Crawl Spaces

The art of doing the St. Paul Art Crawl

HAVING APPLIED THE LAST SPECK of paint to their canvases for the evening, the artists of St. Paul’s Lowertown descend from their studios and gather for wine, beer, and pizza at the Black Dog Coffee Bar & Wine Café (a place to paws?), billed as a joint “for people who aren’t afraid of a little personality.” Read: guys and gals with a little more turpentine in their hair than most, and maybe a little more hair. Remember this place, because after you’ve wandered through Lowertown during the St. Paul Art Crawl, you’ll want to come here for a show-and-tell of the artworks you’ve just acquired—and to calculate how you’re going to sell the Saab and the split-level and move into a paint-stained loft yourself. ¶ Don’t think too hard, though. The St. Paul Art Crawl has existed for 16 years precisely so both artist and art appreciator can improve their lot without changing their identity. They make, you buy. In the end, you’re both sustained. And it’s hardly a cold transaction. The reason that 16,000 to 18,000 people will crowd a square mile of St. Paul from April 20 to 22 is the experience: many of the artists live and work in their spaces, so you can see the paints next to the painting, the easel where it came together, and the stack of French philosophy books whose ideas give it a certain je ne sais quoi. In some spaces, it can be difficult to tell which paintings are for sale and which are part of the artist’s own décor. That’s full immersion.

In recent years, the arts scene in northeast Minneapolis has expanded and grabbed more headlines than its older sister in St. Paul. The Art-A-Whirl studio tour in May now encompasses far more spaces and about twice as many artists, reportedly drawing 20,000 to 30,000 visitors. But the St. Paul Art Crawl has continued to thrive, annually increasing participation. This year, it’s even expanding its hours to 10 p.m. on both Friday and Saturday nights, making Art-A-Whirl seem like the early-to-bed oldster.

Lowertown has long attracted big personalities. Pierre “Pig’s Eye” Parrant, a French-Canadian trader and all-around rapscallion, settled here on the so-called “lower” landing of the Mississippi River (the upper landing was near Fort Snelling), selling whiskey to Indians and soldiers and becoming the area’s first permanent resident. In fact, the village of squatters that grew up around his tavern was called Pig’s Eye until a priest moved in and argued that St. Paul might be a more promising name for the settlement.

In the late 19th century, Lowertown was one of the busiest ports for steamboats and the center of rail traffic for what was then considered the northwestern United States. Railroad baron James J. Hill lived there with his family until a boom in warehouses crowded them out. When the age of steam and rail passed, the warehouses languished for nearly 75 years, until new entrepreneurs moved in: artists.

Ken Green, Passion Tango

The Lowertown Lofts, carved from warehouse space in the early 1980s, offered one of the first live/work spaces for artists in the area. The Northern Warehouse and Tilsner Artists’ Cooperative soon followed, sporting high ceilings, brick walls, and windows big enough for a cathedral. In short, it was a bohemian paradise. Ta-coumba Aiken, a painter and muralist known for public-art projects, has lived in the Lowertown Lofts for 21 years and was one of the original founders of the St. Paul Art Crawl. In the early years of the studio tour, he remembers, many visitors seemed more interested in perusing the artists’ funky living spaces than the art. “They were going into our dresser drawers,” he says. “We had to figure out how to limit access.”

Nowadays, of course, such warehouse spaces can be found all over the Twin Cities, and they are as likely to be inhabited by bankers as by painters. Lowertown’s bohemian fringe has arguably been tamed, particularly since the Rossmor Building was converted to condominiums a few years ago, flushing out what had been a legendary low-rent haven for sculptors, welders, photographers, and the so-called pyro artist on the top floor. Though technically not a living space, the Rossmor nonetheless sheltered artists who cooked in hot pots, showered at the YMCA, and hid their mattresses when inspectors visited. (The building is now back on the St. Paul Art Crawl, as several artists have returned to the revamped Rossmor.) Still, gentrification has prompted some art crawl visitors to wonder whether Lowertown will soon become Uptown, with a Gap on one corner and a Pier 1 Imports on another, softening its edge.

One test of whether an arts district has gone stale might be the percentage of flower paintings for sale—in colors easily matched to sofas (nay, davenports) and accentuated with a kind of gold-glitter paint. If there’s a word for this style, it might be glintz: glitz meets chintz. And sure enough, glintz has been spotted at the St. Paul Art Crawl. But this is far outweighed by art that wasn’t aimed at interior designers; in recent years, these have included an exhibition of cell-phone photos, comic-strip art, something called the Smooch Project (kiss for the camera!), and a woman slathering a mostly nude man in clay.

In any case, seeing artists in their element is always going to be a draw, Aiken believes. Not because of their brick walls and lofted beds, but because you never know who may become the next Picasso. Imagine if you’d wandered around Manet’s pad in Paris or Bob Dylan’s place before he left Minneapolis. The crawl, in this sense, isn’t just art in the making—it’s art history.

The St. Paul Art Crawl is held April 20 to 22. Visit for details.

Tim Gihring is senior writer of Minnesota Monthly.

Art Smarts

10 tips for cool crawling

DO take elevators to top floors and work down. You’ll have more energy for more buildings.
DON’T overindulge on free wine and snacks. It’s a crawl, not a stumble—or a soup kitchen.
DO ask artists if they’ll sell a piece without the frame or make other modifications.
DON’T say it’s because you want to match the piece to your couch.
DO feel free to haggle.
DON’T be disappointed if artists aren’t willing to give art away.
DO ask artists how a piece is made.
DON’T start writing down the details so you can duplicate the work.
DO take a card, sign an address book, make a connection.
DON’T overstay your welcome. There is always one guy who makes himself a little too at home. Don’t be that guy.