As late as midnight, people strolling down Lyndale Avenue in Minneapolis, MN might notice an unlikely storefront. No mannequins or quirky merchandise: a window full of yellow light illuminating a vast canvas, the glimmering eyes of a woman and a painter at work rendering her. Initially, this might have been a surprise to community members. They stopped to watch, curious. The more outgoing ones knocked on the window pane to see what this was all about. Fellow painters revealed themselves, inquiring about technique, materials, concept. Nearly everyone paused, if just for a moment, to watch Dora Mina come to life.
Months later, the painter still works late into the night, and whether he is painting or not neighbors greet him with recognition. “Dora Mina!” They call as he waits in line for a cup of coffee before work. “How is the painting going?” They ask as he crosses the street.
Dora Mina is his subject; the painter, Andrew Sandberg, works at Art Materials in Minneapolis, MN. Over the past six months his large scale oil painting, Dora Mina and the Man Entering the Room, has captured the attention of the community. Our team reached out to Andrew and Eric Brown, the store manager to learn more about how this long-form live painting exhibition came to life, how it is impacting business and what they have learned from the process so far.
Dora Mina & The Man Entering The Room
Andrew’s painting features a young woman turning her gaze towards a man, with a stained glass window in the background. “The basic concept of the painting is the spiritual nature of romantic love,” Andrew says. “This is a subject that I’ve wanted to do for a long time. I’ve had trouble putting it in visual terms. You can make a painting of lovers, but that’s sort of one dimensional. But to project the meaning of an exchange of glances between two people…how do you express that visually?” Andrew found inspiration when he moved back to Minneapolis after some time in New York City. “In Minnesota, everyone has leaded windows; almost all of the art when you are walking down the street has been inspired by stained glass or mosaics. Stained glass works with the subject: it speaks to the sacredness of the piece. So the painting is inspired by public art in our city, and it really fits into our neighborhood.”
Andrew has spent a lot of time studying his subject and reworking his initial designs; the labor of love began in October of 2017. He spent over a year on drawings and color studies, visiting churches, mausoleums and civic-centers looking for architectural and stained glass motifs to study the effects of light through stained glass. Another focus was the scale of the piece. “I need to maintain the entire painting in my mind as an integrated unity,” Andrew explains. “I have never made such a large painting or such a complex composition and it was difficult to tie everything together into an organic structure.”
In January of 2019 Andrew had been with Art Materials for a year, and he had an idea. When he met with the Browns for his yearly review, rather than ask for a promotion, Andrew hatched a proposal instead. “I said, I don’t need a raise, I want to make this painting. How can we make this happen?”
Owners JoAnn and Larry Brown were intrigued; Andrew wrote up a detailed project proposal to create a 6” x 10.5” oil painting of Dora Mina and the Man Entering the Room, a painting he would create outside of work in a space the shop owns next door. The proposal included a description of the subject matter, inspiration, composition. Additional sections included expectations for the project (how it will benefit the artist’s technique, motivation and career), ways the project benefits the store (social media, word-of-mouth buzz, legitimacy) and a clear outline of what exactly he would need to complete the project (canvas, paint, space, time).
A big part of the project is the documentation of it: Andrew posts to Instagram and films himself painting, posting the videos to YouTube. “He is giving the internet good, genuine content that drives interest in other artists to visit our store and buy supplies,” Eric points out. “It’s all about getting the eyes on the project, posting updates, tutorials. He did a video on how to stretch an oversized canvas.”
While the project had strong support from the Browns, the empty storefront that Art Materials has been trying to rent out made it all possible. “We had this space where he could paint, a space that has retail architecture, facing Lyndale Avenue,” Eric explains. “We had never considered that before, over the years we were just looking for a tenant, a good neighbor, a good partner.”
Lyndale Avenue is a busy, popular evening and entertainment night hub. “It’s dark outside, it’s light in the space where Andrew is painting. It feels like you are in a fishbowl, there are people watching you doing your thing,” Eric laughs. “He seems to like it, I wouldn’t like that!”
One caveat to the project: it can’t interfere with Andrew’s work schedule at Art Materials. “I do it after hours; I work 9 to 5, so I’ll usually start painting from 5:30 to 10 or 11 at night.” Andrew has been able to balance working and painting, and his position as a staff member is particularly important to the success of the project: “We couldn’t just invite someone we don’t know,” Eric points out. “They would have full access to the space. He is a trusted employee with a key.”
With the room illuminated every night, creating buzz via word of mouth was no challenge. The community has been following the evolution of Dora Mina closely. “It’s giving the painting a lot of exposure; we have long winters up here, where it’s dark for many hours of the day,” Eric says. A sign in the window informs onlookers about the work. “There are a lot of people who will stop and watch him paint, knock on the window give him a thumbs up, or even ask him to come outside and chat.”
Andrew agrees: “I’ve spent hours outside with people talking about their interpretation of it. That is important for me, having the work constantly exposed to people. I can see if what I am doing is intelligible to people. Often times I’d spend hours on a painting, with no feedback. I didn’t actually go to art school, I studied philosophy and art history. This has been a 24-hour critique. I’m constantly painting in front of customers, staff, fellow artists.”
Driving In-Store Engagement
The Live Painting Exhibition—Andrew painting in the atrium night after night—has made an important connection between art, artists and art supplies. “We sell art supplies: here’s a guy painting a giant canvas,” Eric says. “It brings people into the store, whether it is on weekdays or weekends. The curiosity is there, because people are seeing the painting. It’s large enough where it takes up the wall with two spotlights on it that we leave on at night when we are gone, and that has driven a lot of inquiries.”
The success of this project hinges on Larry, JoAnn and Eric Brown supporting the arts and valuing artists, especially the artists on staff. “Most of our staff are artists in some terms,” Eric notes. “Whether they have a graphic design background, or traditional painting, sculpting. A lot of them have art school under their belt or are currently in art school. Historically that has been a group of individuals that we have attracted and hired.” Andrew has been a working artist since he was 15. “I’ve always worked at art stores,” he says. “Prior to Art Materials I was with Michael’s for ten years, I moved back here from New York City and started applying to jobs. This job was a great fit. It has been the best working relationship I’ve ever had, I love the Browns, I love working here.”
The Perfect Fit: Not a Gallery
When Eric and Andrew first described the extra space they had on hand, my mind went straight to the Art Dog virtual gallery walk we’ve been on for months now. Why not hang artwork on the walls? Set up a gallery? I caught myself; I’ve learned from my interviews with small business owners and staff members that putting together and sustaining a gallery takes plenty of additional work. But I wanted to know specifically what deterred them from creating a gallery in this additional space.
“It’s an enormous amount of work running a gallery,” Andrew answered. “I have no extra time. I was trying to organize something like that with some other artists; it was becoming overwhelming. I thought, Do I do this during my working hours? My painting hours? Or the 15 minutes before going to bed?”
A long form, live painting exhibition led by a trusted staff member provides the same amount of visibility in terms of an active, intriguing use of the space—without the additional labor of organizing a gallery. Eric clarified exactly why Andrew’s project is the perfect fit for the store: “The painting project is self-managing. I’m already at my desk until midnight; taking on something else without additional staff would be impossible.”
Romantic Love, Realized
So, once the painting is finished, where will Dora Mina go? “The plan is to hang it from the rafters inside the store, it’s kind of perfect because the space has a barn roof, it has a feeling of a temple.” Eventually Andrew hopes to find a buyer; but until then, she will watch over the shop and greet every customer with her powerful gaze.