Coffee Shop Curation: Community art at Gigi's Cafe

Coffee Shop Curation: Community art at Gigi's Cafe

Published March 18th, 2024 by Pauline Moll

The Uptown establishment is open everyday for breakfast, lunch, and lattes, served alongside a ton of local art curated by manager Laura Stigen


I like to stop into Gigi’s Cafe to pick up a coffee or a pastry on a walk through Uptown (I can’t eat wheat — it’s thrilling that they have multiple gluten-free options!), and while I wait, there is plenty to look at: nearly every square foot of wall space is covered in artwork, making Gigi’s a half-cafe, half-gallery community space. I reached out to Laura Stigen, the cafe's general manager and art curator, to talk about the story behind these rotating local art exhibitions.

Laura invited Frances Pickar, a 15-year-old South High School sophomore whose work is currently on display at Gigi’s, to join us during her lunch hour. I was delighted to speak with one of the artists, and I would learn in our conversation that this was an emblematic example of Laura doing her work anticipating needs and connecting people. I spoke with Frances about her artwork, her inspiration, and her relationship to Gigi’s. Then I heard from Laura about how and why she platforms artists like Frances.

Before we began, I had the pleasure of meeting Frances’s dad, who smiled with proud parental energy. As he left us to our interview, Frances told me that her dad and mom are both artists, as well.


Pauline Moll: A family full of artists! So I assume you’ve been doing art since you were very little?

Frances Pickar: Always. Ever since I was a kid, I loved to draw and spend time doing art to connect with others. 


PM: What kinds of things inspire you?

FP: Moments with my friends of times where I think, I want to capture this moment the way I see it. I’m inspired by the vastness of what you can do with one canvas. You can use different colors and styles of producing a picture that can convey emotion. Paintings are up for interpretation in a way I’m not sure a photo could be.


Frances Pickar in front of her artwork at Gigi's. Photo by Pauline Moll.


PM: How do you use your art to show people what a moment looks like through your eyes?

FP: In this piece, Through the Window, I really liked the colors that come from the night sky and the contrast of the organic yellows from the lights with the blue of the night sky. I wanted to recreate the comfort I feel when I look out the window and see this view. Or in this piece, I wanted to take the pure imagination that you have as a little kid, feeling like you’re on the moon, so I put myself on the moon.


PM: That’s so funny; I love how you use a literal interpretation of the baby actually on the moon to capture the abstract feeling of being “on the moon.”

Laura Stigen: Also, the way the stars are hanging remind me of a baby’s mobile. Amazing!


PM: I’m really into the collages. Tell me about those.

FP: I think collage is an underappreciated form of art. I don’t see people doing them as much as I think everyone should. I believe art can be done by anyone, and collaging is especially accessible because you can find a terrible magazine and make something beautiful out of it. 

[When I start a collage,] I usually find two or three pictures that I like and think about what connection that I see between them and what I want to build around that. For this red, white, and blue USA collage, I found the colors first and wanted to represent the chaos of America. For the pink one, first I found the quotes in an old women’s fashion and makeup magazine. I wanted to work with the quintessential pink color to create something very traditionally feminine.


PM: How did you two get connected?

LS: Go ahead!

FP: Well, I came to Gigi’s with my friends over the summer, and I was looking at all the art on the walls and thinking, I feel like I could do this! So I sent an email.

LS: Everyone on the wall have been guests of Gigi’s. I want the art to be an invitation, an “I could do this too.” That’s my goal for the project in general.


Frances Pickar, Through the Window. Photo by Pauline Moll.


PM: And Laura, what did you see in Frances’s work that made you want to put it up?

LS: Frances emailed me and sent me some portraits, and I said, “You are incredible! Can I meet you?” The feeling and emotion she puts into her work is so beautiful. I was inspired by her pieces and her being 15 and truly loving the arts. The arts weren’t a part of my education growing up — I took my first art class when I was 28 years old — so it’s so inspiring to see young people truly wanting to do this with their life. It’s been a true privilege to meet her and an honor to put her art on the wall. Frances is super special.

FP: I think it’s an honor to be in Gigi’s!


PM: I love that this process is creating these relationships.

LS: That’s what Gigi’s is, it’s building relationships. It’s meeting people where they’re at. You’re welcome here. If you’re having a bad day, you’re coming to Gigi’s; if you’re having a good day, you’re coming to Gigi’s to celebrate. The art kind of happened 3 years ago when folks were quarantined. A lot of folks were making art in their home. Some folks would come into here and show me the art they made at home or people would come in and create in this space. It started with me asking, “Can I hang your artwork up?” They were like, “This is my first time sharing my art,” and I was blown away by the talent and the stories. 

