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OSAGE, Minn. — This house, surrounded by space and trees, felt like home from the start. Artist Jovan C. Speller could picture her two boys growing up here, being safe here.

So they moved from Minneapolis to a rural road near Park Rapids in northern Minnesota.

"Here's where I'd like to plant apple and pear trees," Speller said, walking the property in early May, when her compost was still thawing and her tomato seeds were still sprouting inside, under lamps.

The color of the house, a deep forest green, matches the gallery walls of her exhibition at the Minneapolis Institute of Art, titled "Nurturing, and Other Rituals of Protection." When she picked it, she didn't realize she'd be summoning her own home. But doing so made perfect sense.

The show — her first solo museum exhibition — explores comfort and care in Black culture.

"This color feels like home to me," Speller said, walking through the gallery before the show opened to the public. "Green in general feels like life in abundance. And that's one of the things that I wanted to amplify in this space."

Hanging against that green are large photographs of protective gestures, cut and layered. A boy wrapping himself around a parent's leg. A child peeking out from a pleated skirt. Speller's husband, artist Yunior Rebollar, holding their son, who's on the verge of tears, as his brother plays in the snow.

Hands — so many hands — touching, holding, placing a crown upon a head.

Speller welcomes you into the show via a living room, inspired by the living rooms of her grandmothers, with a fireplace and a record player and a couch covered in clear vinyl. Playing are sounds Speller captured and layered. As her mother's voice sings "Brown Baby," Speller and Rebollar discuss talking to their sons about race.

"How do you prepare a person to be Black?"

How, they're now asking, do you prepare a person to be Black in rural Minnesota?

Speller's family lives 8 miles and three roadside Trump signs from Park Rapids, with its small-but-mighty artists community, bolstered by the Nemeth Art Center. Artist Aaron Spangler, a Nemeth board member, encouraged Speller to consider the area in their search, which spanned Grand Rapids to Byron. The Nemeth opened its season with an exhibition of Rebollar's works, including a portrait of Speller in bright reds and blues, appearing both ancient and futuristic.

Despite that welcome from artists, the makeup of the broader community, "is something you worry about when you go to a place that's predominantly white and predominantly conservative," Speller said. "You never quite know."

But she believes the land is on their side.

The artist's eye

As a 12-year-old kid at art camp, Speller fell in love with the mystery of the darkroom.

Now, at 38, she's best known as a photographer. But in recent years, she's been exploring soundscapes and installations, forming whole worlds.

When artist Andy DuCett asked Speller to collaborate on a project for this year's Great Northern festival, the topic was light: winter culture. Then George Floyd was murdered, the city was burning and the National Guard was rolling down her block, she wrote last year. "All I could do was hold my newborn and 2-year-old and watch from the window."

The pair began brainstorming ways to center and protect Black life.

In a St. Paul alleyway, they built a glowing greenhouse encased in ice, titled "Conservatory," a highlight of the fest. Inside, deeply hued plants — black cone flowers, velvet petunias — grew in humid air.

But the ice's amplified creaks constantly reminded you of the cold outside, the federal courthouse across the street, the world beyond.

Even her photos aren't photos, alone. Speller often hand-cuts and layers images, toying with scale and orientation.

"The photograph isn't sacred to her," said Nicole Soukup, Mia's assistant curator of contemporary art. "The concepts are, for sure. But she's not afraid to cut a print or to have the nitrate process just a little off."

Speller's experience as a curator informs even the early stages of her practice, Soukup said. "She is really grappling with the audience, with interpretation. How will this be seen?"

Hung in predominantly white spaces, her portraits reveal care and nurturing not always reflected in the media. But they're scenes familiar to Black people.

"Her installations transport you to home places and memory-scapes Black folks know intimately," said Nicole Nfonoyim-Hara, who met Speller while they worked together at the Rochester Art Center.

Nfonoyim-Hara credits Speller with showing her that she could "cultivate my own radical freedom" without needing permission from a job or institution. "When I started to engage with her work as an artist later on," she said, "I saw the search for and claim to that same freedom and liberation there, too."

On the exhibition's far wall is a photograph of Speller's assistant in two layers. In one quiet, out-of-focus image, they are turned away from the camera. But then they emerge, clear, from a thin white space Speller has created for them.

This version of them stares right back at you.

'A chance at freedom'

A video Speller made last fall begins by looking upward — at the sky, the trees, the individual leaves.

"This past summer, I moved my family to this remote and private place ... " Speller says, "for myself, my husband, my boys to have a chance. A chance to live. Maybe even a chance at freedom."

In the video, meant to record her studio practice for the Brooklyn Rail arts journal, the camera witnesses Speller raking and planting before collaging or painting. Her sons are there, too, their small fingers touching lichen on a log and drawing loops on a wall.

"People ask me all the time, 'How are you treated there? What's it like being Black there?' " she says. "That question always makes me laugh, like, what's it like being Black anywhere?

"At least here, there are consequences for trespassing and I can enclose my kids within the acreage and protection and distance."

Before moving here, Speller might have pretended that more of her practice happens in the studio, focusing her footage there. Or that she has a proper studio, which she doesn't, exactly.

But instead she was honest. Right now, being an artist means composting, caretaking, sawing branches. It means making art in the garage or the small office she uses for her full-time job with the Metropolitan Regional Arts Council. It means waiting for her boys to fall asleep before moving aside the living room furniture to finish up a large-scale collage.

It means using her husband as her next photo subject, partly because there are few other Black people living nearby.

"Part of the move was to be able to live authentically and not have to fake it anymore and be comfortable to be myself," Speller said, emotion flooding her voice. "You know, I'm not gonna cry." She paused, then explained:

"A side effect of me moving is becoming more vulnerable," she said. "Living in the city ... in highly dense spaces that have a very active police presence ... I've always had my guard up. I did not let things in to a certain degree.

"And now that I'm away, I'm just like, a mess. I feel everything now."