Island to tundra

Cuban-born artist Carmen Gutierrez-Bolger forges identity through art and leadership

Two examples of Carmen Gutierrez-Bolger's paper doll dresses. 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.


Carmen Gutierrez-Bolger. Photo by Susan Schaefer
Carmen Gutierrez-Bolger. Photo by Susan Schaefer

Translucent human-sized paper doll dresses — diaphanous laundry — suspended from a makeshift clothesline, flap crisply in an unexpected breeze. Two stories up, in light-flooded Casket Arts Building studio 200, life abounds. Although the collaged images framed and mounted on the honey-colored brick walls seem literally to whisper with spirits of those long departed, these Mylar Memory Dresses, created by Cuban-born artist, businesswoman and arts leader Carmen Gutierrez-Bolger, flutter to life with a sudden gust from the slightly opened warehouse window.

Here, in an art space shared with two studio mates, Gutierrez-Bolger infuses into her paintings, collages and three-dimensional installations images of her tropical Cuban lineage — palm tree-lined beaches, bees, jellyfish and roosters. Along with the Memory Dresses, these creations voice a narrative familiar to those who have been transplanted from their native places.

Gutierrez-Bolger says of her symbols and themes: “I decided to visually tell my story by creating specific protagonists: a bee, the symbol for Havana on the crest of the city; a rooster, which is quintessentially Latino; jellyfish, representing the beauty and frightening nature of the sea; and a hobby horse, for my lost youth.”

“As I incorporated these icons into my work,” she continues, “I found the need to add a ‘human’ to tell my story and decided to use the image of a paper doll dress. A paper doll is a human form but not a recognizable human and is representative of the ability to change identities, like clothes — a perfect symbol for me.”

Indeed, the symbolism of Gutierrez-Bolger’s paper doll dresses takes on an unwanted urgency in our newly dystopian political climate where immigrants not only struggle with self-identity but also face new and worse threats.

Though crafted from her own fiercely personal Cuban refugee chronicle, Gutierrez-Bolger’s oeuvre addresses the universality and power of art to communicate the dislocation suffered by those forced to flee their homelands.

From island to tundra — refugees from tyranny

Creativity often follows a circuitous course, like that traveled by refugees. Gutierrez-Bolger’s journey from immigrant to artist traces such a tale.

While Florida is the U.S. state most identified with the Cuban exodus from Castro’s repressive regime, Minnesota experienced its own early influx of exiles. In the 1960s, close to 300 Cuban families settled here, most in the Minneapolis-St. Paul area. One of those was Gutierrez-Bolger’s sister, Mary, who had met and married a Minnesotan while living in Miami, relocating with him here in 1969. Now about 3,600 people in Minnesota identify themselves as Cuban, including an estimated 1,000 who are Cuban-born.

In the early days of Castro’s rise to power, Gutierrez-Bolger’s family’s life in Cuba was torn asunder when her father, a civil engineer, secretly opposed the regime as a counter-revolutionary. Turned in by an informer, he was imprisoned briefly. Under great peril after his release, he made his way to Spain, where he remained separated from the family for over a year. As a native Spaniard, he didn’t qualify to enter the U.S. as a Cuban refugee.

This left her mother, a popular and well-known Cuban folksinger, to scramble to attain precious visas for the remaining family of five children. Like so many immigrants, the family was dispersed, sent in waves to various places in the U.S. Her oldest brother arrived here first, a member of the famous Operation Pedro Pan sent to Lincoln, Nebraska. In a second wave, her sister and two other brothers were sent to an uncle in Miami. Barely escaping Havana, Gutierrez-Bolger and her mother were issued one of the very last official visas granted in May of 1962.

Years later, as a 17-year-old, Gutierrez-Bolger joined her sister Mary in Minnesota.

Business, love, leadership, art

Gutierrez-Bolger’s hyphenated identity is as integral to her creative saga as is her epic journey from island to tundra.

For most immigrants a top priority is securing economic means. After moving in with her sister, Gutierrez-Bolger attended Hennepin Technical Centers (now Hennepin Technical College), took a short hiatus in Colorado and returned to Minnesota to find a career.