When folks ask about hanging artwork here, I don’t want it to be a competition. I want it to be about telling your story. I have one artist who is an ICU nurse who now has an online shop after hanging her art here. I have a retired art teacher, photographers who have hung photos they took 40 years ago. People want to share their struggles, things they've overcome in life. Some of them are professional artists, for others this is their outlet. So I rotate [the art on display] and we have a big art gala to celebrate. They can sell their artwork, but it’s not a Venmo, pick-up situation. The artist has to meet the community member and make that connection. I’m always trying to make those connections. Frances, tell her about the Walker!

FP: Oh, yeah, somebody reached out to me from Walker Art Center and they urged me to join the Teen Arts Council.

LS: And they saw your art where?

FP: Yeah, they saw my art here at Gigi’s!


PM: Frances, what is it like seeing your art on the wall next to all these other artists’ work?

FP: It’s different perspectives. You can look at my stuff and then look over and see what a contrast there is between these two worlds. You can see how diverse the art community is here, and you can get a grip on all the different styles of the Minneapolis art scene.

LS: It’s very neighborhood and community based. You never know how much talent is right around you. I try to put up different styles so there is variety.


Photo by Pauline Moll.


PM: What do you hope people take away from your art?

FP: When people look at my work, I hope they like it, but even if they don’t like it, I hope they think about it for more than a millisecond. I hope they see an aspect of me, a different person that they don’t know, but now they know a part of me. I hope they form a connection.


PM: Before you get back to school, what’s one thing you’d say to other artists who look up to you?

FP: Everyone says practice makes perfect, but I think that passion makes perfect. If you have the commitment and inspiration to do it, then you can. If you believe in yourself, that’s what’s most important in this field. 

PM: Thank you so much for sharing with us, Frances, it was wonderful meeting you.


We said goodbye to Frances, and I sat back down with Laura, who was beaming.

LS: Do you see how special she is? That’s the joy of it, meeting these super talented artists and their families. I just provide the space. Sometimes I give them a little push to just take a chance, to do it, to trust.


PM: I do see — she’s great. That person who can push you to take a risk on yourself, that’s a really valuable person to have in a community. How did you get to be that person at Gigi’s?

LS: I used to work as the arts and engagement specialist for Brooklyn Park, bringing arts into underserved communities, telling people’s stories using art, art as a way to get young people to have their voices heard in government. Then I had my son at 28 weeks during COVID lockdown in 2020, and I couldn’t be in community doing what I loved, so I decided to resign. I was working at Gigi’s on the weekends, and the owner asked, “Do you want to be the manager?” I said, “Only if I can bring the arts here — and you will teach me everything you know about running a restaurant behind the scenes." I worked here because I loved the community, not because I wanted to run a restaurant. In 2021 I officially became a manager.


PM: So this was an unexpected career move for you.

LS: Yes, absolutely, and to be honest, it could only be Gigi’s for me. This space is everything to me, and I really do believe that the people who come through the door and the people who work here created this space. It’s the people who bring that energy and joy. I don’t think any sole person could create what this is. It takes a community to create spaces like this.


PM: It sounds like everything you do in your work is an extension of this core desire to build relationships.

LS: Yes. Another thing we started doing is music nights on Friday nights. People were asking me how they could get involved with other arts at Gigi’s, so I invite artists who may not have an opportunity to perform anymore, or have new songs they want to practice, or are just starting out, they can come and play. They share all original music and they share the time with another artist. It’s two artists I pair together who I think will have a connection or complement each other, and they rotate back and forth so anyone who comes in has the opportunity to hear both artists.


PM: You keep talking about how other people make this space. You’re being very humble, but I can tell you put a lot of work and intentionality into choosing who to pair together and making connections. You have the magic touch of a curator.

LS: Okay, you caught me! I do put a lot of work in. Yes, it takes a lot of time and energy being strategic to support what’s best for the folks that walk through this space. But I feel like what I do opens the door, and you come on in and do it, and then you share your beautiful, awesome talent, and they think you’re so great that I can get you to, say, play at a farmer’s market. Sometimes I’m what starts it, but I don’t end it. [The connections are] never ending, and I think that’s what’s most important.


PM: Beautiful.

LS: I just ignite. Frances just made my day. It makes me feel like I’m doing something right in such an uncertain world. If I can just make one person’s day, or if someone sells one piece of art, or one person tells a story, or plays one song they haven’t gotten to play in 25 years, that’s what it’s all about. It’s people.


PM: Anything else you want to say to the readers?

LS: I hope one day they’ll come into Gigi’s and see how great the space is. I hope a piece of art or a coffee will make your day better. I hope every neighborhood has a place like this. ◼︎ 


Laura Stigen in front of Gigi's. Photo by Pauline Moll.


Gigi’s Cafe, at 824 W 36th St in Minneapolis, is open daily 7am – 8pm. Visit their website for info and menus, or follow them on Instagram @gigiscafempls.

Banner image courtesy of Gigi's Cafe website.


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