Vehicle for change

Van is a canvas for South Minneapolis artist

The art van in its latest “Climate Emergency” incarnation.
The art van in its latest “Climate Emergency” incarnation.

The owner of the van that cruises South Minneapolis with “Climate Emergency” and other messages splashed across the side of its big white canvas wants to remain anonymous for this column, because the world is crazy and “because the world still hates women.”

If you’ve seen it, it has the power to stop you in your tracks. A reminder, in these relatively peaceful streets of South Minneapolis, that all is not peaceful. To be sure, the art van provides a momentarily jarring perspective that comes like a one-car protest, or a one-vehicle May Day-Art Car parade.

“I painted the van the second I got it,” said the art van artist, sitting in a Kingfield coffee shop recently. “Literally, it was completely white, worth still probably a lot of money. My daughter and I went and got tons of spray paint and painted it the second I got it.

“The current one says ‘Climate Emergency,’ but I’ve already decided that’s not good enough. I just told my daughter I don’t like it, that it wasn’t enough, that it’s too lame. It should be more thought provoking. Anytime you do something, within a day people have tuned it out, so that’s why I continuously paint it. I like things that ask questions more.”

The art van

Over the past few years, the art van has broadcast several messages: “Don’t give up!,” “The U.S. runs child concentration camps for profit,” “Any country that will tear children from their parents’ arms will shoot you down in the street — Mel Reeves” and “There’s a history of untold cruelty that hides in silence in this country — Bryan Stevenson.”

It’s a brave act to broadcast such truths in this sleepy little hamlet, but it’s all in a day’s work for the art van artist.

“It was painted with ‘Black Lives Matter’ in huge letters during the Fourth Precinct protests during Justice For Philando [Castile],” she said. “I asked a group of young artists to paint it when I was living in St. Paul. They painted a beautiful portrait of Philando and that was there for quite a long time.

The art van

“But sometimes it’s just art, and I’ll just paint some personal thing I want to say. Usually it’s some kind of social justice [statement]. I’ve asked other people to paint it, and children to paint it. I brought it down South and had people paint it on the trip all the way up.”

A gifted artist whose work has been displayed in coffee shops, bars and galleries, the art van artist takes to her moving canvas to express outrage about the world, but social commentary isn’t her main guiding light.

“I don’t even know if [the inspiration to paint the van] is about what’s going on now,” she said. “I’ve always been like this, and I’ve always just had to work with what I’ve had. A lot of this stuff comes from, ‘What do I have?’ Or if I feel powerless, you have to wake yourself up that you’re never completely powerless. I was ill and I couldn’t do what I used to do and also I didn’t feel accepted into other social justice groups that were doing things around issues I care about. It was really cliquey and I don’t know, I guess I’m a weirdo and I never felt that I could get in there.

“I’ve always wanted to do things my own way. Immediate. And that’s what the van is. I was, ‘What do I have?’ The only thing I have is this van, and it’s immediate, and I can do whatever I want and no one can say anything, you know? It’s for sale, though.”

Until it is sold, the van remains a canvas. It has participated in several protests and marches, including the Minnesota Immigrant Rights Action Committee march on International Workers Day last year and the 2017 Paddle To Protect canoe journey/protest in support of the Stop Line 3 marches organized by Honor The Earth.

“I really don’t want to sell it,” said the art van artist. “I love it. Every time we’re about to sell it, I’ll get mad about something and say, ‘Let’s paint this.’ I love it for that very reason: I can do whatever I want to it, say whatever I want. I know that cops can … you can get harassed, and we’ve had some of that. The van has been reported as an eyesore for being too colorful many times. One guy came up to me in the Diamond Lake area and said, ‘What’s with the paint job? Are you a bunch of clowns?’ It was interesting how hostile he was. White guy, just livid. It was just an abstract art [work], and in fact some of the ones that create the most hostility are the ones that are just abstract, no messages. They just get livid. But this guy actually started a Twitter campaign against the van for a couple of weeks.

“So you wouldn’t think it, but it’s been rough! I always tell my daughter, ‘It’s funny how lines and shapes can just make people so angry.’ But kids always love it. And a lot of times kids will see it and point it out to their parents, and their parents will turn away and pretend they don’t see it because they don’t want to talk about it with them. It’s weird.”

Would she recommend everyone paint their cars?

“If you have no power and people are always telling you that, you can write [a message] across your face or put it on your skin,” she said. “As far as ‘Should everybody be doing it?,’ I don’t try to tell people what to do, because people do things in their own way and this is my way. But yeah, part of me does wonder why aren’t more people, like, shouting? I get afraid, too, but I force myself to wake myself up.

“There are so many things going on; it’s not like I’m saying everyone should be [painting their vans for] climate emergency, but it’s something. You know, say something.”

Jim Walsh lives and grew up in South Minneapolis. He can be reached at [email protected].