Council Chamber Art Project

Council Chamber Art Project Exhibition

The Ramsey County Historical Society is pleased to announce that the original pieces of art created for the Council Chambers will be on display.

The original art created by CLUES, Emily Donovan and Adam Swanson are on display at the RCHS Exhibition Galley in Landmark Center.
For Landmark Center and RCHS Exhibition Gallery open hours and COVID policies see the Landmark Center website at

The fourth piece by Leah Yellowbird will be on display at the Ramsey County Courthouse/Saint Paul City Hall shortly.


Ramsey County and the City of Saint Paul asked the Ramsey County Historical Society (RCHS) to lead an effort to add additional artwork to the council chambers in the historic St. Paul City Hall-Ramsey County Courthouse. At issue are the four original John Norton murals commissioned for the council chambers nearly 90 years ago. These reflect a view of progress dominated by White men and minimizing the contributions of women, indigenous people, and people of color. While this style was popular at the time, it presents an incomplete and abstract view of history that did not then, nor now, reflect the entirety of the community.

Four new, original pieces of art were commissioned that address the original purpose of the Norton murals and are inclusive of the diversity of our community today.

John Norton was a notable muralist from Chicago and he was commissioned by the architects of the City Hall-Courthouse building. He was tasked with creating four works for the council chambers that celebrated the development and progress of Saint Paul, as envisioned by a steering committee comprised only of White men. This was a common arrangement that left absent other voices and perspectives. It was this absence that the project seeks to address.

There is value in preserving the original artwork in-situ – it was created specifically for the chambers by a noted 20th century artist. Yet they remain an unwelcoming, and incomplete depiction of a community in a working space meant to serve all residents of Ramsey County. This establishes a conflict between preserving a piece of community heritage and ensuring all are welcome in our halls of government. To address both needs it was determined that new art would be commissioned from local artists and installed in front of the Norton Murals. While this approach covers the originals, it respects the history of the building and allows them to be safely preserved for future study and educational needs at a far lower cost than removing them. In addition, contextual interpretive materials regarding John Norton and the original murals were prepared and are available on this website. Artists statements for the new artwork have been prepared and translated into Spanish, Somali, and Hmong.

Additional reading material is available on this website that articulates the wide variety of perspectives on how discriminatory, controversial, or otherwise problematic public art from the past is addressed today. As this discussion continues to unfold here and around the country, RCHS is committed to ensuring that these varied views are available so that readers and visitors to the Council Chambers can form informed opinions regarding public art in our community.

Art Selection Task Force

RCHS recruited a diverse task force of community members through an open application process to advise on the creation of a call for artists and selection of artists. The Task Force also advised on interpretive panels and made the final recommendation from the task force to County Commissioners and City Council Members. The Task Force currently includes Tomas Leal, Betsy Mowry Voss, Colleen Sheehy, Elsa Vega Perez, Marilyn Burnett, Bob Parker, Olivia Mulvey Morawiecki, and Chad Roberts (chair).


Ramsey County Historical Society, (RCHS) on behalf of Ramsey County and the City of Saint Paul, issued a call for artists to create new artwork that celebrated the people and progress of Saint Paul. Artists and teams of artists were invited to apply via this detailed call for artists that was widely distributed in several languages through print and online means.

The Call was distributed through a variety of channels, including through the City and County, the East Side Freedom Library, to diverse community organizations, non-profit and commercial arts and cultural organizations, social media, traditional media, individual artists and informal arts groups.

Prospective artists were invited to attend several open houses/tours of the Council Chamber to view the original artwork and the space. RCHS received 20 completed applications, these were reviewed and ranked by the Task Force and nine finalists were identified. Finalists were interviewed by the Task Force leading to the selection of the artists identified below. This was a highly competitive field of applicants. The finalists created four pieces of art and were paid $3,000 per piece.


With this public art opportunity, RCHS sought to diversify the voices engaged in the community’s public art presence. RCHS encouraged all artists to apply. We encouraged artists or teams of artists led by, or inclusive of, a person who self identifies as a person of color or Indigenous (POCI) to respond to the call for artists.

