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A Line or Two: A Fabulous Mural's Fate

It's at its best at dusk, when passing headlights shimmer across its surface and make the hundreds and hundreds of glass and ceramic fragments on its surface glitter like the beadwork appliqué on a rack of Givenchy gowns. My own lights always illuminated it as I turned from Franklin Avenue toward the 35-W on-ramp, and for years I wondered what it was and who had turned the blank side of an elderly building into a thousand points of light.

As I finally found out after a little online digging, it's the mosaic mural on the west side of Peace House, and it's the 2004 creation of local artist Angela Carlson Talle. (If you've been down in the neighborhood of the Lao Market and its delicious Bangkok Thai Deli on University Avenue in Saint Paul, you've seen the chimney that Talle has adorned in a similarly glittery fashion.)

As for Peace House, the mural's home, it's a marvelous place: a drop-in center for street folks where they can rest, eat, talk, meditate, and be treated as the resourceful and very real people they are for a few hours before resuming their six-o'clock-news lives as statistics, threats, and invisibilities. It was founded in 1985 by Rose Tillemans, a sister of Saint Joseph of Carondelet, and in the manner of that wonderful order, it's a place that doesn't preach or proselytize: it simply creates a space of love and acceptance where the spirit thrives naturally.

The subject matter of the Peace House mural isn't what's remarkable about it. A sun, a rainbow, flowers, the words "A Place to Belong"; it's good-hearted and obvious--and probably flat-out heartwarming for struggling people. But the drive-by glitter--ah, that's the art-part in my book. To me it suggests all of the secret energies, beauties, and hopes that sparkle in the heart of even the most downtrodden neighborhood.

And in a sharp irony, the mural is slated to be destroyed, along with Peace House's current building, when the final phase of a forward-looking and very much needed redevelopment is completed. AEON, a nonprofit developer that's responsible for a number of the most socially and environmentally responsible redevelopment projects in our cities, will tear the building down as, in partnership with Hope Community, Inc., it completes the fourth component of  South Quarter, an affordable-housing project covering all four corners of the intersection of Franklin  and Portland avenues, and designed with sustainability in mind.

An Unpreservable Artwork

My colleague Anna Pratt, our Development Editor, checked in with AEON Vice-President for Housing Development Gina Ciganik about the project's current state. Ciganik explained that the teardown and construction are slated to happen next year, once full funding is secured.

As for the mural, its fate is sealed, largely because it itself is "unsealed"—or, as Ciganik explains in an e mail: "Regarding the mural, we have had contractors and engineers look at it.  Unfortunately it was not built with permanency in mind and was stuck on the outside of the brick building without thinking about water drainage and how it would remain attached to the substrate.  As winters and springs roll through, and freezing and thawing occur, the mortar is showing signs of cracking and the pieces are falling off.  It will continue to degrade, and at a more rapid pace."

Peace House itself, Ciganik notes, is in negotiation with the redevelopment partners to move into new digs at  1816 Portland. City planning and zoning officials are on board with the plan, and there's broad community support too. "We continue to work through details to finalize the transaction," she writes. "We should know more in a few months."

So I became semi-reconciled to saying goodbye to the glitter at Franklin and the highway, though for a while my brain teemed with suggestions: Talle should re-create the mural at some other location where headlights can sweep across it and make magic—maybe there'd be a way to replicate it at Peace House's new location. After all, as Ciganik points out, Peace House staffers are already considering a new mural and other art.

Whittier Glitter

And then I heard from Jack Becker of Forecast Public Art in Saint Paul, who pointed out that Talle is completing another shining example of mural art—this one in the Whittier neighborhood as part of the Whittier Artists in Storefronts project. It's a colorful (and glittery) setting of everybody's favorite quote from poet Mary Oliver: "Tell me what it is you plan to do with your one wild and precious life." (See photo at left.) And according to the Artists in Storefronts Facebook page, the mural "reflects the light from the passing cars and street lamps and animates the entire alley!"

So I'm headed down to Whittier soon to see this happy "reincarnation" of Talle's doomed mural--and to reflect (pun intended) on how cities renew themselves: visually, compassionately, magically.

Peace House mural photo by Bree Radloff

Whittier mural photo courtesy Whittier Artists in Storefronts


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