Central avenue scupltures tell the Northeast story


Northeast’s history is, literally, etched in stone. Well, make that stone, bronze and ceramic.

Central Avenue drivers and pedestrians might recently have noticed two new stone pillars near Columbia Golf Course. The work of Northeast sculptor Foster Willey, Jr., they’re actually called “stelae”—upright monoliths that tell contemporary stories.

The City of Minneapolis’ Art in Public Places project (created by the Minneapolis Arts Commission) awarded him the contract in 2005. He said the project took him about a year to complete; it was unveiled May 21.

The stelae concept is based on the art of the ancient Mayans, who commemorated deities or rulers in tall carved monoliths. In this case, though, Willey’s monoliths commemorate local activities and places. Located on the west side of Central across from 33rd and 35th avenues NE, the nine-foot tall stele have different themes.

The one at 33rd has a Shoreham Yard and railroad history theme; at the top is a steam engine, sculpted in bronze. Along the side, also in bronze, is the roundhouse and a switch track. The 35th Ave. stele (stelae is plural, stele is singular) portrays the city’s grain and milling industry. Its top piece is a bronze “flying wheat stalk,” along the side is a bronze Northrup King grain elevator and Washburn C Mill roll stand milling machine.

Ceramic tiles on both portray local sites and activities: Gluek Brewery, Shoreham Yard’s water towers, a railroad brakeman’s lantern, train wheels, the Arion Theater, a Central Avenue streetcar, a Pillsbury flour sack, and the St. Anthony Chapel.

Willey said he sought community feedback on his original designs, and altered one of the crown ornaments —the flying wheat stalk was originally a sprouting seed pod—based on the comments. The Art in Public Places steering committee recommended general subjects— churches, theaters, streetcars, breweries— and he researched the actual subjects. Gluek Brewery on Marshall Street, for example, was the first Northeast brewery; Willey’s stele tile portrays a Gluek cone-top beer can, circa 1935.

John Bergene, a former CP Rail spokesperson and Shoreham Yard worker, showed Willey a historic brakeman’s lantern, which was used for signaling trains. “They were all dated, and their location was printed on the lantern,” Willey said.

The stelae were placed on the widest sections of the boulevard’s grassy areas. Willey designed the benches, the layout of each site and the monoliths. A company in St. Michael cast the benches and stelae in pre-cast concrete; it is colored to resemble Minnesota native kasota stone. American Bronze Casting in Osceola did the bronze casting; Willey did the patina and welding. Josh Blanc, of Clay Squared to Infinity, made the ceramic tiles.

Willey said the bronze casting “was a lengthy process. The train, including the base, was cast in five pieces.” Picking out the glaze for the tiles proved to be a challenge as well, Willey said; they had trouble getting the color right. “We did a lot of tests and had to remake some of them.”

Willey said upright monoliths are found in many early cultures. In addition to telling the story of Northeast’s history, his intention with the stelae was to address the street and its automobile and pedestrian traffic with a “nice graphic outline. I didn’t want this to be a kiosk where you explain everything. There’s a little bit of mystery to the motifs; they are abstracted.”

Willey’s other public art projects include a sculpture titled “Centrifuge” in downtown Burnsville, and sculpted portraits, commissioned by the City of Minneapolis, of community leaders in the Phillips and Central neighborhoods of South Minneapolis.

Willey’s current project is to re-make those portraits, which were originally made of cast concrete, into bronze. “They discovered that the concrete was too easily damaged, and we are trying to do more with the site.” Although he does do some commissioned work, he said most of his recent projects have been the result of public art competitions. “After I finished Centrifuge in 2004, I’ve been full time in the studio ever since.”

Loretta Bebeau, current President of NEMAA’s (Northeast Minneapolis Arts Association) Board of Directors, said, “We are proud to have Foster represent the Northeast gateway. He is one of the original NEMAA members. But I’m sure he’ll agree that we need many more of those projects to give Northeast the “village” feeling that public art provides.”