“I answered an ad for a receptionist at Bolger Printing that read, in part, ‘exciting career in the graphic arts,’ which felt tailor-made for me,” she muses. “I was very surprised when I was hired because there were many applicants. It wasn’t until years later that I discovered I was hired because I was Cuban and the company was looking to add diversity to their workforce.”

Starting out as a receptionist, she soon learned enough about printing to be promoted to assistant production manager in the publishing division. A quick learner, she concentrated on typography and page make-up (which, for readers too young to know, was called “keylining” and entailed producing galleys that were waxed and attached to single- and double-page boards, then reproduced in camera to negatives and eventually made in to printing plates).

Gaining critical experience and expertise in these labor-intensive processes greatly influenced her early artwork, in which she repurposed old-fashioned printing plates as canvases for her painted and collaged works, incorporating existing artifacts on the plates into each piece.

Taking night classes at the University of Minnesota in supervisory and management skills, she soon was rising through Bolger’s ranks, taking on more management responsibilities. Before long, she was appointed operations manager in charge of all the prepress departments: design, electronic prepress and IT, eventually “introducing first ever Macintoshes and scanners to the operation.” In tech parlance, Gutierrez-Bolger was an early digital adapter.

About that hyphen: Cupid’s bow had pierced her heart from her first glimpse of dik Bolger, one of the three sons who ran the company alongside their parents.

“During my first interview I saw my future husband, dik, standing in the back of the room and thought that he looked hot,” she teasingly recollects. “All I can say is that it was love at first sight. We were married within ten months of our first date!”

As a legendarily family-run printing enterprise, their relationship was effortlessly incorporated into the Bolger day-to-day. No eyebrows raised, no rules broken.

Another celebrated advantage of working at Bolger was mentorship by her mother-in-law, Genevieve Bolger, a legend in her own right. One of Minnesota’s early female industry leaders, daughter of a prominent Minnesota family, Gen, as she was known to all of those privileged enough to orbit in her sphere, was direct and dynamic, with a fabled civic ethic — serving on numerous boards, leading countless committees, chairing endless fundraisers and mentoring many. Under her watchful eye, her young daughter-in-law and protégée joined plum industry boards, applying her own indefatigable work ethic to each new organization and task.

“I was fortunate to be a founding member of the Twin Cities Desktop Publishing Association and was on the board of Typographer’s International Association (TIA), based in New Jersey, for three years before we renamed it International Digital Imaging Association (IDIA), serving as President — only the second woman president in its 75-year history!” Gutierrez-Bolger recalls.

The printing industry was morphing at lightning speed as it moved from film to digital composition, and as the independent typesetting houses that were the basis of these organizations dissolved, the industry boards consolidated. By 1995, Gutierrez-Bolger took on the civic nonprofit realm, joining the board of Twin Cities-based WomenVenture, where she served for six years, infusing the organization with boundless creative opportunities and critical new connections.

Around this time, a long-awaited miracle blessed the Gutierrez-Bolger household. For years she and husband dik had tried to have a family. With the birth of their adored daughter, Mariel, Gutierrez-Bolger grew restlessness working in the graphics field. Happily, dik encouraged her to return to one of her first loves — art.

“I have always considered myself an artist and have drawn since we came to the United States,” she relates. “My family all drew as a form of entertainment since we had so little. The five kids used to compete with each other to see who could draw the best, but it was agreed that my mom and dad were the best. I still have some of the drawings that they did in the ’60s in Florida and have begun to incorporate them into my work.”

In the late ’90s, Gutierrez-Bolger began training with Sally Brown, herself a Twin Cities’ art celebrity and founding member of Women’s Art Resources of Minnesota (WARM). It was then she claims, “I found my adult art self.”

