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'122 Conversations': Duluth-raised artist Anne Labovitz launches people-inspired, international art project

Artist Anne Labovitz interviewed community leaders from Duluth and its sister cities and used the conversations to paint abstract representations of the featured cities. The exhibition is on an international tour and will be shown at the Tweed Museum of Art in May 2018. Photo submitted by Anne Labovitz1 / 4
Anne Labovitz created paintings based on conversations she had with city leaders and civilians in Duluth's sister cities. This piece represents Vaxjo, Sweden. Photo submitted by Anne Labovitz. 2 / 4
Anne Labovitz consolidated the "122 Conversations" project for ease of travel. Each of the images is rolled into a scroll and packed into what she likens to Mary Poppins' suitcase. Photo submitted by Anne Labovitz3 / 4
This piece was created by Anne Labovitz based on conversations with residents of Rania, Iraqi Kurdistan. Photo submitted by Anne Labovitz4 / 4

There can be a time in a one-on-one conversation where everything fades away and it's just the two people together. Anne Labovitz refers to it as falling in love and, in the course of her current internationally inspired multimedia art project, it happened 59 times.

"It's that one beautiful, billowing moment of connection that overwhelms you," she said in a recent phone interview from New York City.

Labovitz recently conducted 20-45 minute conversations with community leaders and residents from Duluth and its five sister cities: Thunder Bay, Canada; Vaxjo, Sweden; Petrozavodsk, Russia; Rania, Iraqi Kurdistan; and Ohara-Isumi City, Japan. The project, "122 Conversations," includes videos and paintings that were born of getting to know dozens of strangers.

An exhibition of the work will travel to the cities that inspired it — it was in Thunder Bay in September and a delegation is taking it to Iraq this week — before the finale at the Tweed Museum of Art in May 2018.

Labovitz said the project came from wondering whether she could build meaningful relationships through the art world and be a catalyst for positive social change. She took the idea to Duluth Sister Cities International, a local nonprofit that works to create city-to-city friendships around the world by offering travel and opportunities to learn about other cultures, which provided the introductions.

"It's something I'm so deeply committed to because I love people and community and connections," Labovitz said. "It comes from my love of people and pausing to see people."

'What do you hope for'

Labovitz is a Duluth-raised, St. Paul-based, internationally shown artist with a background in portraiture. In 2014, she created "Conversant Portraits" for Northern Spark, a one-day-only, dusk-till-dawn summer art festival in Minneapolis and St. Paul. For that event, she interviewed about 500 people who stopped by her booth, and she made abstract paintings from their words.

She used a similar interview process for "122 Conversations."

"I'm interested in normal things," Labovitz said. "In how we're similar and dissimilar. Where do you live, who do you live with, how do you celebrate, what's your form of transportation."

She starts her conversations with "What is your name" and "What is your favorite color" and works up to "describe yourself" and "what do you hope for."

The 60 conversations were conducted via Skype and recorded.

"For me, as a person and an artist, I fell in love with each of these people," Labovitz said.

(That's not actually true. Just once she encountered a subject that she could not connect with on the same level, she said.)

Labovitz took the recordings into her studio, gave them a few more listens and paint-wrote what the people were saying to create an abstract painting that represented the city.

Liz Taylor said the project falls in line with what Duluth Sister Cities International is all about.

"These connections is what Sister Cities is — people-to-people relationships," the group's former president said. "And right now in the world, that's so important. Doing it through art is so wonderful."

Bright swaths on white tyvek

For ease of travel, Labovitz has consolidated the project to a single suitcase filled with the representations of the work created for each city done on tyvek — bright swaths on white, as she described it — and scrolled for the sake of space efficiency.

"It's intentionally packaged to be the Mary Poppins bag when you arrive," she said.

The exhibition opens this month at a library in Rania at an event that will include local dignitaries, though Labovitz isn't making the trip. A delegation from Duluth, which includes Michelle Naar-Obed, is carrying the work.

When the show opens in Sweden in early March, Rania and Sweden will connect via Skype. Duluth's sister cities, Naar-Obed said, have been trying to find a way to interact with each other. Naar-Obed said this connection to the rest of the world is especially important for the Kurdish people — who in the past have been kept from this sort of interaction by government sanctions.

"They've been so isolated from the world," she said. "They've been totally excluded from connecting with world communities. The impact this has is probably tenfold (more) than for countries that haven't experienced this kind of exclusion."

Throughout the project, Labovitz said she found people who really wanted to be interviewed. In Duluth, Sweden and Canada, there was a lot of talk about visiting cabins. A handful of subjects hoped their children would continue their education. When it came to the six mayors — which includes former Duluth mayor Don Ness, they were all passionate about community, art and culture, safety and the environment.

Beyond that:

"I learned that there is so much extraordinary," Labovitz said. "I think that we're all extraordinary if you just pause long enough to see someone or listen. Human beings are really beautiful. It's interesting to talk to someone who is willing to share themselves in a truthful way. When I can see someone, it humanizes me. Together we're something better than what we were before because we stopped to see each other."

"122 Conversations"

• Thunder Bay, Canada: September 2016

• Rania, Iraqi Kurdistan: January 2017

• Vaxjo, Sweden: March 2017

• Petrozavodsk, Russia, May 2017

• Ohara-Isumi City, Japan: January 2018

• Tweed Museum of Art, Duluth: May 2018