The monument man

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March 21, 2005 // UPDATED 1:53 pm - April 26, 2007
By: Jeremy Stratton
Jeremy Stratton

"Minneapolis is one of the cleanest, nicest communities in America," said C. Zaxxr Llewellyn to the Downtown Minneapolis Neighborhood Association (DMNA.) "But it needs an icon. That's what I do."

Dressed in an impeccable, gold-colored wool suit, Llewellyn (whose first name is pronounced "Zar") spoke quickly as he delivered his pitch, often digressing to compliment his audience or evoke a laugh. He had to catch a flight back to Seattle that night, he said.

Everyone had been eying the microwave-sized box behind him. Llewellyn reached inside and carefully pulled out the model.

It showed steps leading up from some water to a 10-inch tall pillar, leaning to the right like a less-stable Tower of Pisa. Wires attached to the top of the pillar held in place a 6-inch-tall letter "M," leaning even more severely, as if to fall. Beneath it, a tiny human figure stood dwarfed in its shadow. The scale: 10 feet for every inch - meaning Llewellyn's icon would be a 100-foot-tall pillar supporting a 60-foot-tall "M."

His desired location: on the Mississippi Riverfront, just east of the new Guthrie Theater. The cost: $700,000 to $2.3 million, to be raised privately.

DMNA board member Tom Hoch said he thought the idea was fascinating.

"It's so much fun to see someone come in and show something that's aspirational," said Hoch, who has spearheaded private efforts to improve Hennepin Avenue's streetscape. "It causes people to stop and think."

But does Minneapolis need an icon? A gigantic monument? Right here in river city?

Let the "Music Man" allusions end here. Llewellyn is on the level, according to Jeri Justus at the Barstow, Calif. Chamber of Commerce. Llewellyn designed the "Carthenon" for the desert city, near the famous Route 66.

Although he has been building and designing fine furniture, jewelry and monuments for 23 years - with work that has appeared in 'Playboy' and 'Metropolis' magazine, Llewellyn said he is humble about his art and process.

"I'm just a guy named Zaxxr," he said. "I look at a town and create a project that will

motivate the people, the kids, in town to see something positive."

Llewellyn designed and built a water fountain for the city of Moab, Utah in 1998. Moab's Economic Development Coordinator David Olsen now calls Llewellyn "a good friend.

"He created something from nothing," Olsen said. "He had almost no money to work with, he did all the labor for free." The project cost only $4,000, Olsen said. The fountain's two pillars are only 5 and 10 feet tall, however; Llewellyn will need more than his own two hands to erect the colossal M and 100-foot-tall pillar.

"His ideas are probably bigger than most people's," Olsen said.

Llewellyn is diving into bigger pools now, too. Moab is a city of only 4,900 people; Barstow 25,000.

Llewellyn "is very creative," said Wayne Soppeland, chairman of the Barstow Chamber's Economic Development Committee.

"He came to town and spent a lot of time talking with people then came up with a design he thought matched our community. Route 66 is a big part of [the community]," Soppeland said.

According to Soppeland, The Barstow Chamber has spent $7,000-$10,000 so far on engineering costs and some supplies for the Carthenon project, including a 1959 Cadillac, the front end of which will grace the top of the 50-foot tall arch. Local companies have pledged to donate many of the supplies and much of the labor. Llewellyn has been paid only "a small amount of money" for initial design fees. Soppeland estimates that the Carthenon will need another $30,000-$40,000 in funding and will need city approval after a suitable site is found.

The theme behind Minneapolis' "M" is migration, Llewellyn told DMNA. "We're all from someplace, we're all migrants and we all need to get along," he said.

The wires between the monolithic pillar and letter, and the precarious lean of the objects, would symbolize tension, he said, "The idea of movement and change. It animates things."

He added, "Where people move reflects where people have been and where they're going. Minneapolis has the highest population of Somalis and Hmong in the country. You wouldn't expect that."

Llewellyn asks people, "What does "M" mean to you?" Replies have included "mundo," "music" and "money." The "M" could stand for Minneapolis, he said. Or Minnesota. Or Mississippi.

Llewellyn said he is considering similar projects in Miami and Melbourne, Australia; and Olsen mentioned that Llewellyn has pitched a smaller, 7-foot "M" to the city of Moab. "Maybe he wants to practice on us," said Olsen, whom Llewellyn had told about his larger "M" idea. "I told him to go ahead." (There is no project planned at this time.)

Llewellyn is a long way from franchising at this point. The Minneapolis trip was merely to see if people like the idea, Llewellyn said, "not for money yet, if ever."

Said Hoch, "At this early stage, it's not for everybody to get bogged down in who is going to pay for it, how it will be maintained, if he could get control of the land. As a preliminary concept, I thought it was really fun. I admired his enthusiasm in bringing it to us."

Llewellyn also met with Professor Rudolph Picolli of the University of Minnesota's Immigration Institute.

"Immigration is a fundamental aspect of the history of Minnesota," Picolli said. "All of us, aside from the Ojibwe and the Lakota, got here by way of migration."

Picolli didn't venture an artistic opinion, nor did Mary Altmann, the city's public art administrator who saw the model. She said she referred Llewellyn to the Park Board, upon whose land he was proposing to build.

Although Minneapolis Park Board Director of Planning Judd Rietkert had not seen the model or heard of the project, he said he thinks a monument is a great idea.

"Somewhere, I'd like to see us put something on the map like the space needle or an arch," he said, referring respectively to Seattle and St. Louis icons. "I don't know what it is, but something that has the same impact as those things."

Not that the city is without icons. Consider the Spoonbridge and Cherry. Or, added, Rietkert, "The Mississippi River itself is a huge identifier; it's nationally known."

Admitting a bit of bias, Rietkert said the city's park system is the largest identifier, even to out-of-towners. "People tie Minneapolis and the parks together," he said. "Everybody comes to town and wants to go to the lakes, and the parks."

Rietkert said icons near St. Anthony Falls, where Llewellyn would like to build, have huge historical features, "but people [in other cities] don't say 'Wow, Minneapolis, Mill District!'

It would be fun to have something that has some other kind of pizzazz to it."

For all his enthusiasm, Rietkert said the process of erecting a large-scale monument "would be probably be very strenuous.

"Everybody would be a critic," he said. "There are so many regulatory issues out there, it's going to have to be something that wows people enough that everybody gets on board. From the Park Board side, it'll have to be something special."

As with anything on the river in Minneapolis, the monument would sit in the Mississippi National River and Recreation Area, under the National Park Service's jurisdiction.

Park Service Historian John Anfinson knew nothing of the project but said the riverbank "is not the place for it," regardless of the quality of the design.

Llewellyn is beginning to understand this. Since his initial visit, he said, he spoke to a Park Board manager, who told him how difficult a riverside project might be, because of the MNRRA, height restrictions and other factors.

Llewellyn said he might contact the University of Minnesota about an alternate site.