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Angela Two Stars

While the pandemic shut down many creative people, Angela Two Stars may have been the busiest working artist in the Twin Cities this year. Whether she was holed up at the Chicago Avenue Fire Arts Center working on commissioned artworks or directing exhibitions at All My Relations gallery, the Dakota artist had her hands full.

Her sculpture "Okciyapi (Help Each Other)" was unveiled at the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden on Oct. 9. The Indigenous Public Art Commission had invited proposals for the garden following the dismantling of "Scaffold," an artwork that triggered intergenerational trauma for Dakota and Indigenous peoples of the region.

They selected Two Stars, whose work brought a healing effect to the garden, offering visitors a space to engage with the Dakota language and consider that the word "Minnesota" derives from the Dakota phrase "Mni Sota Makoce," or "the land where the water reflects the clouds." Known for her work around language revitalization, Two Stars was inspired by her grandfather, Orsen Bernard, who also was committed to this work.

Two Stars, who speaks some Dakota with her kids, already sees how bringing the language back might change the future. "My daughter is aware of the lack of Dakota language" in schools, she said. "They'll have Spanish and Chinese and all these other languages, and she will say, 'Where's the Dakota?'"


Louise Erdrich

In June, the Minneapolis writer won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction for "The Night Watchman," her novel based on the life of her grandfather. The novel, which explored how the government attempted to terminate the treaty rights of Native Americans, also won the Aspen Words Literary Prize and was a finalist for the 2021 Dayton Literary Peace Prize.

The Pulitzer committee called the novel "majestic … rendered with dexterity and imagination."

Erdrich responded in her typically modest fashion. "I didn't think I'd ever win this," she told the Star Tribune.

In November, she published her 18th novel, "The Sentence," which landed on bestseller lists and was lauded by critics across the country. Ron Charles of the Washington Post said it might be the best novel to come out of the pandemic, both timeless and yet so current "the ink feels wet."

Set in a Minneapolis bookstore nearly identical to Erdrich's Birchbark Books, the novel unfolds over the year of COVID-19, the murder of George Floyd and civic unrest. It is also a love story to the written word, dropping titles of beloved books throughout the text and ending with pages of wonderful recommendations, from Octavia Butler to Gail Caldwell to Kazuo Ishiguro.

Erdrich is also a passionate advocate of voting rights and has been deeply involved in the battle against the Line 3 pipeline and in the fight against climate change. In her view, those issues are inseparable.

"Everything we do to make voting more accessible to more people is a win for democracy and a win for the climate," she told the Star Tribune. "We can all bring something of our lives to bear on climate chaos."


JuCoby Johnson

In a year when much of the Twin Cities theater scene was shut down, Johnson did it all.

He dazzled as an actor, the facet of theater-making for which he's best known, in Jungle Theater's "Every Brilliant Thing," turning in a performance that was "charming" and "honest," wrote Star Tribune critic Rohan Preston. (Next, he'll be in the Guthrie Theater's "A Raisin in the Sun," opening in January.)

He impressed as a playwright, with Trademark Theater's virtual reading of his apocalyptic comedy/drama "5," and with one of the short plays in Wonderlust Productions' "Hopscotch." His "No More Statues" was a concise comedy/drama that finds two men contemplating the meaning of a statue of George Floyd.

Johnson also stepped up to the plate as an arts leader, becoming one of four members of the "artistic cohort" that helps call the shots at the Jungle, working to make it more welcoming and inclusive. "I'm used to standing up for myself, advocating for myself, but I'm not always used to having a say in day-to-day activities," Johnson said. "But [artistic director Christina Baldwin] from the beginning has said, 'I want you to say what you have to say.'"

It sounds like a lot of jobs but the Florida native, who's also a current McKnight Fellow in playwriting, makes it sound pretty simple: "I tell stories in the hope that they will remind someone that they're not alone."


Ryan Taylor

Best known for bigness, Minnesota Opera set aside its grand stagings when COVID came to town, and demonstrated that opera could be a small-screen success.

Under the guidance of president/general director Taylor, it came up with one imaginative idea after another for reshaping not only how opera can be presented amid a pandemic, but how it can address life experiences outside the purview of the dead European white men who dominate opera.

It acted as matchmaker for Twin Cities composers and librettists of color, teaming them up to create "MNiatures," two virtual festivals of mini-operas sharing tales from a diverse collection of cultures.

The company presented a wonderfully innovative and entertaining online version of Benjamin Britten's "Albert Herring." Filmed seemingly in one long take, it wandered the interior of Ordway Center, getting intimate with the performers but never betraying that they were safely socially distanced.

Its only in-person presentation of 2021 was novel in both setting and content: St. Paul's new soccer stadium, Allianz Field, hosted a celebration of Latin American opera spiced with mariachi and tango. Returning to cyberspace, Minnesota Opera delivered a gut punch in "Interstate," a powerful two-character opera about a serial killer and her childhood friend.

Rather than seek a return to the status quo, Taylor spearheaded an effort to expand the horizons of an overly conservative art form. Opera is richer for his efforts, and so are we.