In a tiny shop, a growing artwork

LYNDALE — If you pass by Irina’s Stitch in Time in the late afternoon, when the sun is angled so that it shines through the front windows, you may catch a glint or sparkle from inside the narrow storefront.

Phillip Smith guessed he might have seen it one day as he passed by Irina’s on Lyndale Avenue just south of Lake Street.

“I didn’t really see it,” the ECCO resident said, before changing his mind. “It might have been out of the corner of my eye, or something.”

It wasn’t until he went in 3021 Lyndale Ave. S. for something small, just a loose button that needed to be sewn back on, that he saw what Irina Boiarskaia had been up to.

Regular customers of Irina’s Stitch in Time — where Boiarskaia performs custom tailoring and alterations, as well as design — know that the deft seamstress slowly but surely is transforming her shop’s tiny vestibule into a work of art. Although Boiarskaia doesn’t really call it art; she says she’s “playing.”

The vestibule is very small, only large enough to fit three people before it starts to feel a bit crowded. Across from the door is a window where Boiarskaia greets customers. She takes their measurements in another small room to the left, hidden behind a curtain.

No flat surface is bare.

The walls are painted with the faces of women, timeless but vaguely modern. They are surrounded in clouds of crimson and gold, and a swirling mosaic of mirrored glass. The women’s bodies are formed with swatches of fabric that fold and ruffle as if draped over real limbs.

“[I started] quite a few years ago, I’m afraid to say,” Boiarskaia said in the accent of Saint Petersburg, Russia, from which she immigrated to Minnesota 16 years ago. “I never have time to finish it, but I will.”

Really, it’s only been two or three years since a man, also a Russian immigrant, showed up in her shop and gave Boiarskaia the idea of decorating the postage stamp lobby. He created a kind of thumbnail sketch on the walls, but only painted one of the faces.

“Then, that person disappeared and left me with this idea that I am crazy about, but nothing much done,” she said. “I had this dilemma: either paint the walls white or put up some pictures or finish it.”

Boiarskaia decided her “quite eclectic” clientele would appreciate the piece, and set about finishing the work. She imagined it would look like a fairy tale scene, something both “cozy” and “chic” to welcome her customers.

“Well, it may be when I’m finished,” she said. “Now, it is just a mess. But I’m busy.”

As she told the story, Johnny Michaels of St. Paul emerged from behind the fitting room curtain. Michaels looked like an aging punk rocker, tall and thin with short, tousled hair.

“I’m getting some pants tailored,” he said, setting them on the window ledge as Boiarskaia began to fill out a receipt. “I like to buy good quality pants at outlet stores, then I bring them into Irina and she gets them to fit like magic.”

Michaels arranged to return in two weeks.

“She is the absolute best,” he said on his way out the door.

Boiarskaia continued: “Some customers of mine, when they saw me working on it … they would bring me some glass or broken things, and I used that.”

That worked for the mosaic, but Boiarskaia couldn’t decide how to complete the women.

“I had to do something with fabrics,” she said, but it took several attempts to make it drape in just the right way.

After that, she began adding extra touches here and there. Left over sequins from a custom dress job were glued to the wall, one-by-one. A string of fake pearls appears to dangle from a painted neck.

Boiarskaia said she planned to finish the piece last summer. Construction on Lyndale slowed business to a crawl, so she had plenty of time. But a car accident kept her from getting much done, she said.

She even created more work for herself. Visiting a gallery while on a trip to New York, Boiarskaia was enchanted by a sculpture of a female form covered in a dazzling pattern of beads.

“The most beautiful I had ever seen” — she said — “and it was so extremely expensive. Unimaginably expensive.”

When she returned to Minneapolis, Boiarskaia looked at the empty space above her customer service window and knew what she had to do.

“About three months later, I realized why it was that expensive, that statue,” she said. “Every single bead I had to place by hand.”

And so the work continues.

“One big attempt and it will be done 99 percent,” she said. “But 100 percent?”
Boiarskaia groaned in mock exasperation.

“You could add a little bit here, a little bit there.”