Additionally, several open public meetings were held to gather community input, explain the goals of the project, introduce the artists, and their ideas for the new artwork.

Additionally, the chosen artists all worked with a variety of communities to gather input and ideas, which was reflected in the finished pieces. For more information on each artists/group of artists process and their research efforts, see their statements below.

To learn about about the national debate on public art, see the links after the artists’ statements, below.

December 16, 2019 – public meeting and artist presentations at the East Side Freedom Library: Video on Youtube 

August 19, 2020 – artwork presentation event: Youtube video.
Thank you to the City of Saint Paul Office of Technology & Communications who produced and shared this video with us.

Chosen Artists

The Latinx Muralism Apprenticeship at CLUES
Full Artist Statement

The Latinx Muralism Apprenticeship at CLUES (Comunidades Latinas Unidas En Servicio) developed a collectively-created and community-informed mural highlighting the Latinx community in Minnesota, with a focus on Latina women, in order to flesh out a more complete picture of Minnesota’s past, present, and future.

This team adopted a collaborative approach, stemming from the first cohort of the CLUES Latinx Muralism Apprenticeship project. Lead artists are Marina Castillo, Zamara Cuyún, Aaron Johnson-Ortiz, and Gustavo Lira, while another 10+ artists have participated in direct and indirect ways in the creation of this mural. Additionally, the mural was informed by community input, including 2 sessions with Latino elders, and one with young Latina women.

Why have we chosen to focus on the Latinx community and, more specifically Latinx women? Latinx communities within Minnesota tend to be viewed, by the general population, as a recent phenomenon. In reality, Latinx populations – specifically those identifying as Mexican-American – have been an integral part of the Minnesota story since the late 1800s and early 1900s with the creation of vibrant communities in St. Paul – communities that were subsequently displaced and erased on multiple occasions. Additionally, agricultural workers, of predominantly Mexican origin, have made significant economic and cultural contributions to greater rural Minnesota throughout most of the state’s history. Compounded by traditions of female silencing and invisibility within male-dominated Western cultures, Latinx women find themselves intersectionally positioned as doubly unseen and doubly erased within what our mainstream Minnesota society has historically valued.

Everything rests upon the turtle’s shell as it floats in the primordial waters of creation. A stabilizing element of strength, the turtle is recognized as home by many Indigenous nations of North America – regardless of geo-political borders created by colonizers – this includes many Latinx community members who originate from countless Indigenous nations to the south.

A feathered serpent of fire, water, and life unfurls from the turtle shell, reaching upward, toward the sun. Two hands emerge from the earth-turtle – the aged hands of our communities. Hands that know hard work. Hands of immigrants, of migrant laborers, hands of the ancestors, generations who have come before us who have worked tirelessly, selflessly striving to create a world for future generations.

The hands hold the heart of a nopal cactus. In lead artist Marina Castillo’s words, “When I travel south, as soon as I see cactus I feel like I’m home.  My people travel on foot to find a better way of life – to get away from poverty, violence, and more. They travel through deserts, hills and valleys, with no water, through thousands of cacti varieties. I think of their struggle and heartache to get to America and the families they leave behind.  Every cactus I paint, draw, sketch I think of them. Wishing their struggle was not so. I don’t just paint cactus because they’re the “in thing” right now. Many retailers sell cactus everything because it’s the “in thing.” For me it’s about my people and their struggle. Cute as they may be, they all carry a piece of my heart and my people in my prayers. I seldom share the reason for my art but after working with a Mural Apprenticeship I’m feeling more and more like I need to share my stories for many reasons that will continue to share. ‘Con El Nopal En La Frente.’”

Our central allegorical figure is that of a woman, a worker, standing strong, occupying her space, claiming her many accomplishments and contributions to society that are too often ignored. She wears the wings of the monarch butterfly, whose migratory path between Mexico and the United States follows the same path traveled by many of our Latinx relatives. As the monarch flies south for survival, we migrate north for the same reason. Behind her are the fields in which so many have labored in order to make a home and a life here. The sun shines strong and radiant.

