St. Paul City Artist Amanda Lovelee inspires joyful connections

Amanda Lovelee’s life and work have taken her all over the world. A native of upstate New York, she graduated from the Minneapolis College of Art and Design, has traveled extensively in places like Nicaragua and Italy, and even completed an artist-in-residence term in Montana. Now she’s making a home for herself as St. Paul’s newest City Artist in Residence (CAIR). As the program expands, St. Paul residents will see and experience her work in a variety of public spaces around the city.

In fact, Lovelee currently has three big CAIR projects on tap. One clever idea involves turning an old ice cream truck into, as she puts it, “a mobile city vehicle that hosts conversations, meetings and lots of merry making.” The idea is to create a vehicle, literally, for city employees to get out into St. Paul’s neighborhoods and interact with residents. Lovelee is also working on a “very large pop-up park” that will appear somewhere in the city and “a few forests of tree houses for two public libraries.” Reading is always more fun in a tree house, isn’t it?

Her latest project—a collaboration with three other local artists—is even more ambitious. Balancing Ground, an open, cathedral-like space that uses overhead prisms to cast complex, colored shadows on an expansive seating area, was recently selected as the winner of the Minneapolis Convention Center’s 2014 Creative City Challenge. It will debut on the Convention Center’s plaza at this year’s Northern Spark Festival and should remain in place until early fall.  

A common thread connects these projects: Lovelee’s belief that public art can play a key role in local problem-solving. “My work is about bringing people together and developing tools to do this,” she says, “whether [the tools] are a big table, an ice cream truck, or even a cup of coffee.”

Residing and creating “in the body of the city”

Marcus Young, an eight-year veteran of the CAIR program, helped Lovelee acclimate to the role. He hadn’t worked with her before, but he was immediately taken with her creativity. “There was no question she had to play for our team,” he says.
Along with Public Art St. Paul President Christine Podas-Larson, who administers the CAIR Resident program in partnership with the City of St. Paul, Young has played a huge role in shaping and driving CAIR. “City art,” he says, is “made by artists placed far upstream in the city-making process…and aspires to help the city create art as a natural part of its being.”

Young’s wildly successful Everyday Poems for City Sidewalks project, which inscribed many of St. Paul’s new sidewalk panels with poetry quotes, is a great example of this approach. “As an artist residing in the body of the city, I’m like a virus,” Young says, adding that St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman “is very kind to remind me that a virus at the right dosage is actually an inoculation…a healing force.”

It’s not clear whether Lovelee sees herself as a virus as well, but she’s clearly invested in her role as St. Paul’s “junior” CAIR. As a classic public-private partnership—“a beautiful and innovative hybrid based on trust and exploration,” Young says—CAIR affords Lovelee the artistic freedom that independent artists enjoy, just with the backing of an entire city government.

Of course, it’s not without challenges. Aside from the fact that they’re not actually employees of the city, Young and Lovelee are vastly outnumbered by staffers at essential departments like Public Works and Safety. It can be hard for two artists to address all the issues their work might solve, so prioritizing is key. On top of her three big initiatives for CAIR, Lovelee is simultaneously working on a number of “smaller” projects.

Lovelee and Young have helped raise CAIR’s profile and continue to receive recognition for their work. In its Spring 2011 newsletter, Public Art Saint Paul highlighted St. Paul’s new public art ordinance, which increased and regularized the resources devoted to public art projects. That said, the work of artists-in-residence can still feel anonymous and behind-the-scenes.

“Maybe in 100 years, [the artist-in-residence position] will be understood on par with the engineer, landscape architect, planner and maintenance worker,” Young says. “Right now, it still feels like undiscovered territory.”

Wildflowers, square dancing, Balancing Ground

Even as Lovelee works to strengthen public art in St. Paul, she isn’t wholly defined by her CAIR work. She’s pretty busy, in fact, she says, “each project just flows into the next.”

One day, during her stint as an artist-in-residence in Montana, she decided to move her desk out to her town’s main drag and give passers-by photos of wildflowers in exchange for stories about their romantic lives. When she returned to Minnesota, she turned the idea into the Walker’s aptly named Trading Wildflowers for Love Stories exhibition.

More recently, Lovelee organized the Call and Answer Project, a deep dive into the subculture of square dancing and its power to create genuine interpersonal connections in an increasingly fragmented world. The MN Original episode that profiled the project described it as an exploration of “the value of touch and connection with strangers through the act of a square dance.” Among the project’s fruits: an 18-minute video that features interviews with square dancing “converts”—including a romantic pair who met on the dance floor—and extended scenes of pure square dancing joy.

Lovelee is also working on Really Big Table with collaborators Colin Harris and Josh Birdsall. According to its website, Really Big Table aims “to create a long table that functions as a gathering space and activates streetscapes.” The table itself resembles a long picnic table, but it’s comprised of modules small enough to be transported by bicycle—although it’s still not easy to move, as Lovelee learned last summer.

“Transporting a 300 pound table by bicycle between Minneapolis and St. Paul is no small feat,” she says. “It took three hours, many big hills, and even a flat tire” to pull off, but “the project, in general, has really made me slow down and practice just ‘being.’”

Where does Lovelee find her creative impetus? It might be more appropriate to ask where she doesn’t find inspiration. A photographer by formal training, she isn’t constricted by traditional boundaries between artistic disciplines. “I consider myself a researcher or explorer, exploring the everyday,” she says.

Brian Martucci is The Line’s Innovation and Jobs Editor and frequently contributes feature articles.

This story originally appeared in The Line here