What the skyways share with the Vatican

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June 6, 2005 // UPDATED 1:55 pm - April 26, 2007
By: Jeremy Stratton
Jeremy Stratton

There's a mystery in the skyway at the Highland Bank Court Building, 811 LaSalle Ave. In-between the usual shops and offices, behind the storefront glass of a vacant retail space, worn wooden boxes bearing religious icons, warped Polaroids, singed sheet music and small ceramic mummies hang on a temporary wall.

The mysterious display bears no description, only a name: Mark D. Roberts, a Web site of the same name and a phone number.

So who is Mark D. Roberts?

Five decades ago, he was a 13 year-old child prodigy in Carmel, Calif., a touring classical pianist with stage fright so severe it would leave him physically ill for days after performances. In the mid-'50s, after Roberts' return from a tour, his father asked their neighbor, a photographer who had been a concert pianist himself, to try and help the young boy with his fear. Roberts accompanied the photographer on a four-day trip to Yosemite National Park, where he helped the man take black-and-white photographs of the park's natural wonders.

The photographer's name was Ansel Adams, and his mentoring started the young Roberts on his way to a photography career.

Today, Roberts is an accomplished photographer and exhibitor who still speaks of his art with youthful excitement.

"I learned you can put a dark cloth over your head and it's just you and whatever you're dealing with," Roberts said of his early artistic experience. "It was such a contrast from performing in public."

As a gallery owner, Roberts has brought well-known photographers such as Annie Lebowitz to Minneapolis. His work hung in the Georgetown dining room of then-Vice President Walter Mondale, and hangs permanently in the Museum of Modern Art in New York, L.A.'s Getty Museum, and even the Vatican.

Now, he can add the Downtown skyway to that list. Roberts and Minneapolis artist Denise Rouleau said they would like to organize a larger series of skyway exhibits in vacant sites in the near future, sort of a skyway art crawl.

The work

The current installation is part of the larger "Art of the Catacombs" collaboration between Roberts and Rouleau. A two-day studio show, June 11-12, will focus on the catacombs project; hundreds of small ceramic mummies placed in old scored, weathered wooden boxes once used to store offset printer type.

Rouleau said the project was inspired years ago while she was touring the catacombs of Paris, a maze of tunnels beneath the city. One morning, Rouleau reached the "hall of the dead," where bodies from overbooked cemeteries had been brought centuries ago to make their eternal rest.

"On all sides, there were these stacks of skeletons," Rouleau said. "They were meticulously stacked, so close that you're almost touching them."

She called it a "disturbing but introspective experience of your own identity.

"There are 6 million of them, none identified in any way," Rouleau said. "Every one of them has lived an individual life, but in the end, they're all down there in this mass grave. It really plays upon how we look at identity and the value of an individual."

Rouleau cited the difference between media attention on one individual, such as Terri Schiavo, and the numerous, often anonymous deaths in Iraq or Rwanda, for example.

"The value of one individual as opposed to 1 million," she said.

Roberts and Rouleau have been working together for almost three years, since they met at Muffaletta's restaurant in St. Paul, where Rouleau was manager and Roberts was a server. Both have moved on to pursue art full-time. Rouleau quit to pursue sculpting with clay instead of marzipan, she said.

The studio show will feature some of Roberts' recent work, as well.

Roberts stopped doing black-and-white photography in 1982. He now works with "alternative photography processes," often mixed with other media, such as manipulated Polaroids and "chemigrams," an inversion of the darkroom process that produces unique, unplanned designs, never two the same.

"It defies al the laws of photography," Roberts said. "There's contamination all over the place; that's what makes it so sweet!"

Religious themes run through much of Roberts' work. It's mystery, not ministry, which interests him, however. Roberts calls his art a spiritual experience.

To see more of Roberts' and Rouleau's work, stop by the Highland Court skyway or visit the Web site markdroberts.net.

The "Art of the Catacombs" studio show will take place Saturday, June 11, 7 p.m. "until late," and Sunday, June 12, 3-8 p.m., at 650 25th Ave. SE, near the University of Minnesota campus.