St. Paul celebrates Minnesota immigrants with the city's first skyway art exhibit

The first public art exhibit in the skyway's 50 years is now open.

For five decades people have been looking through the glass of St. Paul's skyway system. But now, on some of those overpasses, there are faces looking back at you – from inside the glass.

The public art exhibit Speaking of Home was recently installed in four skyway bridges in the heart of downtown. Nancy Ann Coyne's installation features images of immigrants to Minnesota, who shared their stories and photos. 

The exhibit, on display through March 8, is a series of photos showing 58 people who immigrated to Minnesota, with written bios posted next to the pictures.

When Coyne met with each immigrant she had them look through old photo albums and pick one picture that had special meaning for them, she said. 

For Tamim Saidi, it was the photo taken before he started school at age 6 in Afghanistan, 10 years before he moved to Minnesota. 

For Bronya Mayzlin, it was the passport photo that helped her move from her old home in Belarus to her new one in the U.S. Everyone had their own special photo from their first home country. 

For Speaking of Home, a translucent version of each photo was installed in the skyway glass. From certain angles the photos look opaque and you can see them really well. 

But you can also see through them to the city outside. And the view changes along with the sunlight or streetlights depending on the time of day, Coyne said. 

The immigrants join the artist

On Monday, several of the people featured in the exhibit joined the artist to celebrate the opening. 

Immigrants from Japan, Poland, Afghanistan, Brazil and Trinidad were among them. 

Tamim Saidi, a pharmacist who lives in Maple Grove, posed with his wife and daughter in front of his first-grade school photo. 

Yoko Breckenridge, who will turn 84 next month, has lived in Minnesota for 65 years now – much longer than the 19 she spent in her native Japan. 

In her new country, she transitioned from cutting hair to selling real estate. Along the way she's pulled together one of the largest libraries of Japanese language books in North America.

Here she is posing with her portrait.

How it came about

The exhibit marks the first time the skyway has been used this way, but Coyne hopes it's not the last. 

She said people from other parts of the country and world marvel at the "second city" that hums above ground level in St. Paul and Minneapolis.

"Venice has its gondolas, New York City has its subways. And the Twin Cities has its skyways," she said. "They're not going to be taken down. They're here to stay and in this weather they're needed. So my position is, why can't there be museums in the skyways?"

It took a lot of work with the city's licensing people to get permission for this first art exhibit. But now that Coyne has paved the way by helping the city come up with a new ordinance allowing them, some city officials expect there will be more exhibits in the future.

St. Paul city council member Rebecca Noecker, who represents downtown, said at Monday's celebration it's nice to have something positive happening in the skyways. (She's recently been working on trying to settle complaints about unsavory behavior in the system.)

She noted that the work of immigrants – past and present – has made St. Paul what it is today, but said it's easy to take that history for granted. 

"And what I love so much about this installation," Noecker said, "is that it really takes that rich history and puts it at the forefront of everybody's daily life."

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