A funky survivor

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August 16, 2004 // UPDATED 3:24 pm - April 25, 2007
By: Sarah McKenzie
Sarah McKenzie

In a North Loop low-rise that descends into a railroad ravine, artists maintain a foothold in Downtown

North Loop floral designers Liz Bastian and Heidi Skoog peddle "tough-girl" flowers -- petals wrapped in metal or leather.

They're also keen on flowers considered "un-cool," such as carnations and mums.

They don't call themselves artists, but their work has an artsy and edgy quality not seen in a standard bouquet. For the nearby ReSee Gallery, 212 3rd Ave. N., the floral artists lined an enclosed Plexiglas table with a layer of green mums floating in water.

The women work in a space as unconventional as their design: a funky low-rise at 310 N. 2nd St. that descends into the railroad ravine.

With half-million-dollar condos all around, the Bastian Skoog Urban Flower studio looks appropriately bohemian, amid a collection of artist studios wedged between an old steam boiler shop and the rail line.

Besides the hip floral designers, renowned metal sculptor Bruce Stillman works in a studio tucked away from North 2nd Street. Painters, a filmmaker, another outdoor sculptor, an event planner and a potter also have studios there. The artists are holdouts in a neighborhood that has seen many creative types migrate to Northeast Minneapolis, where rent is cheaper.

Stillman is part-owner of the building -- increasingly unusual for artists in the North Loop, where condo conversions have displaced several neighborhood artists. Earlier this summer, some artists at 700 Washington Ave. N. moved out to make way for the Tower Lofts.

Stillman has considered selling and moving out over the years. "I was looking for the right type of buyer who wouldn't change it too much," he said.

Earlier this summer, he formed a partnership with Bastian's husband, David Cragg, who owns 75 percent of the building while Stillman retains 25 percent.

The building's value has more than tripled since Stillman bought it in 1982 for $175,000. Now its estimated market value is $550,000, according to Hennepin County property records.

Welcoming passersby

The floral design studio is the most eye-catching studio with a street-level space, painted in a bold red and outfitted with metallic furniture. Red paper lanterns hang from the front stoop near the studio, which is attached to Bastian's home -- an airy space she shares with her husband, accessible by a large garage door.

During the day, the couple keeps the garage door open, often enticing passersby to poke their head in and check out the place. They also have two cute dogs (Basenjis named Alice and Luca) that sit by the open door and people-watch.

They don't mind the intrusions. "We have really cool neighbors," Bastian said.

The 32-year-old floral designers came up with the concept of their business while working in Marshall Field's shoe department, 700 Nicollet Mall. Skoog worked in a flower shop in St. Paul on the side and Bastian had recently left graduate school for plant pathology. Both were hungry for something different and decided to venture out on their own as florists.

"We usually incorporate something tough, or something hard whether it's a pile of branches or a big metal container filled with something really soft, floral, fragrant and girly," Bastian said. "Guys like our flowers a lot, strangely. Maybe it's the way we put things together. We do them in really bold clusters -- just like big piles of stuff rather than something that's really formal and arranged."

They opened a studio in Northeast Minneapolis in 1997 and moved to the North Loop a few months ago. The new studio is a better fit for the business and helps inspire their creative centerpieces.

They create custom floral designs for weddings and events for companies and art galleries, among other things. Their

studio space is strictly for designing arrangements -- it's not a flower shop.

"Our old space was an oasis in a dirty industrial building in Northeast on the corner of Broadway and Central. We love Northeast -- there's a great community of artists, but we were very isolated in our location," Bastian said.

The old space also came with a funk created by a paint factory across the street. "We go back sometimes just to be grateful that we can breathe relatively clean air on this side of town and walk around in our socks now that we don't have a woodworking shop and its inches of sawdust," she added.

Some of the new perks include a sauna in the bathroom, a skylight, and a spacious front porch where they sometimes roll out their worktable and people-watch with the dogs.

They're considering selling boutonnieres with Gerbera daisies on Fridays and dubbing the day "Fancy Friday" -- in a fun protest against casual Fridays.

Metal man

Stillman shares the floral designers' fascination with metal.

One of his whimsical pieces -- an outdoor picnic table and canopy sculpted with stainless steel -- sits next to a retaining wall above the train tracks. All sorts of pieces stick out from the top of the canopy, including a rooster -- a tribute to the chickens and rooster he used to keep above his studio.

Stillman is a critically acclaimed kinetic metal sculptor whose hinged sculpted pieces of stainless steel flow in various breezes. He likens his pieces to dynamic weather patterns.

His work has been featured in "Vogue" and "People" magazines and on the "CBS Morning Show."

Taking a break from his kinetic sculpture work, Stillman is currently engrossed in creating a miniature golf course/sculpture park for his Minnetrista organic farm. North Loop's constant construction and added density have left him craving open space and the countryside. "Twenty years ago, it was so desolate. Now the railroad tracks are my only open space," he said.

He is designing the mini-course as a model for other cities. He'd like to create a similar course for Boom Island, which is just across the Mississippi River from the North Loop studios.

The St. Louis Park native, who has worked in the building for 22 years, started experimenting with copper and brass pieces in high school. A friend who worked at a scrap metal wholesaler got him hooked on stainless steel.

He estimates he's sold more than 3,000 sculptures to galleries and collectors all over the world, including a former shah of Iran's wife, the late composer Henry Mancini and director Robert Altman. Pieces on display at the Sedona, Ariz.-based El Prado Fine Art Gallery fetch between $6,200 and $35,000.

In description of his work on the gallery's Web site, he said: "In some cases, I consider them a tool for the environment to express itself, from the delicacy of the breeze to the power of high winds."