The hands represent the manual labor, the hard work out people do and all the knowledge they pass on to us for future generations.  Those hands have taught us to work hard and never give up!

From the hand on the right, the waters of Mni Šota Makoče cascade downward, cycling back into the original waters. Water is life.

On the left side, corn plants grow along the arm. Corn (or maize) is native to Mesoamerica. A sacred food, it is an important symbol of the origin and sustenance of human life. Maya people often refer to themselves as “gente de maiz” – people of corn. Upon arrival, European settler-colonists adopted the cultivation of corn. Today, it is the number one crop grown in Minnesota.

At the foot of the hands stand Latinx community members representing our diversity and our heritage.

CLUES short version printed artist statements
CLUES Statement English
CLUES Statement Hmong
CLUES Statement Somali
CLUES Statement Spanish

The main CLUES team members are:

Aaron Johnson-Ortiz is a Saint Paul-based Chicanx community-engaged artist whose multi-disciplinary work centers social justice and movement building. His “Workers United in Struggle” mural was named “Best Mural” by City Pages last year. He currently leads the art department at CLUES (Comunidades Latinas Unidas En Servicio), Minnesota’s largest Latinx organization. Earlier this month, he opened a new art gallery at CLUES’ Saint Paul headquarters — currently the only non-profit Latinx art gallery in Minnesota.

Long-time Saint Paul resident, artist, and mental healthcare worker Marina Castillo centers spiritual healing in all of her work. She led local mural and installation projects at the Minnesota History Center and Guadalupe Alternative Programs. Castillo is a prolific painter and collage artist, who has exhibited in Minnesota, California, and Iowa. Most recently, she had a solo exhibit at the local Wilder Foundation.

Originally from Mexico, Gustavo Lira has worked as a Minnesota muralist for almost 20 years. He was the lead Minnesota-based artist in the creation of the “Mosaic of the Americas,” the largest outdoor mosaic mural in the state. Some of his commissions are: Seward Co-Op, Plains Art Museum in North Dakota, Roosevelt High School in Minneapolis, La Palma Supermarket in Saint Paul.

Zamara Cuyun is a Minneapolis-based painter whose work explores her indigenous family roots in Guatemala. A prolific painter, she explores Maya history and iconography, as well as colonization and resistance. She recently opened a solo exhibit at the Artistry MN gallery in Bloomington.

Emily Donovan
Full Artist Statement for “Earth Stewards

Community gardens fill acres of land within Ramsey County. These gardens are spaces where many can gather, spend time outside, grow food sustainably and celebrate diversity in our environment.  My artwork, Earth Stewards, makes visible these community efforts using natural dyes and pigments, the same dyes and pigments used by cultures represented in our community.

Using the colors of nature is a tradition shared globally. To create this artwork, I expanded my research in natural pigments and dyes by focusing on both the indigenous and immigrant communities who live here.  I found exciting continuities in this research. Sources of color in rich blues, yellow and reds have historic properties shared by all cultures.

I foraged and found materials to make colors that exhibit this universal trait.  By over-dying multiple times, a variety of colors emerged from different sources. Below is an index that includes the color used in this piece of art, and the regions of their origin.

Each color is made by boiling the plant or insect material in water to make a dye bath. Similar to batik, I use a variety of waxes to mask off areas.  This creates a space for the dyes to be absorbed thus allowing designs and imagery.

I was inspired by the artistry of our immigrant and native communities. There is the embroidery of Hmong story cloths, Henna designs from East Africa, and designs that illustrate indigenous food sources like wild rice. Figures are intermingled within the gardens. These figures depict a variety of activities such as planting, tending to the gardens, harvesting and enjoying the spaces.

Earth Stewards is an urban scene that captures the gardens and growers as they gather together and tend to their land. The once vacant space within our city is now rich with food, color and togetherness and is a place where we can grow something beautiful.

