When it comes to defining her work at Chicago Avenue Fire Arts Center (CAFAC), Victoria Lauing has heard it all: “We’re not IN Chicago, but ON Chicago,” she says. “And it’s not fire ANTS. Or FINE arts. It’s ‘Chicago Avenue FIRE. ARTS. Center.’”
Given the juxtaposition of FIRE to ART, the center’s title pricks the imagination of anyone who has ever created, or destroyed, something with heat, spark or open flame. “Our mission is not dainty,” Victoria demurs. Then, sitting tall, she declares, “But hard-core and dangerous!”
Petite and energetic, with steel blue eyes, Victoria (definitely not dainty) communicates the power of fire and art to build both creative capacity and community. At CAFAC, she says, “there are plenty of opportunities to grow as an artist, to be a maker, a creator.” In this space, she notes, the practical ignites the possible: “We offer industrial arts, technical skills, working studio space, and the ‘tricks of the trades.’ We reach high school kids, emerging artists, and life long learners.” CAFAC’s goal, she says, is aligning “education, public art, the neighborhood, and partner organizations to create a platform for artistic expression and new voices.”
In Greek mythic tradition, Promethus, the Titan and trickster, stole fire and gave it to humankind. In playwright Aeschylus’ telling, the arts, sciences and language, as well as fire, were Promethus’ complementary gifts to humanity. CAFAC combines all of them. The organization’s course catalog paints the physically active and chemically reactive (and perhaps dangerous) processes involved: here, a student of the “fire arts” can choose to forge, hammer, torch, pierce, melt, mold, bend, punch, fabricate, cast, drill, enamel, decamber, stamp, extrude, burnish, solder, rivet, or abrade.
The skills and methods taught and practiced at CAFAC include the ancient and the modern: blacksmithing, welding, glass blowing, jewelry making, and expressions in LED, neon, electronics and computing. CAFAC co-founder and Artistic Director, Heather Doyle, says, “The medium itself is very exciting. People tell me, ‘I’ve always wanted to try this. How do I get started?’ It inspires people when they first gain this knowledge. We start with the basics: ‘Here are the tools, here is the safety, here’s how you get started.’”
CAFAC co-founder and board member, Maren Christenson, talks about potential roadblocks to practicing fire arts: “The art form is expensive. The art form doesn’t lend itself to doing this in your garage or basement. The barriers to operating on your own are pretty high.”
To ease that, CAFAC provides space and expertise, and covers insurance and safety. Victoria assures, “We show you how to hook up the equipment without blowing up the space.” A small gallery space is located street-side to display finished pieces.
Welder Stephanie Weir explains the upside to the communal space at CAFAC: “We are here to support one another, teach one another, and really bring something to each other’s art.” Metal artist Jim Wadsworth describes the benefits he sees: “For me, the most important aspect is social. Great technical and practical solutions come from other artists, or would-be artists.”
Equipment and studio space is available for individual artists and classes, while programming promotes public benefits and public art. One of CAFAC’s program for youth, SPEAK, teaches high school students to design and make metal sculptures. Some early pieces are placed in public spaces and gardens in the neighborhood near CAFAC. A new sculpture installed at the historic Dakota site Heyata Otunwe (“Village to the side”), on the SE corner of Bde Maka Ska (formerly known as Lake Calhoun), was designed by artists Angela Two Stars, Mona Smith and Sandy Speiler and fabricated by metal workers at CAFAC. Soon, an enamel-panel mural will be installed in North Minneapolis honoring the muralist John Biggers, called the SEED Project, with panels designed by a multitude of African American artists, and fabricated at CAFAC.
CAFAC’s existence, and it’s home at the intersection of 38th Street and Chicago Avenue South, came out of community. “We are the confluence of Central, Bryant, Powderhorn, and Bancroft neighborhoods,” Victoria says. “We emerged out of a small area master plan, one that emphasized economic development and cultivating cultural amenities. The revitalization of this corner was, and is, neighbor- and neighborhood-centric.” For some, the neighborhood felt run-down and unsafe. “We didn’t just come out of nowhere,” Victoria describes, “we stood side by side” with neighbors as they re-imagined what this intersection could be.
CAFAC’s building itself is an iteration of both the artistic and the commercial. Originally designed as the Nokomis Theater in 1915 (showing first silent films then “talkies”), the building served a variety of retail uses from the 1950’s on. Then, after the dismantling of Minneapolis’ streetcar network, the space housed Wreck Brothers Auto Body Shop until CAFAC bought and started renovating the building in 2009. Neighbor Emmet Bryant says this about Chicago Avenue and CAFAC’s re-birth: “The building establishes roots. The community can come here, not just for youth, but with the idea of making things more beautiful.”
As Managing Director, Victoria, and CAFAC partner, Heather Doyle, strive to inspire and catalyze something beyond “the expected, toward,” they say, “the unexpected.” “We are building a platform for social impact,” Victoria declares. “We are reaching kids who respond well to project-based learning. We are big fans of STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math education and careers), and what we offer here is almost accidental learning. Kids get going on a project and math, chemistry, creativity – it’s all part of it.”
New students sometimes come to CAFAC and the fire arts terrified of what might happen. “They might ask, ‘Will this be OK?’ ‘Will I be safe?’ But it’s empowering!” Victoria says. She offers one notable example: “We worked with victims of human trafficking and prostitution [in one workshop], and the women found it empowering to handle a torch, work with molten metal, manipulate materials with a hammer and heat. It was accessible for them. It was Capital A ART,” she says, “gorgeous, elegant, and yet messy, freeing, not pretentious.”
CAFAC has become an anchor institution at 38th and Chicago, in a historic building, at a corner that is undergoing a Renaissance of small shops and artist-led storefronts. It has always been an important transportation hub for south Minneapolis (first with streetcars and now with bus lines and bike lanes) and CAFAC is a crossroads for emerging and established artists.
“For me,” Victoria says proudly, “this enterprise is an alignment of professional and personal. This is my neighborhood,” the former community-college educator says. “This space is an outreach of my fellow CAFAC founders and our desire to improve the neighborhood. [Our teaching presence] asks the community questions, and we let them speak their truth through metal. We ask: ‘What happens if we do this together?’ ‘What happens if we give it a try?’”
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Photo Credits: Tracy Nordstrom, CAFAC