“That box has brought me joy and sadness. I have been ecstatic, and I have also cried over that box,” said Frank J. Brown dejectedly. “It has, however, also caused me to reflect on the importance of art in people’s lives, and especially in the African American community in the Twin Cities.
“Consequently, I have learned a lot because of that box,” he added.
Sitting in his shop, Colors of Art, in downtown St. Paul, Brown, an award-winning artist and sculptor, contemplated, “We find our connection through art. We must value our art; we must learn to express our spirituality through our art.”
Brown’s tzedakah box is on display in Gallery 362 at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts’ exhibition “Beyond Charity: Tzedakah Boxes and the Jewish Tradition.” The exhibit runs through November 8, 2009.
Colors of Art is located at 180 E. Fifth Street in Lowertown, St. Paul. Hours are 10-3 Monday through Friday.
The box that Brown was referring to is a 12-inch cube, cast in hydrocal plaster, that he created for the 2002 “Tzedakah Box: The Art of Giving” competition sponsored by MIA and Rimon, Jewish Arts Endowment, and the Jewish Community Foundation of the Minneapolis Jewish Federation.
Brown’s tzedakah box, called “Hope for Tomorrow,” was awarded first place in the competition.
On the sides of the box are images of people standing side by side in close embrace. On one side are the backs of women, on another side are three women cradling a baby, and on the top of the box is a child being lifted high by the figures from all sides. Brown hopes that his box inspires people to “reach high, and to raise our children to achieve higher goals than we were able to reach.”
On the top of the box is a coin slot, as is standard for tzedakah boxes, which Brown emphasized teaches the value of saving for future hardships.
There are 38 figures on Brown’s tzedakah box representing people from all ethnicities. Many of the faces are recreations of people Brown saw in the building where he worked as a guard during 2002. “Art is universal — it tells us how similar we are, no matter what culture we are from,” Brown stated.
The MIA exhibition brochure describes a tzedakah box as follows: “The Hebrew word ‘tzedakah’ literally means righteousness, justice, correct behaviour or fairness and refers to the act of giving. But tzedakah is not merely charity, which implies a magnanimous gesture on the part of the giver, who in turn receives gratitude from the giver, who in turn receives gratitude from the recipient…. The highest level of tzedakah is to give to someone so that they may become self-reliant and be able to give to others.”
After the competition, Brown’s Hope for Tomorrow became a part of MIA’s permanent collection. Brown was thrilled to get the opportunity to have his work displayed in one of the best museums in North America.
Later, however, he was dismayed and very annoyed to find that it would be a long seven years before his work was actually displayed.
The MIA’s website states that its mission is to “enrich the community by collecting, preserving, and making accessible outstanding works of art from the world’s diverse cultures.” In meeting that objective, “the MIA’s permanent collection has grown from eight hundred works of art to around eighty thousand objects. The collection includes world-famous works that embody the highest levels of artistic achievement, spanning five thousand years and representing the world’s diverse cultures across all continents.”
An MIA spokesperson explained that in general there isn’t enough space to display its entire collection at the same time. Therefore, works are essentially in a queue for rotation.
Brown was anxious to see his work displayed at MIA. “Let me smell my flowers while I’m alive,” he quoted from an old song, and the seven-year wait depressed him. In May this year, when he received notification from the Jewish Federation that his work finally was on exhibit at MIA, it was bittersweet.
“I am happy it’s on display,” he acknowledged. “Don’t get me wrong! But the thrill is gone.”
Brown relocated to the Twin Cities in 1997 to be a part of a vibrant artists’ community. With an MFA degree from the University of Wisconsin-Madison in arts metals and ceramics specializing in making molds, his ambition was to create art and collaborate with Twin Cities artists.
Despite his success at establishing a steady corporate clientele, Brown’s dream has not yet been fully realized. “I wish there were some way to implement more collaboration and support for African American artists in the Twin Cities,” he said.
Dressed in traditional African garb, which he designs and sews himself and has been wearing most of his adult life, Brown lives in an artists’ cooperative in St. Paul’s Lowertown, and his shop is located nearby. As he saunters through Mears Park, he greets each passer-by with a smile.
Whenever he encounters people who are experiencing difficulties, it brings to mind the theme of his winning art: “Through our suffering, we create hope for tomorrow.”
Although Brown was initially disappointed by the delay at MIA, he acknowledged that he will joyfully celebrate this moment as one of only a handful of African American artists in MIA’s permanent collection, and he will continue to be proud of his accomplishments.
Brown encourages MSR readers to go see the tzedakah boxes at the MIA — his as well as all the other artists’. “It’s an opportunity to learn how to give to others,” he says. “Especially at these times.”
Jennifer Harvey welcomes reader responses to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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