Some of the most creative, resilient people in the Twin Cities live at Tower Apartments in South Minneapolis. In the spring of 2016, they spent many hours together in Tower’s lobby sharing their stories and shaping hundreds of ceramic and colored glass pieces into a stunning mosaic. The massive community creation now delights their eyes every time they step off the elevator near Tower’s entrance. With obvious pride, they tell visitors, “We made that.”
Tower tenants are people with long lives. Most have faced more than their share of deep difficulties – having to leave beloved places, losing loved ones, homelessness, addiction rehab and relapse, prison experiences, poverty, or major doses of ill health – physical or mental. Fitting in, or belonging, hasn’t been all that easy. While working on the mosaic, they were learning artistic skills side-by-side and hearing each other’s stories. They found common bonds.
The theme running through the mosaic is the Mississippi River. In coming up with the design for the piece, which measures five by seven feet, tenants told stories — fishing tales, travel stories, and stories of working on the river. There were stories, too, of eagles, dogs, bonfires and sunbathing on the beach. Stories extended all along the Mississippi down to the bayou and to other rivers that tenants had once known up close.
All the Pieces Became a Whole
“People were getting to know each other,” said Anne Krocak, the high-energy public artist from COMPAS who guided the mosaic’s creation. “They came together to make art pieces and found themselves and each other in the process. They were doing more than gluing pieces onto the mosaic. You could sense this feeling: We’re gluing our community together.”
“It was a wonderful way to come together and celebrate the completion of our building wide renovation,” said Tower staffer Joanie Lennick-Goulart, who came up with the idea of a community art creation. “We wanted the art in our building to represent the community in it and there was no better way to do that then to actually have the community create it.” Lennick-Goulart, who works for Ebenezer, the non-profit that operates Tower, is now its housing manager. She has since added many other works of art throughout the building.
Only a handful of the almost 100 tenants who took part in the mosaic making had prior experience with designing a piece of artwork, cutting glass, or shaping clay into something beautiful. Most were reluctant to try. But there were watchers and “critics.” Krocak would welcome them with her warm, teasing humor as “inspectors,” and before long she had them holding a hunk of clay or a glass cutter in their hands.
One reclusive resident with a long history of homelessness, on his way to the nearby mailboxes, was asked “to lend a hand.” His hand was soon spread out onto a flat strip of clay. Krocak showed him how to use a simple clay tool to trace around his hand and then cut away the clay around it. In his quiet way, he joined the other artists by contributing his piece to the creative process. His “hand” in the finished mosaic is slightly reshaped and covered in green glaze to appear as a bush along the river’s edge. When someone points to the bush to remind him of where he fits in the mosaic, a tiny smile comes across his usually blank face.
Inner Artistry Exposed
A good number of tenants become passionate about the project, showing up early for the scheduled work time with Krocak and inviting others to participate. “If I can do this, so can you,” one of them would call out enthusiastically to people looking on. “Get over here!” And his hearty, humor-filled invitation often worked. Some people hesitated, claiming, “I’m not an artist.” Once they picked up a bit of clay or a grouting knife, however, it didn’t take long for them to be given that title by Krocak. “You’re amazing!” she’d often be heard exclaiming as she discovered with them their untapped talents.
“It was incredibly powerful to be with people who normally didn’t come out for activities at Tower and then came to feel so strongly about what they were working on,” said Krocak. “It was beautiful to watch people open up like flowers, and they were praising each other. Once they learned a skill, they would teach it to someone else. Something exciting was happening. It was electric.”
Joe Landry and Rita Harcus were two tenants who eagerly contributed to that electricity. In February, as part of a presentation given to Minnesota’s non-profit senior housing providers, they publicly expressed their enthusiasm for the mosaic and a follow-up outdoor sculpture they helped to create at Tower. “We had a good time,” Harcus said. “It was very relaxing.” She added, “It was really nice that a lot of people came out to create something more beautiful than any of us imagined!”
For Landry, doing an art project like this was a first. “What I’m usually doing with my time is things at church and visiting with people. Here was a chance to be doing something for me.” He added, “Lots of people living here are doing nothing much with their lives, and here was a place they could do something for themselves, and we could all do it together.” Krocak recalled Landry saying during one mosaic-making session, “This isn’t just about art. It’s about love.”
Pat Samples is a writer and facilitator for creative aging. During the Tower community arts projects, she was working for both Ebenezer and COMPAS.
Photos: top, Joe Landry shapes the top section for the outdoor sculpture. Middle, The completed mosaic is prominently displayed in Tower’s lobby. Bottom, Fran & Gaylord create sections for outdoor sculpture.