Mapping Community


Photo credit: Bill Kelley

Lately the College of Visual Arts has been focusing on what is on the outside of its gallery as much as what is on the walls inside.

The “Portals on Western” exhibition program uses large box windows and glass doorways as a sort of miniature exhibition space, on display for anyone who happens to walk by the corner of Selby and Western ave in St. Paul.

Rachel Breen is the latest artist to create work specifically for the Portals on Western space, and she took her assignment to heart. For several weeks Breen invited people from the neighborhood to sit for her in front of a light, while she traced their silhouettes. She then ran those drawings through an unthreaded sewing machine. The resulting patterns of holes became stencils, through which Breen sifted powdered charcoal onto the windows and walls. The images she created, (which she calls collectively “Local Topography”) appears to be a map of sorts, a terrain both strange and vaguely familiar.

What I ultimately want to do with the work is raise questions about community, how people intersect and communicate with one another. What would a map of a community look like? A map made up of people who live and work and pass through this area? That was my idea, that it would not really be a geographical map, but a map of how we understand community.


Photo credit: Bill Kelley

While the pieces in the main windows are white with black markings, Breen chose to play with light on the CVA doors, putting up black paper that had been through her sewing machine. At night the doors glimmers with the ghosts of young and old who share this space.

The sewing machine is a really important part of my work. The stitch is very symbolic; it speaks to connection, quilting, to fixing something or make something new. I’m using it in a new way, to describe people and human forms. Because I’m not using thread there’s more ambiguity, a yearning for cohesion and connection. Because we really want to be connected to the people around us, but it doesn’t just happen on its own. It takes effort and contact.


Photo credit: Bill Kelley

Breen’s work actually brought people into the gallery who might not otherwise have felt comfortable doing so. She invited the Pakistani owner of a nearby convenience store to come and sit for a silhouette. While he had worked just around the corner from the gallery for years, he’d never come in. And he was astonished to recognize some of the staff as his regular customers. The next day he brought his children, dressed in their finest, to sit for silhouettes as well.

Breen says she hopes the exhibition inspires connections not just among those who participated in the “Local Topography” project, but also in passers-by:

I hope that the imagery engages people enough that they keep thinking about it after they’ve left the area, that they ask questions about these faces and intersecting lines. Why are they here on the street corner to begin with? I really appreciate this corner of St. Paul, with its art gallery and coffee shop as well as the YWCA and the urban league. Race, class, culture, age… everything is right here.

Breen says the Portals on Western project challenged her to think about her work in the context of a public art format, and pushed her in new directions as a result. Now she wonders what she might be able to create on an even larger scale, and whether she could do similar work using materials that would hold up to being in the outdoors.

The College of Visual Arts has recognized the value of the series, and the opportunity it presents local arts to stretch out and experiment. As a result it’s expanding its exhibitions from two months to three months. Know of an artist you think might enjoy the challenge? The CVA is accepting proposals this month for the coming year, and there’s an information session tomorrow night.

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