2022 McKnight Visual Artist Fellow: Amanda Lovelee

2022 McKnight Visual Artist Fellow: Amanda Lovelee

Published April 15th, 2024 by Russ White

As an artist working in government, Lovelee brings joy, curiosity, and accessibility to the often arcane realms of art and public policy

MCAD Logo Article made possible thanks to the McKnight Visual Artist Fellowship Program. Administered by the Minneapolis College of Art and Design.McKnight Logo

This is the fourth in a series of articles profiling the six distinguished artists chosen as 2022 McKnight Fellows in Visual Arts, a grant program for mid-career artists in Minnesota that is administered by the Minneapolis College of Art and Design. The 2022 cohort includes Pao Houa Her, Amanda Lovelee, Lamar Peterson, Emmett Ramstad, and Jonathan Thunder.

This series of written profiles has been developed concurrently with a series of video profiles produced by MCAD, the McKnight Foundation, and Clint Bohaty, available at the bottom of this page.

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Photo by Rik Sferra


Amanda Lovelee is many things: an artist, a Parks Ambassador for the Twin Cities Metropolitan Council, a co-founder of the Cross-sector Artists In Residence Lab, a professor at Macalester, and one half of the design studio Plus/And. She wears a lot of hats, and when we meet in her home studio, she admits she sometimes still has a hard time owning that first one. “I don't make things in frames,” she says with a shrug. “There are moments where I’m like, my retrospective is going to be a wall of emails.”

She is being humble: as a civic artist — “I am an artist, and my medium is government,” she likes to say — Lovelee’s impact has been felt all over the Twin Cities. She has helped shepherd projects like the Metro Transit bus wraps (most notably Marlena Myles’s “We Are On Dakota Land” design), a multi-year Urban Flower Field in downtown Saint Paul with a mural by Ed Charbonneau and Jeremy Szopinski, the glowing rocks near the Midway she created with Aaron Dysart, and the Future Forest Art Shanty, which promised to plant a tree for every five love letters that visitors wrote to their favorite park. They ended up with over 4,000 letters, and the promise of 830 new trees. A lot of artists fret over archival materials in the hopes that their work will survive for years to come; Lovelee’s legacy, from seed and sapling, is going to last centuries.

“I am really interested in art as a tool for civic change,” she says. “Civic not meaning government, but more like our connection to each other in place.”

Her work in this realm dates back to 2012, when she began what would be a seven year stint as an artist-in-residence with the City of Saint Paul. Coming from an arts background with an MFA in Photography from MCAD, the inner workings of city governance were a complete mystery. Starting out, she says, “I just shadowed people to learn what their jobs were;” soon, she was shadowing a landscape architect who was redesigning a playground. At that point, her older son, Hudson, was two. “It was like, I go to playgrounds all the time, and I didn’t even know you could design them.” But after a 7pm community meeting in the basement of a nursing home, which the two had worked hard to prepare for and which had drawn all of four constituents, Lovelee wondered if she hadn’t made a huge mistake.

“[This landscape architect] is amazing, and she cared so deeply and had put time and energy into this. And I remember her turning to me and saying, ‘Well, maybe this community doesn’t really care about this playground.’” In reflecting on all the barriers that had kept community members from showing up to the meeting — childcare needs and language accessibility, for starters, and the fact that it hadn’t even taken place at the playground site in question — Lovelee realized the low turnout was indicative not of apathy but of “this huge disconnect between how we show care and how we can participate.” In that moment, she had an idea for how to bridge that divide: take the meeting to the people, and bring a truck full of popsicles.


Pop Up Meeting, doling out Saint Pops popsicles in exchange for civic engagement. A project by City Artist Amanda Lovelee of Public Art Saint Paul in collaboration with the City of St Paul. Images courtesy of the artist's website.


