Victoria Lauing is convinced that an invisibility cloak covers her organization, the Chicago Avenue Fire Arts Center.
To those in the know, the center supports as many as 800 artists per year working with heat, flame and fire — particularly those who are people of color, new to large-scale sculpture, or focusing on social justice or environmental issues.
"This organization being led by four moms is a big part of it," said artistic director Heather Doyle. "It's like: How can we help you learn and grow and achieve whatever you want?"
The center is located in an old movie house on Chicago Avenue near 38th Street, where George Floyd was killed. On Monday — Martin Luther King Jr. Day — volunteers raised a steel version of the giant plywood fist that was erected at the intersection last summer.
A crew of eight built the work, originally created by Jordan Powell Karis, at Chicago Fire Arts over the course of just five days.
The organization does not take credit for the sculpture. It only wanted to be of service.
"The fist is an icon of Black power and that is what its significance is to the community here at George Floyd Square," said Lauing, who is the center's executive director. "Our role in its re-creation was about ceding power.
"That is why this isn't a project of the CAFAC. It was a project of the community. We had resources to offer, so we did."
Bringing equity to public art
Lauing, Doyle, gallery coordinator Jhyle Rinker and volunteer coordinator Jessica Bergman Tank make up the fiery core of Chicago Fire Arts.
The center has about 135 pieces of equipment to support blacksmithing, welding, mold-making and foundry work, and neon-bending.
Built in 1915 as the Nokomis Theater, a silent cinema, and transformed into an auto body shop in 1952, the 5,000-square-foot center was founded in 2007 by a group of six neighbors who met each other through work with the Central and Bryant neighborhood organizations.
There are still traces of the building's former owners, including a projection room, a big proscenium arch and the cinema's original tiles, which were covered with industrial linoleum during the auto-shop days.
In the front, the Nokomis Gallery offers artists a place to sell their work. It is currently closed because of the pandemic, but the RedHot Gift Shop is open online at cafac.org/redhot.
A key goal of the center is to increase equity in the field of public art.
"Public art is a vision of the community," said Doyle. "If it doesn't reflect the people that are part of that community, then that's an issue."
Christopher Harrison, a visual artist and Chicago Fire Arts board member, feels strongly about the long-term significance of public art.
"I think art is stronger when it's available to everyone," he said. "When it's there in your neighborhood, in your environment, it becomes a part of you, like you become of it."
Last week, artist Angela Two Stars came to Chicago Fire Arts to work on a public art project aimed at Energy Park Drive in St. Paul, where the St. Paul Port Authority has a water filtration system.
Mentored by veteran St. Paul artist Seitu Jones, Two Stars is thinking about what's under the surface of our bodies. We all have bones and blood beneath our different colored skins.
She needed panels that would withstand winter and hold up to graffiti, so the staff at Chicago Fire Arts trained her in crafting enameled steel.
"It's like: I have this idea, how do I make it real?" said Two Stars, who wound up experimenting with melted glass mixed with minerals.
"To get advice, support from Chicago Fire Arts and really get steered toward enamel was a selling point for me. Now I can have a hand in the work rather than just sending it to a fabricator."
At its core, the organization wants to remain accessible to any interested artist. It offers generous scholarships and liability insurance to people who participate in their programs.
Earned income makes up 75% of the organization's budget, augmented by grants from the Minnesota State Arts Board and Metropolitan Regional Arts Council. McKnight Foundation is also a longtime funder.
Last July, during the continued protests and unrest, the center started offering workshops for the community. It made plasticine impressions of mementos brought in by people — ranging from a Red Bull cap used by protectors of the square to a bullet casing found in a speed bump — and then cast them in bronze.
The idea came from listening to community members. The real magic happened when heat entered the picture.
"There's something really healing about pouring metal," said Tank. "It's a really physical, very intense art form. There's heat, there's trust, there's community.
"You cannot pour 70 pounds of bronze without a team. Without a community coming together."