Downtown Minneapolis Gallery Tells Stories of Minnesota's Immigrants

Artist Joe Burns stands before portraits in his gallery, Facing America.
Untold stories are uncovered in Facing America.
Artist Joe Burns stands before portraits in his gallery, Facing America.

Whether you travel through downtown Minneapolis’s skyways to avoid the chilly sidewalks or simply have taken a detour on your way from your lunch break, the portraits that were hanging on the second floor of the Capella Tower’s East lobby through the fall were sure to grab your attention. They might not be as immediately arresting as the Star Tribune’s giant, rotating globe down below, but they caused you to pause.

As the globe downstairs makes its daily rotation, those depicted in local artist Joe Burns’ portraits have been flung from their homelands around the world, safely landing in Minnesota, the place they now call home. For some, the journey was a no-brainer, like schoolteacher Kyoko, who moved here after meeting her husband, a Minnesotan, in her home of Japan. For others, immigrating to America was an escape from less-than-ideal conditions in their native countries. Rebecca, depicted with a smile as bright as her orange dress, was forced to leave her country of Zimbabwe after fearing her life was at risk. At times, when looking at a portrait, we forget that the subject is just like us, with a life that’s rich, complex and full of conflict. Burns doesn’t forget that important piece of the puzzle—he puts it on display right next to their portrait for all to read.

Artist Joe Burns' portrait of Rebecca, an immigrant from Zimbabwe.
Burns' portrait of Rebecca.

“I was looking for a show I could put on,” Burns explains, thinking back to when the germ for his portrait series, entitled Facing America, first popped into his head. “The rhetoric for immigrants [at the time] was that they were all murderers and thieves. Everybody knows that’s not true,” Burns says. “I wanted to put my own spin on what was being said about immigration.” Along with painting the portraits of 21 different people from all corners of the world, Burns also took the opportunity to put on his reporter’s cap, interviewing his subjects after painting them. 

“The thing that amazed me was the work ethic that everyone has,” Burns says of his interview process. Most of the people he spoke to work multiple jobs, doing everything they can to make a better living for themselves and their children once arriving in the U.S. “They don’t come here to get around the system. They just come here to work,” he says.

Burns himself is dedicated to his craft. After working as a commercial artist for 17 years, he got the idea to go back to school after going to an art show featuring work from fellow local painter, Jeff Larson.

“There are jobs, and there are passions,” Burns explains. “I always had a real passion for creating art.” Larson had introduced Burns to local art school The Atelier in Minneapolis, a French Impressionist art school. After much thinking, Burns chose to go back to school in order to become a painter—although, he adds, not without the blessing of his wife.

“I knew he had the will and the skill,” says Kris Burns, Joe’s wife. Before taking the plunge of going back to school full time, Burns holed up in his studio, located above his garage, and tested himself to see if he had the focus to paint all day. “I was so impressed with his dedication to the craft,” Kris says. “Being an artist is his destiny.”

Facing America isn’t Burns’ first portrait series—in fact, the first big project he took on involved interviewing his neighbors—all 47!—and painting a small portrait of them. Sitting down for four hours with each person, each one of Burns’ subjects went home with a one-foot by one-foot portrait of themselves.

While Burns didn’t put those interviews into anything public, he felt compelled to tell the stories of the immigrants depicted in the portraits hanging in Capella Tower. One of the people to spark the idea for the project was Victor Sanchez, portrayed in Burns’ series. Sanchez was coached by Burns on his wrestling team at Southwest High School.

Artist Joe Burns' portrait of Victor Sanchez.
Burns' portrait of Victor Sanchez.

“He agreed to be a part of the project and it just started from there,” Burns explains. “I knew about three or four people in the show. The rest were friends or friends of friends.”

For Facing America, instead of having his subjects come in for a traditional portrait sitting, Burns ventured outside of his studio to chat with his subjects and take their picture. At the beginning, Burns would paint and interview his subjects at the same time, but he says that grew difficult over time.

“I couldn’t concentrate on the story well enough to ask questions,” he says. Eventually, Burns resorted to snapshots he would take himself that he then projects into his studio, painting the portraits based off the photos. It hasn’t stopped him from having some marvelous interactions with his subjects. One of the portraits is of two people; a husband and wife duo that work as chefs in a Moroccan restaurant in Minneapolis’s Global Market. Burns sat down with them to enjoy a meal they had made while hearing their life stories. “It was delicious,” he says.

Burns’ inspiration comes simply from “what he wants to see.” A few years ago, he traveled to North Dakota to paint scenes from the Bakken oil fields. “It was like the Gold Rush for me,” he explains. “I wish I could see a painter that would have covered the Gold Rush, or the expansion West. Maybe I can be that painter that does that.”

Kris says she’s his biggest fan and critic. “My favorites tend to be personal,” she says, listing portraits of their children and a painting of her favorite flower as ones for the books. “But the portraits in Facing America seem to capture the soul of the subject. There are some where you can really see it in their eyes. Those are my favorites.”

For Burns, it isn’t about the spectacle, but the story. In his collection, there’s one face that might be familiar—Ilhan Omar, the Congresswoman-turned-Maroon 5 music video star from Minnesota’s fifth district. Instead of focusing on Omar’s rise to prominence, however, Burns chooses to tell Omar’s origin stories from her hometown of Mogadishu in Somalia.

“I wanted a story that hadn’t been told before,” Burns says.

Artist Joe Burns' portrait of Rep. Ilhan Omar.
Burns' portrait of Rep. Ilhan Omar.

Facing America
Joe Burns’ portrait series is a traveling gallery. Have an idea of where it should travel to next? Contact him on social media.
Twitter: @joetburns
Instagram: @joeburnsartist