Shadows and seeds: Sculpture Garden’s new installation honors Minnesota’s past

A step in the bronze casting process
A step in the bronze casting process for a series of sculptures by Seitu Jones and Ta-coumba Aiken that will be installed at the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden this summer. Photo courtesy of the artists

The Minneapolis Sculpture Garden is getting some new art this summer when it unveils “Shadow Spirits at the Crossroads” by Seitu Jones and Ta-coumba Aiken.

The two Twin Cities-based artists were commissioned by the Walker Art Center for the project. They are creating seven sculptures — four made of bronze — that are inspired by people with connections to Minnesota history.

The sculptures are modeled on the outlines of shadows of 40 community members from the Twin Cities. Jones and Aiken worked with the Walker’s Teen Arts Council (WACTAC) to trace and choose the shadow shapes that best evoke the spirits of the seven people being commemorated. One of the works is a flat, bronze statue that pays homage to the Dakota leader Mahpiya Wicasta (Cloud Man), who founded a village on the shores of Bde Maka Ska in 1829.

Besides bronze, the project also incorporates etchings made in cement, which, like the bronze pieces, will be inlaid in the ground. One of these sculptures depicts Harriet Robinson Scott, wife of Dred Scott, who unsuccessfully petitioned the U.S. Supreme Court for his freedom after being taken as a slave to Fort Snelling.

The project also honors Eliza Winston, an American slave from Mississippi who was freed from her owners while with them on vacation in Minnesota, and the artist Siah Armajani, who emigrated from Iran to the Twin Cities in 1960 and designed the Irene Hixon Whitney Bridge connecting the Sculpture Garden to Loring Park.

A continuation of “Shadows of Spirit” — first installed by Jones and Aiken in 1992 on Nicollet Mall — the Sculpture Garden project is one of a number of collaborations between the two artists.

Aiken examines text by Soyini Guyton at the Anurag Foundry.
Aiken examines text by Soyini Guyton at the Anurag Foundry.

Jones and Aiken’s friendship began, in a way, with hitchhiking.

Aiken was a freshman at the Minneapolis College of Art and Design in 1970.

“I remember hitchhiking on First Avenue,” he said. “A black man picked me up. He said, ‘Don’t let me ever catch you hitchhiking again.’”

Aiken told the man, named Kenneth Jones, that he was an artist, and Jones told him that his son was an artist. Then, two years later, Aiken met Jones’ son, Seitu, at the African American Cultural Center, which was located at 31st & 1st, where Jones was a curator and Aiken was teaching art.

Since that time, the two have worked on many projects together, from exhibits at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts MAEP gallery to the now torn down “Celebration of Life” mural installed by John Biggers in North Minneapolis.

“We have a selfless attitude toward each other,” Aiken said, of his friendship with Jones. “We’re sort of like jazz musicians. One person takes the lead and brings the band together.”

The Sculpture Garden work scheduled for public unveiling this summer, two years after “Shadows of Spirit” were re-installed on Nicollet Mall in conjunction with the mall’s redesign.

The historical figures portrayed on Nicollet Mall included Dred Scott, the Minnesota-based feminist and labor writer Meridel LeSueur, and civil rights activist and DFL political organizer Nellie Stone Johnson. Additional shadows portrayed a 1934 Teamster striker, a settler who lived in the Bohemian flats, a Dakota woman from a legend around the now-disappeared Spirit Island and a shopkeeper and early Chinese immigrant named Woo Yee Sing.

A bronze shadow sculpture installed on Nicollet Mall in 2017.
A bronze shadow sculpture installed on Nicollet Mall in 2017. File photo

Jones’ wife, Soyini Guyton, wrote poems for each of the shadows, though there was no physical signage beyond the poetic text to indicate who each of the figures were. That’s something that will change for the Sculpture Garden version, where each shadow will have a plaque that will include information about each of the figures, Aiken said.

“When you stand there and see your shadow — there’s a reconnection,” Aiken said. “They all come from our ancestors.”

Aiken said when they were originally conceiv-ing of the shadow spirits, they decided to have the sculptures be flat, rather than standing up out of the ground. “We don’t want to create tombstones; we want to create actual shadows,” he said.

For the new iteration of the shadows in the Sculpture Garden, Aiken and Jones have selected new people the shadows will represent. Some, like Harriet Robinson Scott, refer back to the earlier project.

“We were adamant of correcting some things we didn’t do on Nicollet Mall,” Aiken said. Harriet, Dred Scott’s wife, was an integral part of his story. “Harriet pushed the case for Dred Scott’s freedom,” he said.

“This piece celebrates and commemorates all these people from Minneapolis’ past,” Jones said.

At Anurag Foundry in Stillwater, members of WACTAC watched the bronze casting process. “We needed you here to bless it, because we’ve been working with you for a while,” Jones told the teen artists.

Ta-coumba Aiken and Seitu Jones
Ta-coumba Aiken (far left) and Seitu Jones (far right) at the Anurag Foundry in Stillwater. Photos by Sheila Regan

Though the project began in 1992, Jones said he doesn’t see the new iteration as revisiting older work but rather as a continuation.

“For me, the most important piece that I’ve done is the stuff that I’m doing right now,” Jones said. “I don’t have time to really think about revisiting. I don’t put it in that kind of frame.”

Instead, he said the work is ever evolving and present.

“This piece can continue,” he said. “We may get other requests and other calls to do shadows throughout the world, so it continues.”

For the Sculpture Garden, they are switching up the form from the Nicollet Mall version by including not only bronze but also sculptures etched in concrete. “I’ve got a poem that has been laser cut with the text that we’re going to place inside a shadow,” Jones said. After the poem is cut into the shadow, Jones sprays adhesive on the etching and spreads seeds on the whole piece.

“The seeds will stick to the adhesive, and that becomes this surface with texture that will hopefully prevent folks from slipping on it,” Jones said.

Each of the pieces has different seeds or grains that are connected to the history of Minnesota. But the seeds also represent rebirth, and the future of the community, whose stories are still being written. “We wanted it to be a story that’s told by everybody,” Aiken said. “Everybody will have their own take on the story.”

The unveiling will take place at 5 p.m. on June 20 at the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden, 725 Vineland Pl.

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