Creativity incarnate

A meditation on Melisande Charles, 1931–2017

Melisande Charles. Photo by Susan Schaefer

The economic impact of the creative arts in Minneapolis astonishes. Estimated at over $4.5 billion in sales, or eight times that of Minneapolis’ sports sector according to the 2015 Creative Vitality Index (CVI), an economic measure used by the city, it has earned our region a lofty place as a national creative mecca.

Behind such stunning statistics toil humans whose creativity and innovation fuel this so-called creative class, dubbed by author Richard Florida. Frequently laboring for the sheer love of their craft, many visual and performing artists, directors, inventors and innovators produce from an inner creative core more likely fueled by passion than personal gain. These makers are marked by an almost holy drive to create — and when their artistry and intent collide, it often yields something extraordinary in its wake.


I only met Melisande Charles four years ago, but with Melisande Charles it is not the years of life shared but the life packed in those years that forged a relationship. It will be impossible not to speak of the incomparable, undaunted, irrepressible embodiment of “heART to the bone,” Melisande Charles, in the present tense. This tsunami of creative talent and sheer ZEST for the POWER of ART to CHANGE the WORLD, literally kick-started Minneapolis as a hub of creativity, an art vortex from which our infamous creative index spawned. Yet, as her daughters playfully posted on 9/1/17 in a Facebook that has been ablaze with testimonials for this one-of-a-kind woman, “Melvis has left the building.”

Melisande B. Charles, aka Melvis, Melisan, Mey, Millie, shed her earthly robes at the beginning of September, leaving the metro area arts community in profound grief mingled with a requisite celebration of a life that was the incarnation of a maker marked by a holy drive to create, whose inner core, as I speculate in the recurring preface to this column, was fueled by passion rather than personal gain. Far from it, in fact, she was an indefatigable mentor to many.

The indelible mark that Charles leaves on our creative community cuts a wide, broad and deep swath across disciplines and media. She, herself, was an arts executive, muralist, clothing designer and self-professed trauma survivor. Most would say thriver, not survivor.

A transplant, Charles explains in an online 2015 oral history that she “arrived on Earth June 28, 1931.” Her father came from Holland when he was twenty and met her mother in Los Angeles. They married at the start of the Depression. Her father, then a composer at a movie studio, lost his job and sent Charles and her three sisters to live on a five-acre ranch with an aunt so her parents could find work in New York City. The children lived on the ranch for a while, eventually joining their parents in New York City.

Atypical for the times, her parents encouraged her artistic flare, and after training at the Brooklyn City Art School as a teenager, Charles joined the Brooklyn Art League and by age 19 was already at the Brooklyn Museum. She spent her subsequent formative years studying mural painting in Mexico, where she married and had three daughters, Rachel, Alexandria and Justine, who lives in Minneapolis and also works in the arts.

Charles’ return to the United States was marked by tenure as the executive director for a New York art center where her groundbreaking work with area schools resulted in student gallery shows. Back then, this type of exposure was highly innovative, and with a reputation for creating community art participation, Charles was recruited to become the first executive director of the nascent Minneapolis Arts Commission.

The mark she left on individual artists and on the overall tone and tenor of Minnesota’s arts legacy cannot be overstated. The Minneapolis Arts Commission is a seventeen-member city-appointed body that represents the arts community of the city. Charles arrived in 1974 as the commission was being chartered as a formal organization in the Minneapolis Code of Ordinances, with a responsibility “to foster development of the arts; to stimulate participation in and appreciation of the arts by all city residents; to encourage cooperation and coordination between artists and the various arts; to seek financial support for the arts; to act as an advocate for the arts before private and public agencies; to strive for high standards of quality in the arts; and to represent the arts whenever possible.” Its singular mission is to strengthen the arts and enrich cultural life in Minneapolis.

