An artist in public

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December 17, 2012 // UPDATED 5:48 pm - December 27, 2012
By: Dylan Thomas
Dylan Thomas

There is just something about Zoran Mojsilov.

The hardhats who hoist and haul Mojsilov’s massive sculptures grin at his good-natured cursing. Documentary crews tail him both here in Minneapolis, where he has lived for 25 years, and in his native Serbia, where a childhood friend filmed his return to Vlasi, his grandmother’s mountain village, in 2011.

And children seem, instinctively, to appreciate his work. Todd Bockley knows this; the kids from Kenwood School clamber over two bench-like stone sculptures on the street outside Bockley’s art gallery, and they’ve worn away the grass in a ring around “Grandma’s Mountain,” a sofa-sized hunk of gray-and-pink-banded Morton gneiss parked, for the time being, on the school’s lawn.

The city’s architects and developers certainly see something in Mojsilov, too. They’ve helped turn him into possibly Minneapolis’ most prominent public artist.

His pieces already dotted the cityscape before this year, when he started work on several major commissions: the public plaza for Peter Remes’ Ice House Court redevelopment at 26th & Nicollet; a second Remes project at Broadway & Central in Northeast; and a sculpture marking the entryway to Shea Design, Inc.’s new offices in the former Shinders building downtown.

In November, shuttling between projects in his white Chevrolet pickup, Mojsilov said he did not feel particularly busy. Even if his work wasn’t selling, he would still drive most days from the Tangletown home he shares with wife Ilene Krug Mojsilov to his studio in Northeast’s Grain Belt Brewing complex and go to work, he said.

And, lest the artist’s life begin to sound romantic, he noted his slate of recent projects only ensured he would spend the cold months ahead toiling out in the elements.

Said Mojsilov: “There are not too many people who want to be for life in prison, breaking stones but innocent.”

Wrestling

An early cold snap arrived just as Mojsilov began work at Shea’s offices, and so there he was, a burly former Greco-Roman wrestler, bundled in a dusty Carhart jacket and insulated overalls, wrestling stones in an icy wind. He had one black boot wedged between the rocks, the other balanced on the prong of a forklift operated by Christofer Christoforides, a landscaper and occasional assistant.

Before they were hauled to the site, Mojsilov drilled holes through the stones and threaded them with steel bars, so that later the rocks could be tied together in a web. For the moment, though, with the bars’ sharp ends jutting every which way, the entire scenario seemed likely to end in impalement.

A few days earlier, when Mojsilov was asked if he ever had an apprentice, he stuck out his hands, spreading his thick, calloused fingers, and pointed to his left thumb. Its nail was a dark, misshapen thing that looked like it had recently come between a rock and a hammer.

“Who would want to do this?” he asked, as if the only answer was “a crazy person.”

Primal urges

In discussing his work, Mojsilov often invokes the primal urges that drive man — the desire for food and safety, the need to reproduce — or, as he put it: “Our ancient lore, what grampa caveman left us.” He takes familiar materials — stone, wood and steel — and gives them shapes that speak to what Mojsilov calls “the animal part of our brain.”

That description fits “Torso” to a T. A 12-ton column of undulating pink and black granite, its curves from one angle resemble an ancient Venus figurine, and from another the bulging trapezius and deltoid muscles of a wrestler.

In late November, it was bound for The Broadway, the Remes redevelopment at Broadway & Central, where Mojsilov is also constructing a courtyard out of blocks and columns salvaged from the ruins of the demolished Metropolitan Building, the same materials used for the Ice House Court plaza.

At the site, a crane operator and a two-man rigging crew worked together to place The Broadway’s new centerpiece. “Torso” was resting on its side as the riggers cinched two thick straps around its waist. They gave the man in the crane cab the thumbs up.

It was just barely off the ground when, with a crack, one of the straps slipped. “Torso” rolled, slowly, like a breaching whale, then slammed into the asphalt parking lot with a titanic thud.

To the surprise of several onlookers, it didn’t appear to have even a chip in it. Mojsilov smiled.

Remes drove up then, just as the crew began its second — successful — attempt, and offered his thoughts on the broad appeal of Mojsilov.

“Even people who don’t have much interest in art or an appreciation for art history understand his work because they understand what stone is, and they understand it didn’t just occur this way, someone had to shape this,” Remes said.

Watching Mojsilov conduct the crane, he added: “The amount of time and energy it took just to shape this stone into a finished object I think would crush mere mortals.”

No one had yet told him just how close it had come.