People and ideas just fuel me

Share this:
March 26, 2010
By: Gregory J. Scott
Gregory J. Scott
// The 26-year-old “Save Canvas” creator decides what to do next //

Joe Belk gets pyrotechnic when discussing ideas. Give him a cup of coffee, and he goes off like a lit firecracker.

Over the course of the first mug, he’s laying out details for a handful of projects: sew bike messenger bags from the vinyl of used billboards; promote a Do The Right Thing Party at Clubhouse Jager by planting hidden boomboxes around the city that blast Public Enemy; foreclose a South Minneapolis gallery for the opening night of its housing crisis-themed art exhibition; and launch a bike-recycling program that transforms discarded two-wheelers into artist-designed collectibles.

It’s an electric riff session, and the ideas are intoxicating. But then you realize Belk isn’t brainstorming. He’s listing stuff he’s actually pulled off. (Except the bike-recycling program: “That one kind of dizzled off.”) The new ideas he’s saving for the next mug.

At only 26 years old, Joe Belk has coordinated and produced some of the most ambitious, large-scale creative events in Minneapolis. When he speaks, he charges forward in a rushed, scrambling way that often favors passion over articulation. It’s like his ideas are outpacing his sentences. His occupational handle is “arts entrepreneur.” But that doesn’t begin to describe the scope of his endeavors.

Consider just the last two years of his career:

Belk’s played a major role in the Tribute to Radio Rahim, a popular cassette tape DJ party at Clubhouse Jager; in the Sweet Hair poster show, which combines screen printing with hair styling to benefit the Locks of Love charity; in last summer’s Save Canvas event, which transformed a vacant block of Downtown into a sprawling public art installation; and in the design of several major gallery shows, from the Soo Visual Arts Center in Uptown to Umber Studios in South Minneapolis. He’s also a key principle in the popular Bomp! dance night at the Bedlam Theater, as well as in the recurring local-breweries-meet-local-food event Gastro Non Grata. And he’s designed and printed more gig posters than you can shake a squeegee at.  

Some of this Belk has done independently. Some of it he has done with Overproof, a full-service idea and design studio that operates out of a loft at 10th Street and Marquette Avenue.

Belk founded Overproof in 2008, and until recently, he ran it with his two partners, screen printers Tom Amel and Birk Grudem.

“We started just silk screening shirts,” Belk remembers. “And then more and more people wanted to create designs for them. And then all of a sudden there were people who wanted us to do photo shoots. And then it just carried on and on and on. And then, suddenly, it was like, ‘Oh, well Joe, if you can put together this photo shoot, why don’t we do this? Why don’t we develop this massive recycled bike project? Why don’t we start making messenger bags out of recycled billboards?’ I had ideas and I would just do anything to make them happen.”

Belk was only 25 when he got serious about Overproof. Amel was 23 and Gudem was 24.

“It was a lot of young kids just trying to figure out life,” Belk said.

In the summer of 2009, Overproof executed its most massive project to date: the Save Canvas installation. With the help of area developers — including Ben Shardlow, whose company struggled with the never-begun condo project the Nicollet — Belk, Amel and Grudem got access to three vacant buildings on 10th St, between Nicollet and Marquette Avenues.  Their idea was to combat the sad, psychological vibe of the abandoned block with a fresh display of rejuvenation.

A team of Overproof-selected artists converted the block into a conceptual storybook unfolding in the interiors and exteriors of the buildings. One building became a minimalist mural of flocking pigeons. One became an oversized shadow box, with 10-foot-tall pop-up characters. And one became a temporary gallery, open to the public, with framed work hanging on the walls.

The entire project was realized with repurposed materials scavenged from debris found inside the properties on the vacant block. And while the installation stood for only one weekend, it drew throngs of pedestrians to a long ignored section of Downtown. The “Save Canvas” sign remained for months at the corner of 10th and Nicollet, covering the entrance to the old Let It Be record store.

In the fall of 2009, Belk sold his Overproof shares and split from the company. He’s spent the last six months laying the groundwork for a new company, he says, one that might provide a focused discipline to the freewheeling brainstorm that marked the early days of Overproof.

“It’s going to be way, way, way more focused,” he said. “I was probably fairly naïve to take on some of that stuff [with Overproof]. And I got fairly overextended with things.”

While he won’t divulge specifics just yet, he describes the new venture as a sort of souped-up design and branding firm, one that elevates creative strategy to the level of high-concept art.

“The best way to put it is that it will be where art and design meet,” he said. “Where not only are we bringing art into the design process, but we are treating design as art. So if we’re working for a client, we’re really trying to stretch their boundaries so they really have a unique approach in their field.”

According to Belk, his 2010 schedule is already booked out with projects. He’s been asked to produce an installation on a house boat for Art-A-Whirl, he’s designing artist Keegan Wenkman’s May exhibition at the XYandZ Gallery and he’s publishing a letterpress and screen printing book for Ben LaFond of the design studio Burlesque of North America, which will also come out in May.

He’s got plans to design a waterfall for a professional baseball stadium. He’ll host an “Art of Sculpey” exhibit at the Pink Hobo Gallery in August.

Then, if all goes according to plan, he wants to execute another Save Canvas-style installation in September in a 15,000-square-foot warehouse in Northeast. For this last project, tentatively entitled Municipalities, he’ll work again with principles from Burlesque of North America.

“Then there’s like 20 other projects I didn’t get to tell you about,” Belk added.

Those, it seems, may have to wait for another coffee date.

Reporter Cristof Traudes gets a feel for eating tacos street-side.