Marigold – Native to Central and South America
Goldenrod- Native plant and locally foraged from Minnesota
Kamala – India, Indonesia and Southeast Asia
Red Onion Skins – Native plant

Horse Vine – Native to Southeast Asia and Laos
Cochineal – Native to Central and South America
Madder Root – Native to the Mediterranean/Europe and Central America
Sumac Berries – Native plant and locally foraged from Minnesota

Indigo – Native to Southern United States, Asia, Central and South America

Symplocos – Native to Indonesia and India
Oak Galls – Native plant and locally foraged from Minnesota
Black Walnut – Native plant and locally foraged from Minnesota
Tara Pods- Native to Peru and South America
Sumac Leaves – Native plant and locally foraged from Minnesota

Emily Donovan short version printed artist statements
Emily Donovan Statement English
Emily Donovan Statement Hmong
Emily Donovan Statement Somali
Emily Donovan Statement Spanish

Emily Donovan Biography
Emily Donovan is a Saint Paul resident who studied art history and visual art at the University of Minnesota with an emphasis on printmaking and painting. Her batik art relies on wax and handmade dyes made from foraged materials, local pigments, and natural plants. Emily is a recipient of Minnesota State Arts Board Artist Initiative grants in 2014 and 2019, and most recently completed her first artist residency in Cusco, Peru. She regularly volunteers in schools, teaching her natural dye process. Her award-winning work is shown nationally, in galleries and art centers. Her commissions include works for the Minnesota Vikings Eagan Hotel, the NE Minneapolis Library, and for a high-rise in Taipei, Taiwan.

Adam Swanson
Full Artist Statement: Response to John Norton Murals at the Ramsey Country Courthouse

Through much of 2019 I have been commissioned to paint murals for in- and out-door spaces around Minnesota. These projects began in consultation with community members and committees to find cohesive imagery that engages local neighborhoods and visitors. I am extremely grateful for this opportunity to respond to the John Norton mural about Industry at the Ramsey County Courthouse. I grew up in Ramsey County and this has been an important opportunity to share my research on Minnesota’s history in order to re-interpret the John Norton murals (1931-32) and connect with the state’s Native American and environmental activist communities.

As a member of the Twin Ports Art-Science Collaborative for the past five years, I have worked with local researchers studying a variety of fields. From taking water samples aboard the RV Blue Heron on Lake Superior to touring the SPRUCE climate change project in Grand Rapids, my membership in this collaborative has given me a rare glimpse into the wealth of important data researchers are gathering about our local environment. I am also a member of Duluth For Clean Water, an all-volunteer 501c4 organization seeking a healthy future for the St. Louis River and Lake Superior watershed. I was also fortunate to spend significant time at the Standing Rock protests against the Dakota Access Pipeline, listening.

The goal of my painting is to celebrate my heroes and friends who are working for the future health of Minnesota. I included current industries that will carry Minnesota into a sustainable tomorrow. I want to inspire new thoughts about our actions on the Mississippi River and surrounding areas. In the Lake Superior watershed of the Fond Du Lac reservation where I live, people are acutely concerned about our relationship with industry, water, and the environment. For example, projects such as the Glencore/Polymet mine threaten to pollute Lake Superior for generations. Our increasing use of plastic and newly opened waterways create dynamic new challenges. By learning about and sharing this knowledge through thoughtful paintings, we are taking advantage of an important time to acknowledge our changing, and soon to be irreversible, relationship to the land, water, and animals that make our area so special.

Research information & links provided by Adam Swanson (2019)
According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, solar installer and wind turbine technician are projected as the fastest-growing job categories through 2026. A recent report by the Minneapolis-based McKnight Foundation found the state could create an additional 44,000 jobs in the wind and solar industries by 2050. <source>

  • Slayton Solar Project was completed in 2013 by developer Ecos Energy. This photovoltaic project is among the largest in Minnesota and has the capacity to generate 2 MW of electricity– enough to power over 263 homes.
  • Several large retailers in Minnesota have gone solar, including IKEA, Target and Mortenson Construction. IKEA has installed one of the largest corporate photovoltaic systems in the state with 1 MW of solar capacity at their location in Bloomington.
  • In 2018, wind energy provided over $12.7 million to rural Minnesota counties through this wind energy production tax. To date, wind energy has paid over $94.4 million to rural communities since 2004.
  • In 2018, wind energy provided 17.9% of Minnesota’s in-state electricity generation. That’s the equivalent of powering 1,091,000 homes. Minnesota ranks 7th in the nation for its share of in-state electricity generation from wind power.
  • Wind energy provided over 3,000 jobs either directly or indirectly in 2019.