A more apt executive than Charles could not have been found to take the reigns of the early commission. Reminiscing about the early days, she wrote, “I came to Minneapolis to be executive for the arts commission for the city. We mounted a laser show on top of the IDS building. The problem was that people came into the city and turned all of the lights on in the building so on the first night we couldn’t see the lasers. The newspapers called me a fraud. The next night, though, was perfect for the laser show. Creating a web of light was one of the more exciting things I ever did!”

Charles’ tribe of fiercely loyal aficionados could easily contest this last comment. One of her greatest enthusiasts is himself a renowned art impresario in the Twin Cities, Jack Becker, co-founder of Forecast Public Art. In a heartfelt testimonial written shortly after Charles’ passing, Becker describes the impact Charles had on his career, his life.

“When I graduated as a sculptor from the Minneapolis College of Art and Design (MCAD) in 1976 my goal — like most art school grads — was to get a gallery, score a museum show, land a commission, and maybe move to New York because that’s where serious artists go to get established,” he wrote.

While none of these things happened right away, Becker chose to stay “in the arts mecca of the Twin Cities,” hang around MCAD, and continue networking with former classmates, who “evolved into a club that met weekly in hopes of doing some kind of exhibit project” on their own. “At one of our planning sessions we realized we all had some level of interest in postcards; collecting cards, making customized ‘art cards,’ etc., so we decided to organize a postcard exhibit,” he continues.

The group posted flyers around the school and invited others to join in the project. Then, at one of their meetings, “a woman none of us knew came into the room, sat in the back, and observed our excited discussion. After an hour or so she raised her hand, and I called on her. In a soft, lilting voice, clearly not from Minnesota, she said, ‘Hello, my name is Melisande Charles, and I have 6,000 postcards.’ Of course we were elated, and the show went forward with renewed energy.”

At the time Charles was the director of Minneapolis Arts Commission and in the process of securing federal funds to launch a CETA program that would hire 60 artists in the region. CETA, the Comprehensive Employment and Training Act, was a decentralized federal jobs program administered from 1974 to 1981 by local city and county agencies all over the country that, like the Works Progress Administration before it, funneled many hundreds of millions of dollars to visual and performing artists.

“She encouraged me to apply for a job in the program. Soon after, like some kind of Horatio Alger fable — thanks to my modest role in organizing a fun little postcard show in the college cafeteria,” Becker became Gallery Director for City Art Productions, “with a desk and phone at City Hall. The only catch, was that there was no gallery. The city, Melisande explained, is my gallery, and I was charged with organizing exhibitions of CETA artists at places like the library, the government center, parks, plazas and other public venues.”

For a “27-year-old art pup,” Becker states this was a very empowering experience. “With Melisande as my mentor, I learned how to work the telephone and get things done, make connections and open doors that I never imagined I could open.” She was “an outspoken, pioneering artist and entrepreneur with New York City hutzpah,” who saw in the young man an ability he had not yet spotted. Becker’s experience as a protégé is but one of countless accolades being widely circulated after Charles’ death.

Her legacy as a creative connector is legend and became the core of Becker’s artistic practice. “City Art Productions was my graduate school,” he explains, “and led to the formation, less than a year later, of Forecast Public Art. About 35 years later, Melisande competed against dozens of talented Minnesota artists and won a $50,000 grant from Forecast for her ambitious, multi-year project: Post Offices: An Endangered Species. ( It was a full-circle moment, one that filled my heart with joy,” he concludes.

It was during this brilliant Post Offices project that I met and was captivated by Charles via yet another of her adherents, local multi-media artist, Candy Kuehn. Most of my interactions with Charles have been of the personal rather than the professional kind. Outings to the State Fair, art exhibitions and long, leisurely dinners and outdoor barbeques at the home of Kuehn and her husband, Craig Harris, also a multi-media performing artist, gave me deep and private insights into the dynamic and fearless inner world of this true arts pioneer and elder stateswoman.

Saddened that I never knew Charles during her vibrant leadership years, I nevertheless was privileged to bask in her kinetic illumination that had never dimmed in spite of many hardships. Minnesota’s creative scene will briefly dim in reverence, then shine brighter to honor her legacy.