Melvin R. and Rose J. Smith are proud Minnesota artists. Currently living in Eagan, Minnesota, they were residents of St. Paul’s Rondo neighborhood for many years—Rose for most of her life and Melvin from 1963 to 1968. The Smiths’ art consists of urban scenes and portraits that present realist, expressionist, and at times allegorical takes on Black life in America. The works in this exhibition are drawn from their Rondo series—a sprawling body of work that stands as an elegiac anthem for that lost neighborhood and the enduring community that lives on in its wake. From Melvin’s witty, unflinching collaged portraits and three-dimensional models of Rondo buildings to Rose’s touching portraits of family and joyful images of musicians, the works in the exhibition speak to the complex spectrum of life in Rondo and, by extension, the African American community writ large. Deeply committed to sharing the role of the Twin Cities in the broader history of civil rights, the Smiths insist this is more than a local story and that all of America needs to remember Rondo.
The Rondo neighborhood was the heart and soul of St. Paul’s Black population in the early and mid-twentieth century. However, from 1956 to 1968, more than five hundred families were uprooted as houses, businesses, and social gathering sites were leveled to make way for the I-94 freeway. Often referred to as the age of Urban Renewal, the destruction of urban communities to make way for highways occurred across the United States. Many Black Americans, including the writer and activist James Baldwin, decried the efforts as “Negro Removal,” since urban planners often deliberately routed redevelopment through African American communities. Rose and Melvin Smith’s art celebrates the people and places that energized the rich Black culture that thrived in Rondo before this systematic displacement.
Social clubs were essential to maintaining neighborhood ties at a time when African Americans were not allowed in white-owned hotels, dance halls, or restaurants. Black churches and social service agencies like Welcome Hall, Hallie Q. Brown Community Center, and Ober Boys Club acted as centers for the community. Following the construction of I-94, the Rondo Neighborhood’s legacy of social cohesion became the rallying cry of former and current residents of the area attempting to recapture the neighborhood’s history.
After their marriage in 1968, Rose and Melvin Smith decided to artistically follow the journey of what they call a “lost tribe” of African Americans migrating throughout the twentieth century. As they explain, they were acutely aware that Harlem and the South Side of Chicago had been the touchstone, fertile source, and nurturer of most African American artists. With this in mind, they went to those centers in search of what the artists William H. Johnson, Romare Bearden, and Jacob Lawrence called “validation.” Their time in these communities was influential and spurred them to focus on and believe in their art. While Melvin and Rose shared subjects, they developed distinct styles and artistic techniques during this period.
Melvin uses found material—images and objects—to construct both collage paintings and sculptural works. He creates portraits of individuals and portrait-like images of urban scenes, picturing people, buildings, and landscapes. In Combs Family, three men constructed from layers of paint and collaged paper stand, directly and confidently, facing the viewer. Behind them lie collaged photographic images of neighborhood homes under a painted sky. The image shows the tremendous influence of Bearden (1911–1988), who utilized collage and painting, perhaps most famously to expressively picture the Great Migration. Like Bearden, Melvin is inspired by jazz—the deliberate clash and upending of received styles—which gives his works a physical and emotional depth. In his Rondo in Pale Moonlight, the neighborhood, made of built up and overlapping photographic images, is pictured as serene and beautiful, humanizing it in the face of decades of systematic vilification against such communities. Not the nightmarish battleground that was often depicted, Rondo in Pale Moonlight shows a thriving community, much like so many others across the United States.
Rose primarily works with oil painting on canvas or paper, picturing recognizable yet expressive and sometimes emblematic figures. In Sonny and Glenn, two African American adolescents stand tall in their jeans and sneakers against a vibrant, nondescript green background. Both assured and awkward, the work pictures Rose’s older brothers and, more poetically, the internal and physical contradictions of these figures, made all the more fraught by their stature as Black boys. In the large-scale painting Journey to Minnesota, a variety of figures sit waiting in a transit hub. A matriarch, based on Rose’s own mother, checks the contents of her purse while her child—a youthful self-portrait of the artist—sits close; two men huddle in conversation, and a young couple sit arm in arm. This snapshot of migrating individuals presumably in search of a new home, and perhaps a new life, poignantly recalls the most quotidian aspects of the movement of six million African Americans out of the rural southern United States to the urban Northeast, Midwest, and West that occurred between 1916 and 1970, known as the Great Migration.
The Smiths have shown their work nationally for the past thirty-five years. Their art currently focuses on Minnesota and its largely unknown role in the American civil rights movement and beyond. Many American luminaries came from Minnesota, such as Roy Wilkins, one-time leader of the NAACP, who, with Minnesota native Anna Arnold Hedgeman, helped plan the historic 1963 March on Washington. Others include photographer Gordon Parks and baseball champion Dave Winfield. It is also well documented that Dred Scott’s brief stay in the free territory at Fort Snelling influenced him to seek his freedom. The Smiths both explicitly and implicitly center these stories of Black figures in Minnesota through their celebration of Rondo.
Focusing on their own lived experiences, the Smiths’ art offers an intimate view of everyday Black life in Rondo and the rich histories embedded in those experiences. Their desire to preserve and trumpet the travails and triumphs of their community is testimony of their devotion to it. The Weisman is honored to present Remembering Rondo, illuminating and celebrating two of the most important and prolific artists of our state and region.
DIANE MULLIN, Senior Curator