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, 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, a term 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.
It’s the dawn of the Stone Arch Bridge Festival and if you look carefully you would spy the iconic stone tower reproductions for which local legend, sculptor and raconteur, Aldo Moroni, is renowned.
From his perch on the sixth floor of the A-Mill Artist Lofts overlooking St. Anthony Falls, this yeoman of clay and creativity could look across the river into the windows of some of the well-heeled Mill City private collectors who own one or more of his sculpted towers, wall sconces or commissioned works. Ever respectful of his collectors’ privacy, Moroni merely acknowledges that this could be the case. He counts celebrities and CEOs among his numerous collectors.
Moroni is one of the first of a handful of local artists to score a primo spot on the St. Anthony Main side of the river in the Pillsbury A-Mill, becoming a prototypical tenant in the unique artist collective development. Ensconced in a cozy, light-filled two-bedroom unit he shares with his twin sons, Moroni is one of the A-Mill’s most prominent, and perhaps prolific, working artist-inhabitants.
The long-awaited A-Mill Artist Lofts, designed for artists committed to a life in the arts, features a number of shared work and studio spaces for special projects or daily use. In Moroni’s case, he makes yeoman’s use of the ceramic studio, equipped with state-of-the-art kilns.
One overcast Saturday morning, as we shared a stellar view, strong coffee and engaging conversation, Moroni readily rattled off facts about art theory, religious movements and more. His curiosity and knowledge about topics that inhabit and inform art — history, religion, sociology, urbanism, geography, music, light, color — are vast, and his authentic interest is infectious.
Windy City to Mill City fable
The Chicagoan arrived in the Twin Cities to attend the Minneapolis College of Art and Design in the early 1970s. His emergence on the formal art scene reads like a fable. Young Moroni was whisked from the halls of college to the halls of the renowned Walker Art Center in one fell swoop. None other than then-Walker director, the late, great Martin Freeman, who saw the subtext Moroni already was providing in his work, navigated that magic carpet ride.
Known for recreating civilizations in small-scale sizes, he wanted his viewers to question how we live in cities, to engage in conversations about where and how our civilizations emerge, and to explore the consequences and rewards of urban existence.
Moroni invited viewers to become Gulliver in the land of the Lilliputians. His work, termed early earth or action art, followed on the heels of Dadaism. Timing was in his favor.
Over his 40-plus years, his handiworks have shifted from massive to miniature and back. Audiences could peer down on occasionally vast landscapes, like his infamous Babylon project, a performance art piece of creative destruction, or a few years back, behold his tame replica of “old” Dinkytown.
Many of his miniatures evoke Hieronymus Bosch-like narratives, filled with catawampus buildings and impossible configurations just recognizable enough to engage viewers in studies of urban design gone slightly awry. Others, with more authentic scale and form, like his study of Georgetown where his daughter has been living as a student, simply evoke a whimsical sense of the urban realm. I was captivated by his limited-edition series of wall sconces of the newly renovated Minneapolis City Hall clock tower with its charming miniature light, which hangs as a conversation piece above my couch.
However, it would be incorrect to mistake his interpretations as fairy tale. Moroni may take liberty with narrative, much like novelists he admires such as James Michener, Ken Follett and Dan Brown, but the underpinning of his work is solid scholarship mixed with his heartfelt desire to evoke critical questions about urban life. Moroni bristles with that Bauhaus analytical idealism that maintains: “Art asks, design offers solutions, and architects and engineers implement.”
Such a cerebral stance combined with sharp sculptural prowess accounts for Moroni’s exulted status as a Minnesota arts trifecta honoree. He’s earned the McKnight, Jerome and Bush Fellowships, and, going for the grand slam, the prestigious National Endowment for the Arts, Arts Midwest Award. This is no small feat.
Geography, geology and geopolitics
His vision and scope is epitomized in his opus, “This River, This Place,” a 6,000-pound epic stoneware wall sculpture commissioned by the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis. The work is a topographical map of the bank’s service area, the entire Ninth Federal Reserve District.
Exemplifying Moroni’s quest for historical detail and meaning, “This River, This Place” can be read on multiple levels, as a geographical map of the six district states and as cultural and historical microcosms. “Major geographical features such as Lake Superior, Isle Royale, the Rocky Mountains, Lake Oahe, the national forests of northwestern Wisconsin and Upper Peninsula, the Mississippi and Missouri rivers can be easily identified by the naked eye from any vantage point in the Federal Reserve Bank’s lobby.”
Yet, on closer observation viewed with binoculars, telescope or a zoom lens, Moroni’s various landmarks, such as Paul Bunyon’s statue in Bemidji, Minnesota; a herd of buffalo (including a Sacred White Buffalo) in North Dakota; motorcyclists gathered in Sturgis, South Dakota; the Capitol at Bismarck (the tallest building in North Dakota); the Wounded Knee Monument in South Dakota; an overflowing Red River in Grand Forks, North Dakota — and much more, according to the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis — have been incorporated in his archetypal style.
Originally commissioned in 1996, the 33.5-by-12.5-inch piece, composed of 270 brick-shaped tiles, made of Minnesota white stoneware, fired and glazed, and covering 396 square feet of reinforced wall space, took Moroni four months of research and six months to execute with a team of seven artists.
Such collaboration is also a hallmark of Moroni’s ethic. Known as an activist, he embraces numerous life long relationships, mentors and guides others in their art and projects, and serves indefatigably in the service of social justice, environmentalism and inclusion. Moroni is a wildly beloved and respected local legend.
Moroni creates from a place of passion so deep and true that he captivates those lucky enough to enter his sphere with his fascination for how, why and where civilizations rise and fall and what role arts plays in this thrust of history. A three-dimensional mythmaker, Moroni’s worlds bring thoughtful examination about urban progress and sustainability.
Susan Schaefer is a freelance communications consultant, writer and photographer who can be reached at [email protected]