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Star-like twinkling lights turn from blue to purple to red to green. You don't have to look up at the sky to see them, though — just go to the elevator waiting area on the 10th floor of Minneapolis' new Public Service Building.

"The original inhabitants here come from the stars," said artist Rory Wakemup, who was born Anishnabee but adopted and raised Dakota. "Your Big Bang stories are different from our origin and creation stories."

It's one of 17 new artworks to be found in the city's new building at 505 4th Av. S., which consolidates all of the Minneapolis employees who were formerly scattered among seven buildings the city owned or rented.

"This is kind of a once-in-a-lifetime civic building," said Mary Altman, the city's supervisor of public art. "The last time the city built a major civic building was maybe City Hall," which opened in 1906. "So this is a building that will be around for a very long time."

The city will celebrate Friday with a public unveiling from 4 to 7 p.m. with performances by Mankwe Ndosi, Douglas Ewart and Tamiko French.

Wakemup embedded his "stars" in the creases of sliced up mirrors for "Anangokaa (There Are Many Stars)," a cross-cultural exploration inspired by geometry, water, the night sky and the number 10. He notes that people have 10 digits on their hands, and the number is a basis for counting systems; furthermore, 10 is the product of 2 and 5, which also factor into his work. Two is the yin-yang duality, while 5 represents the shape of water.

“Anangokaa (There Are Many Stars)” by Rory Wakemup.
“Anangokaa (There Are Many Stars)” by Rory Wakemup.

Alicia Eler, Star Tribune

Altman feels a building like this "needs to be aspirational in the way major civic buildings are — it represents democracy, good government and public participation."

So the city asked artists to make work that could last for the next 75 years.

Soothing experiences

Construction started around two years ago, shortly before the pandemic forced everyone out of the office.

The commissioned artworks — including seven elevator lobby ceilings and seven murals on glass — aim to give the building a familiar Minnesota feel, while reflecting the diversity and uniqueness of the state we call home.

Being a city employee is not always the easiest job, so the artists met with staff who would experience the art on a regular basis, and tried to figure out what they need to see.

On the fourth floor, Christopher Harrison's ceiling-level piece "Elements" includes a series of overlapping, variously colored, wavelike modular shapes with images of aerial street maps and actual recycled motherboards.

The work is located on the same floor as the city's 311 Call Center, so Harrison incorporated text from calls that employees received. "Sometimes people are calling to report a pothole, but during traumatic events in the city people are calling angry, stressed and scared," said Altman.

Harrison hopes that when "people encounter the piece, that will spark their curiosity, and [inspire them to] interact with people on those floors and really get to know what they do and how important it is to our community."

Not every artwork is on a ceiling. Artist and 3-D animator Kao Lee Thao's mural on the glass wall of a fifth-floor conference room is a modern-day interpretation of a paj ntaub story cloth (flower cloth) that depicts Hmong history, folk tales and daily life. Look closely to spot a tiger prowling forward, dragons and various flora and fauna. (The original versions of these were made in secret by Hmong women, and hand-sewn into costumes and traditional patterns.)

Thao worked with the Health Regulation Division. She was particularly curious about how its staffers work to build strong relationships with community.

"I wanted to make sure that when they look at the mural, it's something whimsical, but also reminds them to kind of forget those stressful days," she said. "I want to transport my viewers to kind of a fantasy world, I guess you could say — to escape."

In a third-floor conference room, a mural on glass by CRICE (aka Connor Rice) takes people through the state's history of immigration and displacement and the possibility of a more equitable future. Text from racial covenants reflects Minneapolis' dark history of redlining.

The building also features a restored carving of the city's seal, originally made from Indiana limestone in the 1960s and installed five stories high on the Minneapolis Auditorium. (The city tore that building down in 1988 to make way for a new convention center.)

Will all these artworks stand the test of time?

"That's the key — the yin/yang of that piece, that chaos crashing together, to come out as something," said Wakemup, "that I guess in 75 years the city is a nice symbiotic tessellation of platonic forms rather than a bunch of broken apocalyptic crashes."

Public unveiling

When: 4-7 p.m. Fri. with remarks at 4:30 p.m. plus performances by Mankwe Ndosi, Douglas Ewart and Tamiko French.

Where: Public Service Building conference center, 505 4th Av. S. The 10th floor will also be open to the public. Masks required.