Repurposing a little electric van the city used to collect change from parking meters, Lovelee created the Pop Up Meeting: she would park the van at different spots throughout the city, set out some posters and clipboards, and solicit city planning feedback from passersby in exchange for a popsicle — much more enticing than watching a Powerpoint in a basement. (“The popsicles kind of tasted like a mojito,” she says, “but I didn’t tell the kids that.”) The project garnered so much more feedback than the traditional outreach methods that the City kept it running for another six summers, slicing funding out of the budgets of programs and departments across the board and providing targeted data from communities directly effected by different policies. They were able to ask, Lovelee explains, “whose voice is missing from this project? And how do we go into communities that have traditionally been underrepresented, and specifically pop up in those places to get voices that are never in the civic process? So the popsicle truck really started to focus more on equity and access.”

In the art world, where brooding darkness and ironic detachment would seem to reign supreme, it’s hard to think of something more painfully optimistic than a popsicle. But Lovelee is happy to try: another early project was hosting regular square dance evenings at the Minnesota Center for Book Arts, focused on encouraging physical, face-to-face connections. There was even free pie, but you had to hold a stranger’s hand to get a slice. Another project was the aptly named Really Big Table, a 25 foot picnic table for communal art-making and meal-sharing that Lovelee and friends could fold up and tow by bicycle from event to event.


Top: Unfolding Really Big Table for an event. Bottom: Future Forests Art Shanty, 2020. Images courtesy of the artist's website.


When you’re designing work to help communities draft a better future, optimism would seem to be a prerequisite — if not a sunny disposition then at least the belief that the work is worth doing. I would argue that all honest art-making is an optimistic endeavor; it’s just that some artists are more earnest and open about it than others. All the same, there is an edginess to be found in Lovelee’s work, visible not so much in its aesthetics as in its convictions. Maybe it comes from a decade plus of working in government, or maybe because the drive to make the world a better place comes from the knowledge that it’s still got a long way to go. It’s no surprise, given her CV, that Lovelee treats public art as serious business. “I always say I'm not here to frost your badly baked cake,” she says. Public art, for her, is more than mere window dressing; it is structural and transformational. “I like that idea of using play and joy and color to pull you in, but hoping that you leave with a little bit of a shift or a change.”

It’s not a new idea. The concept of a government artist goes back at least as far as the WPA in the 1930s, when tens of thousands of artists were employed to create public murals and sculptures. Thirty years later, the NEA and NEH were formed to continue that sort of direct support for artists and cultural producers; here in Minnesota, artists (and audiences) today benefit from the steady flow of state-level investment made possible by our Legacy Amendment. Hell, even the CIA secretly funneled money to prop up and popularize Abstract Expressionist artists during the Cold War, essentially to make America look cooler than Russia. Art and government have long existed hand-in-glove (and occasionally even cloak-and-dagger).


"Go Policy," a card game based on Go Fish developed by CAIR Lab, which Lovelee co-founded.


Still, it can be difficult to fit the star-shaped peg of visual art into the square hole of city committees. “If an artist just reaches out to the city and says, ‘I have an idea,’ the chances of moving up through the system are really difficult,” Lovelee says. “But I've spent so much time in government that I can speak both languages, and I have this ability to kind of navigate that system differently. I’m no longer the weird thing in the room.”

That bilingualism is evident in the work itself. Leaning against a wall in her home office is a full-size, diamond-shaped road sign in blaze orange, a remnant of an earlier outdoor installation. Using the visual language of municipal construction, the sign declares in all caps, sans serif — where a warning would normally be — PRAIRIES ARE MAGIC. Jenny Holzer’s work comes to mind, but with the addition of an interactive element: above the text is a giant QR code that opens an audio file of a scientist explaining what she loves about prairies. “Up close, prairies are a wild buzzing network of interactions between the air, wind, sun, plants, insects, and grazing animals,” says the voice. It’s a lovely sentiment, but while you listen, the urgency of that orange diamond is inescapable. It’s no accident; this is a warning. Again, the work’s context and conviction provide the edge. Prairies are magic, and they are in danger.

Lovelee grew up in upstate New York, immersed in the great outdoors. During a site visit several years ago, hiking through the woods with a young Hudson on her back, the boy whispered a question in his mother’s ear: “Where are all the houses?” It was another lightbulb moment for Lovelee. “I was like, oh my God. Nature's something you teach. I wasn't taught — I just grew up on acres of land. And now, being in these more urban settings, I was like, How do I teach nature? How do I open up that relationship, so that others can fall in love?”


