Renaissance Man: St. Paul’s Seitu Jones
Anyone who has set foot in Minneapolis/St. Paul has, in some way, come to know Seitu Jones. From sculptural drinking fountains to public murals to “earth dumplings” planted outside Walker Art Center, the 66-year-old polymath’s artistic presence is its own elaborate ecosystem, garnering a national and international reputation on the rise. In 2017, Jones was named winner of the McKnight Distinguished Artist Award, a distinction given—with a handsome cash prize—to a Minnesotan whose work has meaningfully enriched the quality of the state’s culture as a whole.
A fourth-generation resident, Jones’ roots in St. Paul’s historic Frogtown neighborhood inform practically everything he does, and condensing his life’s work into a few pat paragraphs proves well-nigh impossible. Be it landscaping, painting, botanical interventions or relational aesthetics, Jones has perpetually redefined what it means to make art happen—both as an object and as lived experience. As a person, he’s that rare artist whose joy in making is matched by taking delight in human beings. He’s the kind of person whose smile you can hear over the phone.
“I’ve turned into my grandfather,” he says, chuckling—and it’s clear he’s proud of that. But perhaps as relevant as any award he’s netted is his enduring role as St. Paul sage, the bedrock of his identity.
We spoke with the artist just days before news of the McKnight award was announced.
With over 30 public artworks and a variety of museum installations, you’ve shown incredible versatility. Is there a difference between art made for the public versus a gallery or high-art setting? I’m thinking of the Harriet Tubman sculpture and the “Birds for Peace” mural in Minneapolis, compared to work shown in more traditional spaces.
As an interdisciplinary artist, I don’t have a degree in art—no BFA or MFA. I have a degree in landscape design and one in environmental history, and these are the tools I use to hone my practice. Part of the reason I don’t have a degree in art is because at the time I went into college—almost fifty years ago—those degrees meant you were siloed. You were not allowed to cross disciplines. People said, “Jones, what do you wanna do? You want to be a photographer? You want to be a potter? You can’t do it all.” When I was in college, they couldn’t even spell “interdisciplinary,” let alone begin to grasp the concept of it. Because of the mindset that governed that academic approach, I thought when I mixed mediums and crossed disciplines, I was taking off this hat and putting on another. But at some point, I realized that these hats are all on top of the same head. It’s all coming from me, in one way or another.
I have been able to cross all these disciplines only because I’m passionate about so many different things. I’ve gotten used to exploring one medium and getting bored with it, or getting excited about a new theme or idea. All of the work I’ve done for the public sphere is work that’s appropriate to a particular site, medium or theme. So many different spaces, methods and ideas resonate with me.
When was the first time you remember crossing those boundaries?
I hate to sound corny, but it goes back to my childhood. I had my core family—my mother, father and sister—but also this extended family of aunts, uncles and cousins. In my generation, we knew we had to be equipped with a set of tools to battle all the oppressive and racist forces that would be obstacles on our paths. One of the tricks that my aunts used to play is that they’d tell us all how smart we were. After a while, we’d start to believe it. I had an auntie who would call me “Little George Washington Carver” because I was so interested in nature—in my grandmother’s big garden, chasing after insects. I would bristle at that. Like, “I don’t want to be like that old bald-headed man.” And here I am, this old bald-headed man! What people don’t know about Carver is that before he was working with poor Black farmers and poor white farmers down South, he was a painter. So here is this person known for his contribution to agriculture, but not a lot of folks know about his history as an artist, mixing these different disciplines.
The first thing I did that combined art and nature was probably back in a landscape design program forty years ago, which was housed in the University of Minnesota’s School of Agriculture. We were designing these small projects for landscape architects at the university. I didn’t realize at the time that I was mixing art traditions and design while working with plants, too. I always had the best drawings in the class, and that was one foundation of my practice built there. The first project I did that combined the two was in the ‘80s—the Dupont relief mural in downtown St. Paul at Lambert’s Landing, on the riverfront. I had to think about the space in front of the mural, as well as the plants and design there.
But even before that, one of the things that really struck me was the Wall of Respect on 43rd and Langley in Chicago. As a child, I would get shipped off every summer to the South Side of Chicago to grandparents and great-grandparents. In 1968, my grandfather took me to see the Wall of Respect, created by all these African-American artists. It was sacred ground. Even my grandfather recognized the power in it and might have even known how much power it would have over me. It was a touchstone of the Black Arts Movement. In some parts, it was painted crudely, but it was so powerful for Black culture.
You’ve called your seed bomb installations “weapons of peace.” Do you see art as having a political function, if implicitly?
Yes. I do work in my studio that is unique and idiosyncratic. I do work that is collaborative, and I sometimes attempt to combine the visions of all the people I work with. But it all comes back to me—even work that is based in the community, that’s for and with the community. It’s still about me.
Whatever an artist puts on a canvas, screen, stage or on the street reflects his or her political worldview, even if that work is abstracted or if the artist says, “I’m rejecting politics.” There’s no way you can get around that, even with work that is emotional or based on a movement. Going back to Black Arts Movement, as a child of the ‘50s and ‘60s, I got hung up in all the music, politics and culture of the time. I was researching and close to joining the Nation of Islam. One of the tenets of many philosophies of the time was to “leave your community more beautiful than you found it.” That is the philosophic foundation of my work right now. For me, it’s all political. The work that I do is about trying to change the systems that we live in.
I grew up in this family that had a deep love for themselves, for the community, sometimes the Church and the larger world. I had my father and crazy uncle who took us fishing as often as they could. They all had this great appreciation for nature, and they passed that on to my generation. With that love comes passion—this passion that I have now for wanting to change some of the systems, and to do it with an artistic invention.
How has Minneapolis and the surrounding region informed your practice and approach to art?
I am a real-deal Minnesotan, a Midwesterner. It’s crazy—I work on stuff on both coasts, but I have done the bulk of my work here in the Midwest. Believe it or not, I’m working on projects here in Minneapolis-St. Paul, in Chicago and in Grand Rapids. I was just in Flint and Detroit a couple weeks ago. I’ve traveled all over the world and lived in other places, but this is my home.
I am so rooted here.
Frogtown has been my laboratory—it’s the grounds on which I’ve been able to share my ideas and vision. All of that is part of being rooted to this particular site. My studio space—where my wife and I have lived for 22 years—is my desk in a way, a place where I hash out ideas, invite people in and look out the window at my neighbors.
It’s like an accent—you don’t realize you have it until someone else points it out. I have a real love/hate relationship with the city—there are times that I am ready to leave Frogtown and move out to the country, but there are times that I ride down the street and wave to folks, thinking, “Hey, this ain’t so bad.”
But more than anything, it’s the kind of experience I had back in the South Side of Chicago. The project I’m working on there now is a meal project in the Chatham neighborhood, the same place where I used to get shipped as a child. When I was there a couple weeks ago, it was literally the first time in decades that I had walked the neighborhood, but it felt the same somehow. One woman passed by and said, “Hey, give me those shoes! Those are so nice.” People were out working on their lawns, engaged with folks. Chatham is 95 percent Black. At one time it had a really high home ownership percentage, and now that’s fallen. These days, there are absentee landlords, issues with the environment and issues with police violence—but there’s also a particular vibration there. As crazy as it sounds, as metaphorical as it sounds, it’s one of the things that ties me to African-American culture in particular, and American culture in general. And I feel the same way about Frogtown.
This story originally appeared in ALIVE Issue 5, 2017. Purchase Issue 5 and become an ALIVE subscriber.
Photography by Attilio D’Agostino.