When Cornelia Elementary art teacher Shannon Steven was in the process of developing an app for finding public art, she got to thinking about her own students and how she could bring real-world art experiences to her classroom.
“I decided to write a grant to the [Edina Education Fund] and see about getting some money to write a curriculum and to run a contest,” Steven says.
“A grant from the Edina Education Fund gave money for this and other projects. Then the Edina Arts & Culture Commission was brought in after that to be a partner in the process,” says Susan Tarnowski, general manager of the Edina Arts Center and staff liaison for the commission. Some funds allowed Steven to prepare a lesson on public art that was taught district-wide in Edina elementary schools.
Steven also got students making art of their own. She says, “We talked about how you can symbolize your ideas in a three-dimensional form and what the impacts of public art are on our communities.”
The 2019 contest theme was Edina’s “Better Together” platform, and students across the school district were invited to share maquettes—miniature models of what this theme meant to them. From a diverse pool of 80 entries, eight finalists were selected, and Steven put out a call for local artists to draft proposals for creating a full-size version. “I wanted to make sure that whoever chose to do it picked something that resonated with them, that they felt they could really create,” says Steven.
Alan and Nicole Mary of the Milligan Studio were the sculptors ultimately chosen to create the work of Alex Wyatt, the student whose concept was selected. His piece is called School of Fish. According to Tarnowski, Alex said, “fish who school together are better together. They’re better at protection, they’re better at looking for food.’”
Interestingly enough, the Milligan artists had already been working on a project about shoaling fish—diverse fish from different species who school together for similar purposes—and this synergy of ideas struck everyone as serendipitous.
“This is a really important project,” says Nicole Milligan about the first time she and husband Alan visited the site where the sculpture would be installed. “That child goes there skating, he goes there fishing, that’s his milieu, that’s his home, that’s his backyard.”
The Milligans contemplated how to adapt Alex’s mobile structure to an outdoor site. “We went through the bridges, because it was four sets of bridges, with all these beautiful arches and it was light, and then dark, light and dark, it looked like the depth,” says Alan. “Nicole asked, ‘Well what if we did it looking down on a school of fish?’”
“So, when we told that to Alex, ‘we want to turn your vision sideways,’ you know it was really interesting because he was like, ‘okay, as long as the fish move a little bit, I’m in.’” Nicole says. Over the summer, Alex even manned the blowtorch to help the Milligans anneal the patinated blue bronze of the sculpture.
Nicole says, “The whole community, in a sense—because there were so many partners who made such a difference—empowered this one grade school student to say, ‘Hey, you know, we’re better when we’re together, when diverse people all work together.’ And that’s a testimony to Edina, and to the people in Edina who make these decisions and who work in these schools and fund these projects."