The spirit of Elsa Resen shines in a new public art installation outside Elsa’s House of Sleep, a closed furniture store on Lake Street in Minneapolis. The project, called Dream Sequences, takes inspiration from Rezen, an Eritrean immigrant who was an artist, seamstress and business owner until her death from cancer in 2004.
“She has always been a constant optimist,” Resene’s son Tetra Constantino said. “She had a constant eye that it could be achieved, whatever it was.”
The project was curated and organized by former Forecast Public Art founder Jack Becker, with technical support and project management from Krista Pearson. It is produced by a group of local volunteers called 36th Avenue Revitalization and Transformation (ART).
Resene loved to make beautiful things. When she moved to the United States from Eritrea in 1966, Resen began her career as a seamstress and also made jewelry. According to Constantino, Resene often chose materials carefully, such as bison horn and copper beads.
In 1971, she opened a store called “Ethiopian Refinement” where she sold jewelry, handmade clothing, incense and oils. That was not easy. Resen and her husband Gillon Constantino were the targets of racist insults and threats. A Minneapolis Star article in 1973 notes that a white man entered a store on Hennepin Avenue and named Constantino, the “H” word, and that the store was shot at twice. Another store the couple owned on Lake Street burned to the ground.
However, Resen was determined to save up money so she could sponsor other members of her family to join her in the US.
“She was six months pregnant with my brother when she flew back and picked up her five siblings and her mom,” said Constantino, who now runs Elsa’s House of Sleep business in St. Paul on University Avenue.
As a child, Constantino remembers going to various local festivals selling his wares, such as incense. In 1997, she opened a new furniture store on Snelling Avenue where she sold mattresses, as well as carpets, art, and lamps.
When he was in college, Constantino remembers delivering goods for a business where his brother also worked. “I inadvertently became interested in it,” he recalls. “Whenever she said, ‘Hey, you know, we need you to come and do this or that,’ I just loved doing it.” After graduation, he began working with his mom for an estimated three months, which turned into years. His brother, sister and wife all worked in the business at various times.
The business moved to University Avenue in 2002 before opening a second store on Lake Street in 2012. “The main goal of this store was to reconnect with the area that my mother loved,” Constantino said. “Her very first store was on Lake Street.”
The building was empty before the family bought it and renovated it. In 2019, they decided to renovate the building. They closed the store and began using it as a warehouse for their St. Paul store while they organized scheduled renovations.
Then came the 2020 coup. The pandemic and then civil unrest following the killing of George Floyd delayed the building’s planned reopening.
During the riots, Constantino spent the night in a store on University Avenue whose windows were smashed and closed the location for a week due to outage of telephone lines. They also had periods of record-only operations due to the pandemic and online sales. Then, in October 2020, vandals set fire to the back of a building on Lake Street. “It set us back because it wasn’t part of our calculations,” Constantino said.
Constantino says the business plans to reopen the Lake Street store by summer 2023. As in the St. Paul, it will include local arts and artisans, as well as selling home goods.
In the meantime, he was approached by Jack Becker with an offer to take part in the 36th ART’s efforts to revive the area.
“I was very happy that he extended his hand,” Constantino said. “He really brought it together.” Constantino was especially pleased that artist Ta-Kumba Aiken was involved in the project. “Ta-Kumba and my mother were friends,” he said. Constantino even still has a portrait of his mother taken by Aiken back in the 1970s.
For the project, Aiken created a 52-foot painted-on-canvas mural that hangs along the north wall and then curves around the corner to the west wall. Characterized by Aiken’s trademark bold, flowing lines, with colorful abstract gestures behind them, the work places the building in a southern Minneapolis aesthetic.
Also on the west wall is a series of paintings by Gordon Koons titled Man Transforming Healer (2018), which depicts an Ojibwe “makwa” or bear figure. On the east wall, Afro-futuristic digital images of Ron Brown sparkle with energy and powerful iconic black faces.
Havona Sullivan’s work on the project combines archival photographs with bird images and symbolic textures. Other works by Jordan M. Hamilton, Christopher Harrison, Katrina Knutson, and Zarra S.M. turn the plywood covering the building into a vibrant open gallery.
The project also includes a photograph of Resene, and the poster features a quote by Resene, recalled by her son: “It’s never too late to start dreaming.”
According to the press release, the outdoor exhibition will be open until April 20, 2023. The celebration is scheduled for the end of January, dates and times to be confirmed. For now, you can view the exhibit at 36th Avenue and East Lake Street in Minneapolis.
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