Top: Landsigns, 2022, inspired by interviews with scientists conducting research at the Cedar Creek Ecosystem Science Reserve. Bottom: Treetime, 2023, at the Salzburg Global Seminar. Both projects by Plus/And, photos courtesy of the artist's website.


Last year, Plus/And brought another set of QR codes to the Salzburg Global Seminar for an installation called Tree Time. We’re told that talking to houseplants helps them grow (the science is inconclusive), but at the very least it’s good for us, as well. Tree Time sets up the parameters for a proper conversation so that the plants can talk back. Seminar visitors scan the codes on little signs under trees along a path; a green text block pops up. “Hi I am so glad to meet you today. Let’s talk about our futures.” The website is still active, and from my couch at home, I find myself in a conversation with a tree in Austria about slowing down and self-care. “What does being healthy and whole look like for you?” the tree-bot asks. There’s no reason to lie. “Aspirational right now,” I reply. In times like these, maybe it’s the state of the world itself that lends public art its edge.

I imagine being a parent lends some urgency to the cause as well; raising a child leaves no room for fatalism. Of all her many roles as a civic artist, facilitator, and collaborator, I would hazard a guess that Lovelee’s life as a neighbor, a partner, and a mother eclipse them all. During our visit, she and her younger son Walden had just finished collaborating on artwork for Together, a group show at The M of artwork made by artists and their children (organized by fellow McKnight cohort member Emmett Ramstad). When I ask if Hudson, who is now 12, had been interested in participating, she explains that art is not his thing. “He just excels at everything — math, sports — except he hates the art room.”

A while back, a visit to an environmental art installation in Crystal Bridges, Arkansas, inspired a conversation between mother and son. “He's like, ‘I just don't get art,’” she recalls. “And I said, Art isn’t something you get, it’s like something you feel.”

“And he was like, ‘But aren’t you supposed to know the meaning?’"

“And I said, maybe the wall labels make you think that, but no, good art is something you feel. It makes you like, quiver or change or breathe differently, or it just changes how you see the world. And I was like, You know when you have this moment of awe in nature where it takes your breath away, and it’s all you can feel for that second? Or those moments of adrenaline when you score a goal? Art has the power to make you feel like that.”

“So we go through this whole beautiful show. We get to the end, we’re walking back to the car,” she pauses. “And he’s like, ‘I think I felt it.’”

That’s a win as a parent but also as an arts advocate: offering a skeptical audience an avenue in. It’s exactly what animates her work: giving people permission to engage with the weird thing in the room, whether that’s an absurd art installation or an opaque piece of public policy. The two might have more in common with each other than they realize.

Right now she has several irons in the fire for future projects — more emails for the retrospective — including an open call for community engagement artists and hopefully soon a temporary stint at the federal level, which would expand the breadth of her medium even further.

“I want to use the tools I have as an artist to make the world a better place, whatever that might mean,” she says. “And I know that sounds lame and cheesy and bright, like a popsicle truck.” But I’ll take cheesy and bright over dark and doomed any day of the week. The end is near, the headlines read. They seem to be yelling at us to get small, to give up. But no, for Lovelee’s kids, for the freshly planted trees in the park, and for the whole damn world itself, the end is nowhere near. And there is work to be done. Grab a popsicle, let’s go. ◼︎ 


Urban Flower Field in downtown Saint Paul. Amanda Lovelee envisioned the project, engaging a multi-disciplinary team to collaborate in its design and realization including Adam Kay, Director of Environmental Science, University of St. Thomas; Don Ganje and Bianca Paz, Saint Paul Parks and Recreation; Ed Charbonneau and Jeremy Szopinski, Muralists; and Paula Westmoreland, Ecological Gardens. It was produced by Public Art Saint Paul with the University of St. Thomas and St. Paul Parks and Recreation.


Video profile of Amanda Lovelee, courtesy of MCAD and the McKnight Foundation:

To see more of Amanda Lovelee's work, visit her website, at plus-and-creative.com, and at cairlab.net.

Banner image: Balancing Ground, motion-activated sound sculpture, 2014. Winner of the 2014 Creative City Challenge. Developed by Amanda Lovelee, Christopher Field, Kyle Waites, and Sarah West.

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