Midway Murals Project: Beautifying walls, building community strength

Lori Greene (Courtesy Photo)

Freweini Sium has left a permanent mark on Snelling Avenue in the Midway neighborhood of St. Paul. Emigrating from Ethiopia in 1984, Sium raised three children while owning and operating retail and real estate businesses. “Women don’t get the support they need to work when they have kids,” Sium says. “My aunt did not have kids, so she helped me.” 

Despite the extra hands, Sium remembers years of leaving work to pick up her kids from school and run them to basketball practice and other activities. Then she’d work late into the night after the kids went to bed.

This universal women’s story became the inspiration behind Greta McLain’s public mural entitled “Braided.” In the mural, Sium’s face smiles as her hair is braided into a colorful, geometric weave of African, Norwegian, Mexican, Hmong and Native American patterns. The mural tells a story of maintaining one’s individuality while interweaving into a community to make it stronger and united. 

“It is Weini’s face on the building she owns, but it is a community story that people can relate to,” McLain says. 

The mosaic of Midway

Greta McLain (Courtesy Photo)

“Braided” is one of four murals commissioned by the 2015 Midway Murals Project, a public art project that designed, created and installed murals on exterior walls of immigrant-owned buildings along Snelling Avenue. In this diverse, working class neighborhood, dubbed “Little Africa,” the project aimed to shape a conversation around what community success looks like and to bridge residents to the local businesses. 

Midway is home to several immigrant and women-owned businesses that have survived years of light rail and road construction. During the design phase of the project, several site-specific community meetings were held to explore how a community can bring up everyone who lives there without displacing them. The Knight Arts Foundation seeded the Midway Murals Project, and the Midway community hosted multiple fundraisers and community meetings to inform and hand-build the public image of their streetscape. 

Lori Greene, owner of Mosaic On A Stick, located off of Snelling Avenue, is a Midway Mural artist. She understands the need to pull people out of their cars and onto the streets. Snelling Avenue is often looked at as a route to get to the Minnesota State Fair rather than a destination to explore and patronize businesses. “Our small businesses need everyone to survive,” Greene says. 

Greene’s mural entitled “Berbere” is overwhelming, both in size and detail. At 60 x 12 feet, it is made entirely of hand-cut, hand-placed mosaic tiles. Named for the distinct Ethiopian spice mixture, the mural tells multiple Oromo-inspired, female stories of marriage, farming and dancing. 

“Berbere is not one spice, but a many,” Greene explains. “Like Ethiopia. Like America. Like mosaics.”

Pride through creation

McLain and Greene have their similarities. Both hold Masters of Fine Arts and are recognized internationally for their cross-cultural work that engages communities in both the inspiration and making of art. Their work colors many churches, theaters, schools, grocery stores and community spaces. 

Both women have received many accolades. McLain was a featured artist on the Minnesota Original Series, and her mural, “Central Identity Project,” was named Minneapolis Best Mural by City Pages 2014. Greene has received two Bush Artist Fellowships, a Minnesota State Arts Board Cultural Community Partnership Award and a COMPAS Community Art Program Grant, among others. 

The women’s close friendship is also a story of celebrated diversity. Based in Minneapolis, McLain is a hand-talking extrovert who speaks fluent Argentinian Spanish. Greene, based in St. Paul and a melding of African and Native American descent, is an understated introvert with a watchful eye. 

“When neighborhoods form the story that they want people to see and feel, they become proud of where they live,” McLain states. Greene adds, “Art always make a difference in that way. When people of color see themselves reflected in art they own it.” To Greene, bridging people into businesses is important; bridging youth into the community is vital. “Most of the kids in Hamline Park will never go into an art museum. They would never think about art. Now it is all around them, and they do think about it.”