A Home in the Sky

Photos of Minnesota immigrants turn the St. Paul skyways into an art project exploring what we call home

Nancy Ann Coyne standing in a St. Paul skyway with pictures of Minnesota immigrants on the individual panes.
Nancy Ann Coyne

photo by david j. Turner

It took an awestruck New York transplant to appreciate the potential of the Twin Cities’ skyways: as art galleries floating about 20 feet above downtown streets.

Public artist Nancy Ann Coyne has lived in Minneapolis for 16 years, but she still finds the skyways inspiring. The bridges’ panoramic windows frame slow shifts in the urban tableaux—cars and pedestrians passing below, skyscrapers suspended above. And now, as part of her latest project, huge, diaphanous screens cover more than 50 of those windows in downtown St. Paul. Printed on each screen, an enlarged black-and-white photo of a Minnesota immigrant filters the light, turning four skyway bridges into memory-tinted light boxes.

Coyne met 58 local immigrants over the last several years, interviewed them, and browsed through old photos they shared with her from when they lived in their home countries. With a team of collaborators, she selected the most moving, blew them up, and printed each on a 10-by-12-foot translucent scrim. The Twin Cities’ surprising diversity had moved her—120 languages spoken here sounding like her New York home, but harder to notice because of how pocketed our immigrant communities tend to be. Covering the skyways in these heirloom photos, Coyne thought to spotlight the barely visible at St. Paul’s busiest nexus. The photo of a 7-year-old Vietnamese girl, for example, now fills one window. From inside, you see through her, as if she were a ghost, to the St. Paul Driver and Vehicle Services building. From outside, her half-smiling face overlaps afternoon foot traffic—suited busybodies passing from A to B and momentarily blending into her memory, among the memories of Coyne’s other subjects, who themselves navigate an in-between that the skyways help visualize: that of home here and home there.

“How do you take a space that is otherwise just a pass-through and make it a place?” Coyne wondered when planning the installation.

Called Speaking of Home, the work spans 50 countries. Two Iraqi boys pose by the Euphrates River. Across from them, a laughing Romanian man chases his grandson on a Black Sea beach. Panels explain how each immigrant arrived: After war split the Iraqi boys apart, one survived through refugee camps before settling here to teach. The Romanian kid, now a Minneapolis business manager, followed his father, who had defected from the country’s Communist regime. The Vietnamese girl, today a student, came for medical treatment.

Coyne chose photos for their impact more than their traditional aesthetic value. The stark headshot of a frowning Belorussian woman, taken for a passport, speaks to the weighty necessity of that shot to flee anti-Semitism at home. Today, she is a retired hairdresser in Minneapolis. (“I have adopted Minnesota and it’s adopted me,” her panel reads.) One haphazard shot, featuring the back of someone’s head, nonetheless means a lot to the retired Cambodian farmer who now lives in St. Paul. It’s one of a few photos he salvaged from his time in a Thai refugee camp.

A St. Paul skyway with portraits of Minnesota immigrants on the panels.

photo Courtesy of the artist

On the panels, each immigrant defines the project’s evocative, titular word. “Home is not necessarily related to a special place,” the now-grown Iraqi boy told Coyne. “Home is where you live around people you love.”

This is Coyne’s second take on Speaking of Home. In 2008, she executed the idea on a smaller scale in downtown Minneapolis. Impact surveys came back so favorably she brought it to the world’s largest publicly owned skyway system, in St. Paul. The city owns its skyways—unlike in Minneapolis, where she needed permission from, among the city groups that govern the skyways, the skyways’ private owners. In St. Paul, Coyne came up against legislation intended to keep ads out of their windows. A legal team helped her pass a new city ordinance last summer, clearing certain windows for public art. (The new policy, she notes, could open the door to the likes of mid-air dance parties and Frisbee tournaments.)

The new context of this year’s project altered more than its legality. The different place and time—St. Paul, 2017—transformed its tone, too. On the heels of negative media coverage of after-hours security and sanitation problems in the St. Paul skyways, Speaking of Home vouches for their cultural value. Videos downloadable to smartphones via chips in the panels let passersby see and hear the immigrants.

The biggest change, though, has come with the Trump administration’s anti-immigrant stance.

In 2008, Coyne fielded just one abrasive response from someone who had seen the Minneapolis installation: “Why don’t you have any Minnesotans as part of the project?” he demanded, not seeming to realize that Coyne’s subjects are just as Minnesotan as anyone.

The thought of more, harsher opposition in 2017 piques but doesn’t seem to perturb her. Installing the artwork one late-summer evening, Coyne chats with an African immigrant who works in the skyways as a security guard, breezily initiating conversation about the scrims. Although his photo is not included, he thanks her, offering to unlock the bathrooms after hours should the crew need it. Working as a photojournalist in the ’80s, Coyne approached Holocaust survivors in Austria and got many to open up. She says she doesn’t shy from interaction, and welcomes political interpretation (even if she devised the project before Trump took office).

To that end, the motive behind her 2008 version, celebrating the state’s diversity, still exists here in 2017. But this year’s feels more urgent.

“It’s about reinforcing the values of what this country should be,” Coyne says, describing it now as “design and photographic activism.” The St. Paul location reflects that sensibility. Between the soon-to-be-separated Iraqi boys—just as the evening’s loneliness thickens—a pale sliver of the State Capitol dome glows one mile north.