Adam Swanson short version printed artist statements
Adam Swanson Statement English
Adam Swanson Statement Hmong
Adam Swanson Statement Somali
Adam Swanson Statement Spanish

Adam Swanson Biography
Adam Swanson grew up in Ramsey County and currently lives in Cloquet, Minnesota on the Fond Du Lac Reservation. He is a muralist who works closely with city leaders, businesses and neighborhood residents, and his commissioned work includes Allete-Minnesota Power, The Superior Hiking Trail, the Minnesota Environmental Protection Agency, Bent Paddle Brewery, and murals in Mora, Chisholm, the MSP International Airport, and for Spirit Mountain Grand Chalet in Duluth, among others. Adam has shown his work nationally and internationally. He has had grant and artist residencies from organizations in Minnesota and world-wide, including South Africa, the Pacific Islands, Sweden and the Palmer Station in Antarctica.

Leah Yellowbird
Full Artist Statement

Closing the gap between cultures was my goal with this piece.

The original John Norton artworks first placed on these walls was at the time true to the settlers daily lives, from the point of view of the original artist. I took the same time period of these murals and designed my piece from the outlook of a Anishinaabe person who was born and lived in the area during the same time period. The design is what a native person would have focused on, the woodlands, where they live and how they live, and what they see and feel comfort in every day.

This has been a very unique chance to cover the original with another original, two different views of the same place – one from the indigenous people, and the other from the men and women who settled here in Minnesota. My art is about holding on to traditional values and interpreting them in a more urban setting. No matter the changes in us as a nation we all have the common thread of nature to keep us grounded.

The inspiration for the piece is a pair of men’s Anishinaabe leggings. The vintage leggings were made originally at about the same time the original paintings were done on the wall, so I wanted to use the patterns from them, and to make modern what is still true to native culture. When I found these leggings, I was so sad to see them for sale and I needed to bring them home. I purchased them from someone who had them packed away, and who told me that some relative had bought them on a trip to Minnesota during the 1930-1940s, which touched my heart. Many natives at the time sold beautiful powwow regalia. The sadness was made full circle for me when I was able to bring them back to Minnesota. I kept one legging and shared the other with a band member, and we both hang them framed in our homes. The traditional won’t ever be lost with me.

Leah Yellowbird printed artist statements
Leah Yellowbird Statement English
Leah Yellowbird Statement Hmong
Leah Yellowbird Statement Somali
Leah Yellowbird Statement Spanish

Leah Yellowbird Biography
Leah Yellowbird currently lives and works in Grand Rapids, Minnesota. Leah is a lifelong Minnesota resident, and has worked with Native and non-Native communities across the state for her art projects.

Leah creates mixed-media pieces incorporating painting, beadwork, sculpture and fiber art, connected to her Anishinaabe heritage. She is also a muralist, and has created public art for Grand Rapids Arts, the Grand Rapids Area Library, Bemidji State University, the St. Louis County Government Services Center, and recently was commissioned to create a 50-foot mural for the Blandin Foundation in Grand Rapids, Minnesota. She has received Minnesota State Arts Board Folk & Traditional Arts Grants in 2017 and for 2020, and other fellowships and awards.

John Norton Historical & Biographical Information

John Norton Murals History

To learn about about the national debate on public art:

Background Regarding “Life of Washington” by Victor Arnautoff. Includes links to various articles.

MPR – Removing Racist Statues.

Jim Crow Museum of Racist Memorabilia.

In Defense of Racist Monuments.

As monuments fall, how does the world reckon with a racist past?

Why A History Professor Says ‘Racist’ Emancipation Memorial Shouldn’t Come Down.

The Architecture of Racial Segregation: The Challenges of Preserving the Problematical Past

Removing Racist Symbols Isn’t a Denial of History

Must we allow symbols of racism on public land?