Public art project explores city’s history

January 1st, 2009 / By: / Features, Graphics

Fabric and graphics in a downtown carries the message of universality.

Speaking of Home is one of those public art projects that should hang around, maybe forever, so deft is it at engaging passersby and infusing a bit of spirit into its rather static surroundings. Alas, the temporary, site-specific installation by Minneapolis artist Nancy Ann Coyne, installed in the windows of the skyway bridging Nicollet Mall* between the IDS Center and Macy’s, had a shelf life of less than three months, closing on October 31.

Speaking of Home (SOH) was comprised of 23 translucent, black and white photographs, measuring 3m by 4m each, that featured Minnesota immigrants and the word home in each of their languages in their own handwriting. The 46m long installation, along which 18,000 people pass per day, explored the meaning of “home” to these immigrants and others, and celebrates Minnesota’s cultural diversity during the state’s sesquicentennial anniversary.

From the onset, the project presented many challenges, not the least of which was how to transform a utilitarian walkway into an evocative journey through an urban landscape. Coyne also needed to give meaning to Minnesota’s expanding immigrant experience in each of the photographs without appearing heavy-handed or sentimental. Convincing the skyway owners (building tenants) and the Skyway Advisory Committee that approved the project presented its own challenge. Their restrictions regarding imagery, signage and content were stringent. Moreover, the images needed to be fabricated and installed so they could be experienced from both the skyway and street levels. Coyne needed to find a high-performing fabric, a printing company that could print on a very large scale with exacting expertise, and appropriate inks.

Following extensive research, Coyne chose Fisher Textile’s GF 4853, 36.6m based on the scrim’s performance with regard to printing and how well the fabric held the inks. The scrim/photographs needed to appear opaque to transparent depending on the time of day the work was seen and the viewer’s vantage point. Moreover, the photographs, although printed on textile, needed to be printed as fine art photographs with the same technical and aesthetic standards as museum prints on paper.

It took Coyne two and a half years to find a specialist printer on textiles, Portland Color, in Maine, but the superior quality of the images was worth the effort. She worked collaboratively with Portland Color owner Andy Graham and general manager Paul Glynn on the project’s creation and exacting specifications. The photographs were printed using a 3m-wide solvent dye-sublimation fabric printer.

With the dye sublimation process, an inkjet printer sprays ink on a transfer paper. The paper is then fed into a heat press along with the fabric. Under heat and pressure, the ink on the paper sublimates (transforms from a solid to a gas) and becomes permanently bonded to the fibers of the fabric. This process was chosen — rather than direct printing on the fabric — because of its superior image quality. It produces a higher percentage of the required picture bleed-through, thus allowing the artwork to be read from the skyway’s interior and exterior. The final prints represent the exacting nature of the proofing process.

Place making is often an integral part of public art and SOH succeeded admirably. Not only did the work transform a rather ordinary skyway into a visually dynamic space, it also invigorated the streetscape below. The shifting light from the sun further dramatized the environment and the pedestrians’ experience of it. Perhaps, most importantly, SOH raised a meaningful discussion about the ever-expanding immigrant experience in Minnesota.

Mason Riddle writes frequently about design and art in public spaces.
* Skyways are a second level network of bridges connecting office buildings in downtown Minneapolis. The Nicollet Mall is a landmark urban streetscape, designed 1962–67 by Lawrence Halprin, to favor pedestrians.

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