Maria Cristina (Tina) Tavera stood high on a cement ledge near the intersection of Lake Street and 35W, bundled against falling snow, guiding 400-pound steel columns onto their bases. Fabricators from Solid Metal Arts in Northeast Minneapolis operated the heavy machinery, with Tina there to dust snow off of the columns, hold ladders steady, supply nuts and washers, and marvel at the piece she’d envisioned actually coming together. Her husband and collaborator, Xavier Tavera, stood nearby taking photos of the process on a film camera.
“This feels like it’s bring-your-kid-to-work day!” Tina said, laughing.
The crew was there to install the second and final piece of the sculpture that the Taveras designed, titled Strength in Unity. The artwork is lenticular, meaning that the image changes based on the position of the viewer. The new addition, which lines the path leading to the Midtown Greenway on the north side of the transit center, consists of five towering, rust-colored columns, each with stainless steel panels that arrange themselves into the shape of a tree, if the viewer is northbound, or a flock of birds if southbound. The first piece of the sculpture, installed in January 2022, is a 20-column version of the same concept, but the image changes from birds in flight to a galloping horse depending on the angle.
The Taveras’ sculpture was the winning proposal in a contest that the Minneapolis Arts Commission held along with the City’s Public Works department and MNDOT to complement the 35W@94 construction project that was finished in September of 2021. The full project was complete January 19.
Tina is primarily a printmaker and the director of the TRIO McNair Scholars program at Augsburg University, which supports students from marginalized backgrounds through their graduate studies, and Xavier is a photographer, currently teaching photography at Carleton College. They worked together, inspired by Xavier’s photos of horses, to arrange a three-dimensional piece. Because the artwork is part of a transit hub, connecting people to bus routes, highways, sidewalks, and bike paths, Tina said they designed it with light and movement in mind.
Over the past several years, the Taveras put extensive research into the content of their design.
“We spent way more time [researching] than what we spent making the art,” she said.
They met with historians and scholars from local universities, held meetings with a host of cultural organizations, sent surveys out to the public, and held in-person events on the Greenway to study and hear from their neighbors what might be important for them to see in a public art piece.
Part of the draw of working on this particular piece, they both said, was the chance it gave them to bring art to their own neighborhood.
“We tried to make a very comprehensive reach to the local communities because it's for them. We're not parachuting in and planting something there. It's something that we believe in because we use the [transit] system, we're on Lake Street all the time, and it's part of our community,” said Xavier.
He added that public art projects demand another level of consideration for the audience, in contrast with the majority of his artwork that is intended for museums or classrooms. “It’s not the same to talk about politics, immigration, and gender and whatnot in a gallery, because people go there knowing that they're going to be challenged. This is a public art piece that people are pretty much forced to encounter. And so we have to be very, very careful with how we approach the themes and communicate with the neighbors,” he said.
They chose to depict a horse in the larger piece because of its significance in Somali, Hmong, Latino, African-American, and local Native American cultures, as they learned through their conversations with local communities. Xavier said that their preparation of this piece involved visiting monuments as fixtures of public art. Most sculptures of horses that they encountered are really tributes to whoever is sitting on their backs. They wanted to subvert that pattern and make the running, riderless horse the protagonist of the piece to honor the horse itself and imagine it in a state free of imposed hierarchy.
The new installment, with a tree on one side and birds in motion on the other, explores the relationship between moving to new places and putting down roots to represent both immigrant communities in Minneapolis and the Native peoples that were the first to live on this land. This aspect is of special personal importance to the artists. Xavier grew up in Mexico and Tina has always lived between Minnesota and Mexico.
“A lot of us, including the two of us, have been uprooted from other places and made roots here. So this temporary home that we call South Minneapolis, a symbol of that might be a tree where we can land temporarily, help to do the pollination of it and build community there,” Xavier said.
For all the thought that they put into the symbolism of the sculpture, they acknowledged that they can’t rely on that message getting across to everyone who passes by.
“We are going to approach these pieces with information that we had the second that we were born all the way to right now,” Xavier said. “And the notion that we should follow the story, or the specific story that the artist intended, I think is not as valid as some beautiful stories that can come with people's interpretation of the pieces.” He said he often shares this piece of advice with his students.
The process of working with the city to create a public art piece has been rewarding, they said, but included way more effort from various departments than they were used to, both practically and bureaucratically.
“At the end of the day, yes, our names are going to be on the little plaque there, for whatever reason, but there's a lot of people involved to make this happen,” Xavier said.
In addition to the design and creation of the sculpture, there is insurance to consider, the challenge of making a weatherproof structure aimed to last for at least 30 years, conservators, landscapers, and even more logistics. Tina said that they have had meetings with people related to this project on an almost weekly basis for more than two years.
The Taveras have a long history of collaborative projects in addition to their solo art portfolios, which brings them both to exhibitions all over the world. Xavier smiled and noted that having an artistic partner who doubles as a life partner is as rewarding as it is difficult. He said, “We both collaborate with other people frequently, and at the end of the day, I go back home and we can forget about it. But our collaboration goes on till eleven, twelve at night. When we sleep, we wake up and our collaborator is still there. That is a challenge. And it's also a beautiful, beautiful thing.”