On September 27, 2017, international public artist, designer and social innovator Nancy Ann Coyne debuted "Speaking of Home," a photographic public artwork transforming four of St. Paul’s famous skyways into an episodic narrative of immigrant experiences––questioning assumptions about what comprises “home.” The project marks the first time that the St. Paul skyway system will be sanctioned for a public artwork and was made possible by the close collaboration between the artist and fabricator, Archetype.
Speaking of Home explores the meaning of home for Twin Cities immigrants and refugees through their own family photographs brought from their native country, with accompanying stories. Each larger-than-life photograph is printed on a translucent scrim and installed in the windows of four connecting 77-foot skyway bridges––a network of over five miles of second-story glass and steel pedestrian walkways over the city’s downtown commercial zone.
Employing 58 semi-transparent, black-and-white photographs, the installation’s design enables 30,000 skyway pedestrians to view the city through new Americans’ eyes as thousands of street-level commuters and motorists engage with 58 faces that gaze directly onto the city. Throughout the day and night, the elevated bridges appear as stunning architectural lightboxes.
The emotionally moving public installation is accompanied by text panels with individuals’ biographies, interview excerpts describing what they gave up or fled from, and the lives they have created in Minnesota––all accompanied by overhead panels with the word “home” in their native languages. To create the project, Coyne pioneered the establishment of a new city ordinance permitting artwork in the 50-year-old St. Paul skyway system. According to the native New Yorker, “Speaking of Home is designed to invert the divide between the native-born and newcomers, situating immigrants as stationary onlookers as the locals pass by and move through the city. Conceived for St. Paul, a sanctuary city, it’s an homage to the Twin Cities’ rich immigrant community––several blocks from the Minnesota State Capital, where legislation concerning immigrant rights is enacted. Nationally, Minnesota Senators Al Franken and Amy Klobuchar have been outspoken immigration advocates.”
Starting with northern Europeans some 150 years ago, a vibrant immigrant population is a core part of the personality of the Twin Cities, which are now home to the largest Somali and Hmong populations, and the second largest Tibetan population in the United States. What is more, students enrolled in Minneapolis and St. Paul public schools speak over 120 languages.
The family photographs shared by the Twin Cities’ immigrants are among the few physical reminders they’ve retained from their lives before coming to America. Coyne researched the lives of hundreds of individuals of all major religions, sexual orientations, and backgrounds from six different continents for the project. Coyne believes that the installation’s message will be clear: to empower immigrants and draw attention to their lives, struggles, and contributions through the power of design and the arts. At a time when the country is more divided than ever––with looming travel bans, the potential disintegration of the Dream Act, and a steep rise in white nationalism––the project will serve to open the public’s eyes to contrasting stories that embrace the human experience.
Related: 2007 SEGD Global Design Awards Merit Award-winning project, "Archiving Memory"