the intersection of 38th  Street and Chicago Avenue in Minneapolis where George Floyd was murdered by former Minneapolis police officers 18 days ago.]

HECUA and CAFAC: Art for Social Change

CAFAC’s work in arts education, public art, and artist support all provide a hands-on learning environment for HECUA students who intern there through the Art for Social Change program. Heather and Victoria had many stories of interns from over the years, including some who stayed involved with CAFAC past their internship through the program.

Sometimes we’ve even had two interns. Those are kind of magical experiences for us,” Heather mentioned.

The internship begins with project design. Much of the work at CAFAC is volunteer-led, which also gives interns an opportunity to play integral role in the day to day life of the organization.

The timing of the internship allows up to wrap our heads around the things that we need to launch forward that we don’t have the capacity for. We identify about four projects that we need completed and then the intern will decide which project inspires them. It’s always epic. We launch forward with every one of these internships.” Heather explained.

“HECUA just folds into our existence on a number of levels. We’ve had a lot of former interns come back, and it’s really common for us to reach out to our HECUA interns when we need extra help.”  Victoria reflected. “There’s always a nice natural weave, a synergy.”

HECUA and CAFAC are woven together in a number of ways, even beyond the internship aspect of the program.

We are a socially engaged, community support organization, and it’s really cool to see our neighbors and the artists we work with on a regular basis show up in the HECUA curriculum as guest speakers,” Heather said. “It’s very integrated into our community because we’re surrounded by artists who do community engagement. We’re kind of like the HECUA family down here.”

Creating Chicago Avenue Fire Arts Center

Heather and Victoria are founding board members of CAFAC. They explained how the idea for the organization was born out of a group of neighbors, in collaboration with a small business area plan for the intersection of 38th Street and Chicago Avenue. The city-approved plan called for an arts organization to anchor the area. The organization was founded 2007.

Heather and I had been working together at Minneapolis Community & Technical College (MCTC) in the continuing education program where we were doing fire arts (welding and blacksmithing), and knew we were on to something that was an underserved niche in the arts system locally,” Victoria explained.

CAFAC’s mission is to inspire hands, hearts, and minds through art forms produced by heat, spark or flame. CAFAC focuses on achieving this mission through three main pillars; arts education, artist support, and public art. They offer classes that are open to the public, in addition to working in partnership with different organizations and schools that focus on project-based learning. Central to their mission is uplifting voices in the community.

Around the same time that CAFAC was coming to life, Heather had been developing a template called “speak,” a guide or model for engaging community. She started developing this tool while at MCTC, and the organization still uses this template to engage community in meaningful ways.

It guides our approach to working with our partners, for example, those that serve underserved youth, (i.e. homeless youth, victims of trafficking and prostitution, incarcerated youth),” she explained. “We usually do a project where we dig deep into a current issue that effects their lives. They get to say what they want to say about it and start a conversation with the community. It usually takes the form of a sculpture project that serves a community need.”

 While the projects have taken different shapes over the years, Heather says that the template “offers that same type of empowering programming to engage with different partners.”

“Spark Creativity. Fueling Community!”

Youth flameworking class at CAFAC. Photo credit, Fred Panache.

Part of the Center’s mission is to provide space for artists to work, along with mentorship in developing skills in the fire arts.

There are pretty significant barriers to doing this work on your own. When it comes to things like a well-equipped and safe shop space, most people don’t’ have that in their own home. We maintain the shop and offering training, so that makes it more accessible for people.”

CAFAC has supported the work of several artists over the years, particularly BIPOC artists. Heather explained how the Center is unique in their approach to working with public artists.

“The public art projects that we seek to prioritize are ones that address social justice and environmental justice. We don’t seek to be a ‘job shop,’ where someone brings an idea and we build it for them. We’re not a job shop. It’s a much deeper relationship with the artists. Primarily the public artists we have worked with have been BIPOC, and that’s intentional as well.” 

They both explained CAFAC is set up to collaborate and support several aspects of an artist project from concept design to budgeting, proposals, scaling, installation, etc. They also work with artists who have expertise in other mediums and want to explore creating through fire arts.

Artists don’t necessarily have to have fire skills, we have a lot of people who work here who are painters and we can use enamel on steel to bring their ideas to a permanent format,” Heather said.

One story that illustrates this commitment comes from CAFAC’s involvement with The John Biggers Seed Project.

In 1996, prominent muralist John Biggers led the creation of a mural called the “Celebration of Life” where I-94 crosses Olson Memorial Highway in North Minneapolis. The mural was a community collaboration between Bigger and other emerging African-American artists. Unfortunately, the mural was bulldozed by city officials to make way for the construction of Heritage Park in 2001.

After outcry from the community at the destruction of the “Celebration of Life,” city officials began looking for ways to make amends for not protecting the artwork.

It was around that time that public arts administrator Mary Altman approached CAFAC.

Just as we were beginning to develop the concept for the Fire Arts Center, she (Mary) asked us if we would eventually have the capacity to build something like this. There are only a few places in the country that aren’t industrial where you can do fire arts scale enamel. What came of that was the second incarnation of the SEED project in enamel rather than painting, so that it would be more permanent and lasting than a retaining wall,” Heather explained.

The project became a multi-generational community project. The original seeds from the first project became the established artists in this second phase who mentored and worked with a new generation of emerging Black artists. Over several years, CAFAC supported the project by offering artist training, fabrication of the enamel, and by building a studio large enough to house a kiln.

The Seed project was completed in 2018, but has not yet been installed.

It was almost a decade of planning and preparation,” Heather added. “I feel like we were the seeds because that whole project really grew us.”

Seed artists. Photo credit, CAFAC

Living at 38th Street and Chicago Avenue

What has it been like to be located at 38th and Chicago over the last few weeks?

Victoria said, “It’s been an ongoing process. We’re still very much in it. I feel that I haven’t fully processed and reflected, but I know that we are as individuals and as an organization taking the time to listen deeply to challenge ourselves, our thinking, our history, both as individual humans and as this place right here. It’s not always easy or clear; it’s been confusing and chaotic at times, but it’s also been hopeful and positive. 

The development of this sacred space has been awe-inspiring to observe. We’ve gotten clear about the resources we have here and we’re looking for our partners to help direct the types of responses we can have, whether that is creating permanent memorials, hosting events and activities, or something else. We don’t intend to lead, but are looking for the partners and relationships we have to work with us to share the unique tools we have.”

Heather added, “Very quickly the memorial site expanded and we were sort of enveloped into it. It’s just so reverent… it’s been powerful to see artists coming together and speaking in every element at this time.”

Heather explained that many artists and others have reached out to CAFAC offering types of support and artwork in response to the emerging memorial at 38th and Chicago.

In the spirit of partnership, CAFAC is holding space for the community to lead.

We don’t want to be the decision-makers about what artworks are made. We started documenting the names of people who have been reaching out, then sharing that information with the community so that we can make decisions together.” 

Youth blacksmithing class. Photo credit, Scott Streble.

Curious to learn more about CAFAC? Visit to see a full listing of the classes they offer (available to the public), opportunities to volunteer, and ways to donate.

HECUA’s Art for Social Change program is offered every spring term and is open to any undergraduate student seeking an experiential semester off campus.

HECUA is proud to partner with Chicago Avenue Fire Arts Center. Through community partnerships, HECUA offers off-campus academic programs for students to do integrative intellectual, political, and artistic work in support of movements for social justice, peace, and environmental sustainability in the US and abroad.

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