As a member of the early warehouse art denizens, Gutierrez-Bolger intensified her art training and participation, taking classes at Minneapolis College of Art and Design (MCAD) and the University of Minnesota and joining a weekly artists’ co-op concentrating on Life Drawing at the Traffic Zone, where, she states, “I developed my skills and really trained my eye.” For 11 years, they held yearly shows in local galleries including the Traffic Zone, and with the support of the small group of artist friends in the co-op, she said, “I was able to begin feeling that I had my own voice and that I had a story to tell, my story.”

At one point, Gutierrez-Bolger moved her studio into Northeast, where she helped establish “The Rain Collective” — a group of 15 artists who all worked in Northeast. It is well known in the Twin Cities creative class arts circles that such communities provide opportunities to learn from and have the support of other artists, which in the visual arts include calls for art in local shows, one of which was in Art-A-Whirl, the largest open studio tour in the United States, hosted by the Northeast Minneapolis Art Association (NEMAA).

Guiding the arts into economic vitality

Gutierrez-Bolger is perhaps best known statewide for her indelible impact on NEMAA, where, during her tenure as board president, her seasoned business skills helped the organization to better realize its own identity and craft longer term strategic goals.

The Northeast Minneapolis scene was booming, with the organization NEMAA at its core, and before long the renowned sculptor Nick Legeros spotted Gutierrez-Bolger’s leadership and business talents, recruiting her to NEMAA’s board. She accepted with the intention of giving back to the artist community that had served her well. Her tenure there is widely heralded.

Stepping into the presidency a bit early at the request of then-president artist Susan Wagner, Gutierrez-Bolger stamped the organization with her business savvy.

“We balanced non-artist members with artist members, we changed the ratio of revenue streams to diversify, we grew membership and we started regular monthly communications with the membership,” she explains. “Additionally, we were able to make our executive director, Ale Pelinka, a first full-time employee!”

Pelinka has earned a top-notch arts administration reputation, now serving as Bloomington’s director of placemaking and community engagement.

One of the initiatives of which Gutierrez-Bolger is most proud of is three-year strategic plan devised in conjunction with MAP for Nonprofits that is still being followed. In fact, in 2014 USA Today recognized the Northeast Minneapolis Arts District as the best arts district in America. In an online poll, readers, American travelers and arts patrons selected the thriving Northeast Minneapolis Arts District no. 1 over districts in Boston, Baltimore, Dallas and other cities.

“It was an honor to be in the position to represent such a vibrant and hard-working group of artists,” concludes Gutierrez-Bolger.

Full circle

As a young person trying to fit in, Gutierrez-Bolger had wanted to distance herself from her culture, as most young immigrants do. However, when she had her own child she started wanting to know more about her family’s history and culture. “I realized that I was lost to a world that should have been mine,” she admits.

In the late 1990s, Gutierrez-Bolger co-produced a feature-length documentary about her family’s story, and, in 2000, she returned to Havana with her mom and sister.

“That trip was a turning point for my work. I visited the houses that our family lived in and spent time with relatives I had never met. While there, I became painfully aware that I was not really Cuban. Every time I saw the Cuban flag, I felt something inside of me wince. My entire sense of self, my entire identity was in question. My whole childhood and sense of home had been ripped out by the fact that Fidel had imprisoned my dad and my family had fled,” she concedes.

Since that trip, Gutierrez-Bolger has been making work that is highly specific to her Cuban identity, using family and found objects and certain colors that are characteristically Latino. Her work has been extensively shown throughout the state, including acceptance into the coveted Minnesota State Fair art exhibition and a recent juried exhibition at the Ordway Center for the Performing Arts entitled “Raíces y Sueños: the Artistry of Cuba.”

Now, joining those Mylar Memory Dresses, striking black paper ones she refers to as Mourning Dresses appear in her work. From some deep subconscious pool, well after she began working on these dark paper doll images, she flashed back to how she and her mother, who passed away in 2012, had spent hours buying fabric to make her clothes. Each new creation surfaces a forgotten memory for the artist who abandoned the tropics for the tundra, with a stunning universality to which every viewer can relate.


Please email ahead at [email protected] if you’d like to visit her studio, Casket Arts Building, 681 17th Ave NE, #200, Minneapolis, MN 55413 or check her website for information.