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The effort behind the art – Ashley’s story

Ashley Schilling is junior at the University of MN–Twin Cities, double majoring in Psychology and Art, with a minor in Neuroscience. She’s spending the semester off campus, enrolled in HECUA’s Art for Social Change program. Each Art for Social Change student spends 20 hours a week at an individual internship site. Ashley’s internships placement site is South Minneapolis’ Chicago Avenue Fire Arts Center, a teaching facility focusing on fine and industrial art forms that are produced using heat, spark, or flame. These forms include sculptural welding, blacksmithing, glasswork, jewelry making, and others. Ashley was kind enough to pull back the curtain and offer a glimpse into one of CAFAC’s major commissioned works: the Seed Project.


The best and most exciting parts of this semester have been seeing what we study in class in action at my internship site. We talk about community-based and public art in class. We touch on gentrification, art that is not site specific, community engagement, and other social factors that public art projects must take into consideration when trying to create a piece that lives in the community. As we learn more about these topics and discuss the ramifications of social systems on public art, I have the opportunity to watch and participate in the fabrication of a huge public art project that deals with these issues and more.

I am currently interning at Chicago Avenue Fire Arts Center (CAFAC). CAFAC is collaborating with the City of Minneapolis, Obsidian Arts, Urban Research and Outreach Engagement Center, and local artists to complete the Seed Project. This project engages well-known and emerging African American artists in the fabrication of a large-scale enamel art piece that will be mounted on the Olson Memorial Bridge in Minneapolis. This project will teach young artists skills to make them more employable; as well as engage artists across generations in a placemaking project for the North Side of Minneapolis. This project aims to build the capacity of the Chicago Avenue Fire Arts Center and Obsidian Arts to teach African American art and community history.

Not only has it been exciting to watch artists work on these enamel pieces, I’ve learned how to prep plates for them. I grind sheets of metal down and cover them with base layers of enamel to get the plates ready for artists to work on them. This process has given me insight into the amount of behind-the-scenes work that goes into a project of this caliber and scale. Prepping plates is not just time-consuming: it is expensive.

Art for Social Change student ashley holds an industrial spray coater over a giant sheet of metal.

Art for Social Change student Ashley uses a metal tool to pull a rack of coated plates out of a kiln.
Ashley at work, prepping plates. 

This is not a project a single artist could do on their own. It is a collaboration with many people and the city. It is amazing to see how many hands need to help to get this project off the ground and onto that bridge. It is still about a year out from installation, but there are massive amounts of work being done on it each week.

The reason this project was commissioned comes from community history, and the destruction of a similar project in the same area led by John Biggers.

A series of painted panels, each panel decorated with its own totem, creates a wall lining a sidewalk covered in snow.
The Celebration of Life mural.

The “Celebration of Life” mural created in 1996 used symbols to tell a mythological tale about the beginning of life. This mural lived on a freeway sound wall at Olson Memorial Highway and I-94 and came down in 2001 to make way for the Heritage Park housing development. This mural had been a locally and nationally acclaimed work of African-American art and its destruction was a loss to the community. This project is the city’s attempt to fill that gap. Two of the lead artists on the Seed project even worked on the “Celebration of Life” mural with John Biggers in the 90’s. The importance of this project goes beyond putting something beautiful on a bridge. It is to help carry on the legacy of community-based public art in anarea where it had been stripped away. The background of this project is something I would not have known without the immersion into this organization.


For more about the Seed Project:

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