Fall Arts Feature Profiles

A closer look at some prominent figures in the Twin Cities arts scene

Sonja Parks

Sonja Parks is often cast in the roles of much younger women, girls really, as when she played a 12-year-old Somali girl in the acclaimed 2004 Children’s Theatre Company production of Snapshot Silhouette, dropping decades off her well-protected real age. In person, this begins to make sense: she’s outfitted in a Mickey Mouse T-shirt and white canvas shoes. But Parks, who next month stars in the CTC’s Antigone, isn’t entirely PG.

Sure, Parks moved to the Twin Cities in the late 1990s partly to escape the skeezy partying and cut-throat competition of Hollywood, where she worked in television (ER; True Women, a made-for-TV movie with Angelina Jolie; a string of pilots with the likes of rapper Ice-T and Will & Grace’s Debra Messing). Not even the promise of a trailer with her name on it could convince the native Texan to go to one more party at which people scanned the room, mid-conversation, to see if there was anyone more important they should be meeting.

Parks loves performing for kids precisely because they break the “rules” of theater, telling actors immediately and out loud what they like or don’t like. This year, with funds from a prestigious McKnight Fellowship, she’s crafting two plays of her own featuring the kind of “messy people”—flawed characters—she loves to portray. “Let’s be a little dangerous,” she advocates, though the last time she played Antigone, in 2003, she lost four teeth in a collision with another actor. This time, she hopes to cut down on the physical perils while still inciting the audience to react. “Maybe they won’t behave,” she says, with hope.


The area art world was taking a long, landscape-induced nap when Pilot, a new Minneapolis-based all-star collective of 12 artists, buzzed the scene like a paint-stained Howard Hughes. Boldly introducing itself to the nation with an ad this spring in Dwell magazine, the group is reawakening locals to the idea that Minnesota art can be more than prairie pictures.

Some observers have declared Pilot the first Minnesota “school” of artists, much like the Hudson River gang, definers of a local look. But a glance at their website—www.pilotarts.com, the group’s main point of purchase since their temporary space near the Calhoun Square mall closed this summer—demonstrates the artists’ diversity. James Wrayge is a well-known abstract painter, Ben Olson a popular self-portraitist. Yuri Arajs ran the Outsider Arts gallery for years, even though the Cranbrook graduate’s sleek style betrays insider knowledge. Still, a refreshing pop-art sensibility runs through much of the Pilot artists’ work, as nearly half have worked in advertising or graphic design.

Terrence Payne integrates typography into large, bold paintings of men hoisting horses or balancing chairs on their chins, pieces with such titles as Most Birds Are Hobos and Transients. Amy Rice and Jennifer Davis share a wistful illustrative style. And Michael Sweere, formerly a freelance art director who did work for General Mills, cuts up food packages to make mosaics as eye-popping as the cereal row at Rainbow Foods. Watch the group’s website until another space is found. Judging from sales at their last gallery, Pilot is headed for the stratosphere.

Carl Flink

Carl Flink might want to get his dancers some helmets. “You know when you see a photo on the sports page of three guys flying parallel to the ground with a football in front of them? That’s what I want,” says the 40-year-old choreographer, whose Black Label Movement became the Twin Cities’ newest dance troupe when it debuted last month at the Southern Theater. Flink, who heads up the dance program at the University of Minnesota, is also a terrific soccer player—so good, he once considered trying out for British teams. What’s missing in dance, he believes, is the level of risk that athletes are willing to take. Bend it like Beckham, indeed.

Flink’s dancers have one thing in common, he says: “an inner wild thing.” Meaning they don’t think twice about throwing their bodies into a dance. But Flink’s work is emotionally demanding, too. Case in point: Lost Lullabies, a piece about parents grieving for children lost in the Iraq war. In 1998, having ascended the heights of modern dance in New York as a performer, Flink earned a law degree to pursue his interest in social justice. He returned to his native Minnesota to work for the Farmers Legal Action Group, but, like Superman, he may well have been wearing tights under his suits.

He’s back to spandex full-time now. In October, his choreography will appear in the Metropolitan Ballet’s Dracula. And he’s developing an opera about people trapped in a sunken ore boat. Raw, visceral—during a night of Flink dance, it may be the audience that needs protection.


If ever there was music for making out in an art gallery, Jelloslave’s is it. The quartet, founded by cellists Michelle Kinney and Jacqueline Ferrier-Ultan, released their first album this winter. It’s called Touch It, and you’re free to take that command wherever the groove moves you (most likely to the Walker Art Center, with someone who would appreciate a musical blend of J. S. Bach and George Harrison).

The album title is an attempt at describing the intimacy of Jelloslave’s sound: two cellos meshing into one “übercello,” as Ferrier-Ultan puts it. She and Kinney met at a musical performance at the Weisman Art Museum three years ago. Kinney had recently returned from New York, where she spent 12 years recording with the likes of Natalie Merchant and Sheryl Crow. Now backed by percussionists Gary Waryan and Greg Schutte, they’ve shared stages with hip-hop and jazz musicians. They use their cellos like Silly Putty, mimicking flute and reed sounds or the human voice.

Kinney and business partner Chris Hinding recently launched Sugarfoot Music, which this month is releasing a CD benefiting Habitat for Humanity’s New Orleans Musicians Village and featuring Merchant, the Jayhawks’ Gary Louris, and other friends (a benefit concert will be held at the Minnesota Zoo on September 23). A live Jelloslave album is slated for fall release; the group hopes to follow it with appearances at art museums. They don’t mind the label “art music,” though Ferrier-Ultan has another suggestion: “psycho-acoustic cello theater.” In fact, they believe their music would be perfect for movie soundtracks. David Lynch, meet Jelloslave.

Alan Berks

Listening to Alan Berks talk about theater as a community forum, you want to check his breath for signs of alcohol. Not because it’s a bizarre idea—the playwright’s vision of art inspiring a creative, engaged populace may well fuel the progressive cities of the future. It’s just that Berks began implementing his ideas in a bar. Joe’s Garage in Minneapolis, to be specific, where he launched Thirst Theater two years ago with actors Chris Carlson and Tracey Maloney to introduce the theatrical arts to those more inclined to watch The Apprentice. Beer by beer, for just a $10 cover, the shows are going down smooth.

This summer, Thirst moved to Jitters, a Minneapolis lounge/cabaret, with the hope of reaching a whole new audience. Surely, it will. Thirst features some of the area’s best actors, performing edgy, original work by such local playwrights as Jordan Harrison, Melanie Marnich, and, yes, Berks. Now 33, he’s been dedicated to theater ever since he delivered a monologue in high school and overheard a girl say, “He’s cute!” I need to do more of this, he thought. He has, and the kudos keep coming. When his play Goats, based on his experience goat-herding in Israel, opened in New York this year, a reviewer called it “one of the smartest, warmest, funniest, and wisest new works I’ve seen in some time.”

Berks isn’t the first to push the arts as a dialogue-driving part of the social fabric. He just believes it works better when it’s fun instead of earnest. A recent Thirst play called for Richard Iglewski, of Guthrie Theater fame, to slap himself in the face with mashed potatoes. Let’s see American Idol top that.

Tim Gihring is senior writer for Minnesota Monthly.