Joan the connector: Muse makes storefronts bloom
- Article by: KRISTIN TILLOTSON , Star Tribune - July 8, 2014
Cognitive scientists should study Joan Vorderbruggen’s mind when she’s going full-bore, which is pretty much always.
Vorderbruggen, who is coordinating Hennepin Theatre Trust’s new art-in-storefronts project launching Friday, is a kaleidoscopic blur of bright color, from the red bandanna twisted “We Can Do It” style in her hair to her turquoise cowboy boots. As she multitasks from one Hennepin Avenue location to the next, spouting scattershot commentary, you can’t help but get pulled into the slipstream of her enthusiasm.
“OK, we’ve done 36 installations with no injuries,” she said, stepping over Venus DeMars’ work-in-progress, consisting of large jagged pieces of broken glass strewn on the floor between ancient TV monitors, in the old National Camera Exchange building. “Ha! My nursing training is paying off!”
Vorderbruggen’s job title is cultural district artist coordinator, but she really is Joan the connector, Joan the problem-solver, Joan the nurturer, Joan the perfect balance of right-brain nonlinear creativity and left-brain organizational prowess.
Most people with her nonstop manic energy would get annoying in a hurry, but her authenticity charms, whether she’s trying to pitch corporate sponsors, recruit artists or help immigrants with limited English skills get the supplies they need for a new Somali museum in the Warehouse District.
“I wasn’t understanding what they were saying, so we just hopped in my car, went to Home Depot and I said, ‘Show me.’ ”
It’s that kind of get-’er-done spirit that has made Vorderbruggen a go-to girl among local artists and also led Hennepin Trust CEO Tom Hoch to upgrade her status from freelance consultant to employee with a job shaped to her talents.
“No mountain is too high for Joan,” said Hoch. “She finds a way to go over it, around it, through it. Or she just moves it. It’s great to watch her work with people, because she’s both direct and kind.”
Sidewalk gallery, pop-up park
Vorderbruggen got the art-in-storefronts idea after walking past depressingly dark and empty windows in her residential neighborhood, Whittier. She flashed on articles she’d read about such projects in other cities and approached the Whittier Alliance. Since January 2012, five projects have gone up there.
“She has very good relationships with a wide network of people,” said Marian Biehn, executive director of the alliance. “She knows how to ask for things, but gives back, as well.”
While it’s impossible to quantify the effect on neighborhood businesses, Biehn said, many of those once-empty properties have been purchased or leased.
Hennepin Theatre Trust is touting “Made Here,” which will kick off at 7 p.m. Friday with a flurry of street performances and tours, as an “urban walking gallery.”
It features more than 40 formerly vacant windows, spanning 15 city blocks, filled with temporary installations created by local artists, each paid $300 for their work. Also debuting that night is the Parklot, a pop-up hang-out space in the parking lot next to the Orpheum, temporarily painted lemon-yellow with a stage for music and performances, and a giant chalkboard for passersby to scribble their pithy musings.
Everybody attached to the local arts scene seems to know Vorderbruggen. A friend of hers, woodworker George Wurtzel, likes to say, “If the pope and Joan were waving at a crowd from a balcony somewhere, everyone would ask, ‘Who’s that with Joan?’ ”
Photographer Steven Lang, whose “Made Here” contributions will be displayed from the second-story windows of the National Camera building, has worked with Vorderbruggen since her first Whittier project.
“Her secret is kind of hard to explain,” Lang said. “But she’s artist-centered rather than institution-centered. She’s able to make what the property developers or landlords want mesh with what the artists want.”
Vorderbruggen says that her experience in both waitressing and nursing help her do the arts job, which she is now doing full time, well.
“With waitressing you learn to multitask and instantly read people to provide the service that will get you the biggest tip. Do they want you to be formal, or jokey? With nursing you learn to anticipate people’s needs when they’re uncomfortable. Do they want me to talk them down, or leave them alone? It’s about figuring out the most efficient route to get done what you need to.”
Truant to nurse
Vorderbruggen, 39, grew up in St. Paul, where by age 11 she was waiting tables at a Bridgeman’s in the Sun Ray Shopping Center.
She boomeranged from serving as student council president throughout middle school to getting expelled from Tartan High School for truancy in 10th grade, then got her GED the next year. After growing weary of waitressing, she earned an LPN certification at St. Paul Technical College in 1997.
She moved out West for a couple of years, spending time in Arizona and Oregon, then came back and fell in love with Minneapolis musician and artist Tom Siler (whom she affectionately refers to as “Soupcan” for reasons too convoluted to detail) in 2001.
The two spent several years in Brooklyn’s hipster Bushwick and Greenpoint ’hoods. Vorderbruggen worked at an orphanage, a homeless shelter on the Bowery and a baby clinic that catered to the children of celebrities — “a lot of the ‘Saturday Night Live’ cast brought their kids there” — but the couple decided to return to Minnesota in 2008.
Vorderbruggen worked for a hospital in New Prague, then HealthPartners back in Minneapolis while cooking up artsy projects on the side, like making dresses out of vintage slips. It wasn’t until her 2010 “carnival cabaret wedding” to Siler at Minnehaha Falls that she realized how much she enjoyed planning large-scale events that connected artists.
“We had stiltwalkers, clowns and a huge narwhal puppet on a bicycle towing a coffin that released 100 red balloons.” she said. “There was an illuminated underwater sculpture, a giant painting of me as a peacock by Gretchen Seichrist that the bridesmaids walked with, and almost 50 artists and musicians including a brass band.
“Everything was upcycled, including my wedding dress, which was featured in ‘Offbeat Bride,’ and the Mexican salon next door did my hair up in this crazy elaborate ’do. It all cost about $4,000, including paying the bands. It all planted the seed, like: How can I do this kind of thing more often?”
Forget the curriculum vitae. A story like that is all Vorderbruggen needs to nail her next gig.