The mid-morning sun filters into mosaic artist Lori Greene’s colorful Snelling Avenue studio.
Lori gazes down at her latest work in progress on the table in front of her: a beautiful doe and her fawn created with hundreds of precisely placed ceramic tiles.
With the help of a generous donor, the City of Roseville has commissioned the acclaimed mosaic artist to create three 15-feet-tall mosaic cairns to be placed around Harriet Alexander Nature Center. Each cairn will feature animals that represent the three natural areas – marsh, prairie, and forest – that make up the 52 acres surrounding the nature center.
It's slow and painstaking work.
“This piece, what I have right here, has taken me five days,” Greene explained. “I always start with the hardest part, so the eyes are always the first thing I do. The doe’s eyes probably took me an hour. I was trying to figure out how they should look so they are looking at you and also communicate: get away from my baby.”
Greene’s work is displayed all over the country and across the Twin Cities. Two of her larger-than-life mosaics grace the Minneapolis-St. Paul Airport. She has public art displays in cities ranging from Baltimore to St. Louis Park. Green created the Survivors Memorial at Boom Island Park in Minneapolis, which is the nation’s first, permanent, public memorial to honor survivors of sexual violence.
“Boom Island is my most important work. I am a survivor and I was asked by a survivor to work on the project,” she said.
Greene said she agreed to take the Roseville commission because she was drawn to the natural family-friendly setting and the different surge of emotions this project will evoke. Greene said she explored HANC with her children when they were young.
“I wanted to do something that was beautiful and about nature. I tend to do a lot of things that are trauma focused. This is not trauma focused. It’s healing for me. I hope it will be for others. I hope it’s also fun for kids and adults too.”
Falcon Heights residents and nature center volunteers John and Kris Robertson-Smith donated the funds for the cairns, in coordination with the nonprofit Friends of Roseville Parks. They hope the art will draw more visitors to the nature center.
“In my opinion, the nature center is a hidden gem, well deserving of more attention,” writes John Robertson-Smith in a letter to the city. “The intention of this project would be to increase the awareness of HANC in a unique, artistic, and community-centered manner.”
Greene grew up in Minnesota with a plethora of cultural influences and values that still guide her work. Greene is multiracial including African American, Native American- Mississippi band of Choctaw, and Caucasian. Her father Dewey Greene was a founding member of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) in the 1960s, which fought for Civil Rights.
“His life was in danger. The Ku Klux Klan was after my father so he came to Minnesota and registered white college students to go down to Mississippi to help with voter registration,” Green said. ‘It was the Freedom Summer of 1964.”
While she was always into art, Lori originally dreamed of being a doctor. She was pre-med at the University of Minnesota.
“I took a year off, biked across the country and decided to go to art school,” she said.
She earned a bachelor’s degree with an emphasis on textile art from California College of Arts and Crafts in Oakland, Calif. She earned her master’s degree from the Maryland Institute of Art. There, she began creating beaded life-sized sculptures using tiny seed beads. She enjoyed the work but found her eyesight was faltering.
“I was starting to lose my eyesight from doing such intense focused work. I thought I need to do something the same, but different,” Lori said.
That’s when she pivoted to mosaic.
“I started dumpster-diving for tiles, plates, and old ceramics. They didn’t sell colored tile anywhere,” she said. “I got a commission right out of graduate school to do a mosaic sculpture for an art park in Baltimore.”
Lori said the time-consuming nature of her art actually drew her deeper into the work. She scores, nips, and arranges thousands of individual miniature tiles creating dramatic works of art portraying people, animals, plants, and landscapes.
“I really like this intense laborious process. I like to work hard,” she said.
She returned to Minnesota and eventually built up her business Mosaic on a Stick, located in St. Paul. She also continued to travel. She spent three months in Ghana and a year in Mexico. She said she is pleased that her work is being displayed and cherished in suburbs and well as city centers.
“I want public art to be available everywhere,” she said. “A lot of people feel intimidated by art, I want people to walk by a piece of art and think: ‘oh that’s cool!’ I want people to be interested and to be curious and ask, ‘What is that? How is that made? Could I do that?’”
Lori does offer classes, work space for other artists, and even small take-home kits for anyone interested in exploring mosaic artwork.
Lori said she is also thrilled that Roseville wants to display her mosaics and her distinct multicultural perspective.
“If you don’t see people who look like yourself, you don’t know that you can do that thing. I never had a teacher of color until I went to college,” she said.
Lori will be working on the murals at the Wild Rice Festival at HANC from 1:00 p.m. to 4:00 p.m. on Sept. 16.