The diva is in the details

Minnesota Center for Photography director strives for perfection in life and art

It's said that divas have the voices of angels and the dispositions of devils. In order to deliver a good performance on stage, they need to be pampered offstage; the delicate songbirds will shatter into little pieces if they're not handled carefully - unless the songbird is made of tougher stuff, like iron.

Laura Bonicelli Mowers learned the values of persistence and work in the hardscrabble Iron Range town of Chisholm, a couple miles north of Hibbing, Minn.

&#8220It's the heart of the Range,” she says over a cup of coffee in a back room of the Minnesota Center for Photography (MCP), where she serves as its executive director.

Her grandmother &#8220was the core of the family, typical of Italian families.” Bonicelli Mowers' grandparents came over during the Depression from a mining town in northern Italy, passing on a tradition of hard work.

Their granddaughter is one of those people who appear to be in perpetual motion. She took on the full-time job of running MCP six months ago and has just started up a new business of her own, Bonicelli & Associates, a photographic talent agency representing four commercial art photographers. The two full-time jobs each require more than full-time hours and effort from the Uptown resident, but she laughs when asked how much time she puts into the two gigs. She says she has no idea and that it doesn't matter anyway. She's having too much fun fusing her passion for art with her eye for business to count the minutes.

Bella donna

As she talks about her childhood home, she brushes a wayward strand of long hair back from her face. Although it's been decades since Bonicelli Mowers has been part of the rock ‘n' roll world, she retains a bit of chanteuse glam, looking like a cross between Stevie Nicks and mezzo-soprano Cecilia Bartoli.

&#8220I considered my [hometown] to be Italian, even though there were a lot of Eastern Europeans in it,” she says. &#8220I really didn't realize until I moved down here that the rest of the entire state was Scandinavian and everyone didn't have dark hair.”

Bonicelli Mowers says she was ready to fly from the family nest as soon as she graduated from high school.

&#8220I had my car packed on my 17th birthday, ready to come down here,” she remembers. &#8220I grew up singing rock ‘n' roll and jazz and I wanted to be in a bigger, better band.”

Instead of hooking up with a Twin Cities group, she found herself singing lead in the band Felix, a popular 1970s rock outfit from Duluth.

&#8220Basically, I was singing all the high stuff that men couldn't sing more than once without losing their voice. So I did that and then disco became big.”

Rather than compete with Donna Summer and the Bee Gees - even though the coloratura soprano can hit those Barry Gibb high notes - she left the road and moved to Minneapolis to study classical music at the University of Minnesota, where she focused on opera.

She stopped her studies a few credits short of a degree when she landed a gig in a production, later finding other diversions from school including marriage and kids.

She said she struggled to find ways to juggle her art with the Mowers Photography business she founded with her then-husband back in 1985. The solution she found was to fuse the disparate parts of her life into one.

&#8220Everything I do seems to feed everything else I do. I don't segregate my life. All of my friends are either in the music world or the art world,” she says.

Her long days and full weeks aren't burdens to overcome. They're simply informed choices she's made about how to spend her life.

&#8220It doesn't bother me to put in that kind of time,” she says before adding with a laugh, &#8220I don't know how to turn it off anyway.”

She sang opera and sacred music around the Twin Cities during the 1980s and '90s, later turning to jazz and pop as part of a duo with Greg Inhoffer. She gave the latter up about a year ago.

Working performance

Bonicelli Mowers has stopped performing on stages for now, though she says she will pick up her music career again in six months or so. Even offstage, she continues to perform, as does her five-person staff at MCP.

&#8220When you walk in [to MCP], you have an experience. Just like in music, if you see a choir and the tenor section isn't any good, what do you remember? You remember the tenor section. It taints the whole thing. That's how I feel about this place or in my own business.”

So she walks her staff through rehearsals for exhibit openings and for fundraising events, practicing what they will say and how they will present themselves to the public.

&#8220We do it many times just because that's the only way I know how to ensure that it will be what I want it to be. And that's exactly what you do in performance. It's the only way I know how to approach things.”

She laughs when she's asked if she's a perfectionist.

&#8220Most of the things I'm not a perfectionist in, I don't do. I'm not a great skier, though I skied for several years. But one day I thought, ‘Well, if I'm not really good at it, it's not much fun for me.'”

Details, details

Bonicelli Mowers says her new business is another source of fun and another area in which she hopes her love of getting the details right will eventually pay off.

She says that even though she's not a photographer, she has organized photography shoots and represented photographers in search of work for years.

&#8220I wanted to put together a group of photographers who are top-talent that I would market to top [advertising] agencies,” she says. &#8220This has been in my head for a long time.”

She celebrated the kick-off of Bonicelli & Associates on two weeks ago at MCP, where the business is headquartered.

She put the word out through professional contacts and got hundreds of responses from photographers around the country.

For the launch of the business, she's chosen four photographers - including local Mark LaFavor - to represent. By summer's end, she hopes to have three or four more photographers on board her &#8220boutique concept” modeled after larger agencies.

&#8220They do everything at a very high level,” she says.

She's aimed her career at that same plane. In order to get there, she's keeping her eyes on the details that make people who walk into MCP happy, and the details that make her photographers happy.

&#8220Managing creatives is very difficult. They need to be safe all the time,” she says. &#8220It's really careful territory. When you are working on a particular project, you need to know that you have the right crew, that all the details are taken care of so that you can do your job. It all just has to be right.”

She said that photographers, like opera stars, shouldn't be worried about minutiae: about costumes and lighting, for instance, in opera, and about models and studio time, for example, in photography shoots.

&#8220That's why some photographers are viewed as temperamental, and that's why some opera singers are viewed as temperamental, too.”

Bonicelli Mowers doesn't have the luxury of being the highly strung diva.

&#8220I have a really good sense of how things need to run. It's how my mind works,” she says, laughing. &#8220I'm destined to always work hard.”

Michael Metzger can be reached at [email protected] or 436-4369.