New paintings give voice to residents of the downtown homeless shelter
Where some may see a blank wall, Joan Vorderbruggen sees an opportunity for art to make a connection.
For Vorderbruggen, the Hennepin Theatre Trust’s director of public art and placemaking, the next canvases are the walls of the Harbor Light Center campus.
For the 400–500 people who stay at the downtown Minneapolis shelter each day, the two new murals, Vorderbruggen said, are meant to heal through designs inspired by the shelter community.
“I recognize and feel very strongly that this very large community is often highly invisible and marginalized and often seen as a negative,” Vorderbruggen said. “This positive activity is an experimental attempt to see if (we can) not only we can make this community more visible and more appreciated but also give them something to be hopeful about.”
Murals have quickly become a regular experience of walking in downtown Minneapolis. Thanks to the trust, international muralist and graffiti artist Eduardo Kobra painted the iconic Bob Dylan mural at Hennepin & 5th. There’s also a Pop Art-inspired piece at Hennepin & 10th from artist Greg Gossel. Now the projects at Harbor Light add two more to the shelter campus near Hawthorne & 10th, a corner of downtown Minneapolis tucked behind the ABC Ramps and the trust’s Orpheum Theater.
Harbor Light, located in a nearly century-old warehouse building in the densest area of shelter beds in the region, provides overnight stays, transitional housing and veterans support housing, along with clinical services and free meals on weekend evenings. The Salvation Army runs the non-profit shelter, the state’s largest.
Artists Bianca Pettis and Erin Sayer painted the murals in partnership with shelter residents, who gave them words like forgiveness, mercy and love. The two Twin Cities-based artists then worked the themes into their own unique styles.
“The most resounding message that we got was that people wished for a home. They want a home to go to,” Vorderbruggen said. “[From] that visioning session there was some sort of strength that I was bestowed that I don’t normally have.”
Pettis, an actress and painter who founded the local sound artist duo Beatrix*Jar, uses a complex array of her own cartoon-style characters in zany, soundwave-inspired pieces. She uses calm blue colors, rather than evocative warm reds, to make people feel happy, Pettis added.
“My intention is really always to make feel elevated,” Pettis said. “I feel like the parking lot looked a certain way before, and then we painted it and we lifted it up a bit. We added some color and life to it.”
The wall, once blank, now shows dozens of two-dimensional faces interspersed with inspirational words. The faces, she said, allow people to see themselves in the cartoon style. Two faces close together are meant to resemble two people she saw sleeping in front of the wall one morning. Others show people she met while painting or her own family members. Each has a different shape, color and size.
“I want it to be about humanity,” she said.
Sayer is a veteran mural artist, having helped paint Kobra’s Dylan mural and Gossel’s Prince-inspired Pop Art piece. The two larger-than-life figures were in the back of her mind when she looked to plan her own mural. Sayer drew imagery from Dylan’s 1975 song “Shelter from the Storm.”
“We’re a Bob Dylan town. We’re a Prince town,” Sayer said.
The mural fills the approximately 150-foot-long wall with waves of storm clouds and a tornado on one side and a sun rising on the other. Pulling details from an old Dylan concert poster from 1969, Sayer uses 1960s and 1970s colors.
Sayer said the time working on her wall has humanized what was previously an area of downtown that she didn’t normally visit. The lives of people at the shelter can feel separate from the reality of others downtown, she added.
“What’s neat is working with people where it’s a meaningful thing. Everyone is so happy and so nice and grateful, even. It’s been really cool meeting people who use the services here,” Sayer said. “I just wish people would have more empathy instead of being afraid of people who need help.”
While the artists painted over the course of a few weeks, the trust operated a booth at the parking lot around Harbor Light that offered the public food, water and refuge from the summer heat. Like the nonprofit’s “5 to 10 on Hennepin” initiative to regularly program a block of Hennepin Avenue, Vorderbruggen brought in MAD DADS, or Men Against Destruction, Defending Against Drugs and Social Disorder, to connect with people walking by the murals. Funding for the project came from a Southwest Airlines Heart of the Community grant and the Downtown Improvement District.
Bill Griffith of Larkin Hoffman, a firm that represents parking lot owner and operator MVP REIT, said the mural project is going hand-in-hand with improvements to the lot, such as new fencing, lighting and a security plan. The company didn’t charge the Hennepin Theatre Trust to use the parking lot, which Vorderbruggen said is a first for them downtown.
“What was terrific about this mural project is that it works very well with the site improvements,” Griffith said.
Captain Clara Braddock of Harbor Light said the project gives her often unheard clients an opportunity to be listened to.
“I think the artists capturing what people who live in the building want to say, I think that’s tremendous that the artists are able to do that,” Braddock said. “It is a voice because the murals came out of what people felt they needed or wanted in life.”
The trust plans to unveil the finished murals at an Aug. 23 event in the parking lot, located at 41 N. 10th St. The event, planned in partnership with Kulture Klub Collaborative, a nonprofit that brings together homeless youth and artists, will be modeled after the Minnesota State Fair.
When people leave the shelter, Vorderbruggen, they often go back into an unsafe environment. The murals offer them a bit of humility and compassion, she added.
“There are so many barriers that segregate and separate us. I feel very strongly that art is a connector and a healer,” she said