After recently reigniting her passion for creating art, Duluthian Brianna Borka was looking for a way to share her works with a greater audience. That's when she saw an article about Seattle artist Stacy Milrany and her Free Little Art Gallery.
"It's similar to the Little Free Libraries in that you put it in your front yard and anyone can put their artwork in or take the artwork out," Borka said. "I thought that Duluth has a really strong art community of people who may not be artisans for a living, but who would like to have a place for their pieces of art. We have a lot of talent here."
Borka, a substitute teacher at Edison Charter Schools, recently returned to creating art after a break. For the 11 years that she's been with the school, she'd often find herself admiring art created by the students.
"And I'd think to myself, 'I wish I was that good. I'm awful. I can't do that again,'" Borka said. "But I started to draw again when one of my students asked me for help with her Inktober drawing challenge prompt."
Borka started participating in Inktober, a drawing challenge to draw every day in October. This led to her getting back into pen artwork, calligraphy and drawing semi-realistic animals. When she saw the gallery article on social media, she decided to set up one of her own to share both her own art and other people's creations.
"It's a good reminder that everyone who wants to be an artist can be — you just have to work at it sometimes and not get discouraged," Borka said.
Borka solicited help from a friend's boyfriend to create the small wooden art gallery that stands outside her home on North 56th Avenue West, near Eighth Street. It's made mostly of repurposed materials. The post comes from a former raised garden bed; the frame is made of repurposed cedar; and the little shelves were salvaged from an old organ.
"Even the hook is hand-forged from iron that his dad found," Borka said.
Repurposing is close to Borka's heart. She previously taught classes at the Duluth Public Library on how to create boxes from old greeting cards and turn calendars into envelopes. But she's best known in her neighborhood for repurposing used crayons into bigger new ones.
"That's what I hand out on Halloween instead of candy: recycled crayons," Borka said. "In fact, I had one of my students come up to me and ask if I could move back to my old house because he liked getting crayons from me every Halloween. I said 'No, I like my house,' but I love that he asked."
Before she even got the gallery up in May, Borka created an Instagram account and started making and sharing her own art and asking for submissions from others. So far, she has about 500 followers, though she said about 100 of them are fellow little art galleries.
"Most of us have popped up since December," Borka said. "I think it's partially because of COVID. We haven't been able to connect with people like usual, so this was a new way. It's resonated with people."
According to a list of fellow little art galleries, there are a few others in Minnesota, including ones in Lakeville and St. Cloud. Borka hasn't had a chance to visit those yet, but she's already received visitors from as far as Tacoma, Washington, to her little gallery.
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Inside the gallery, Borka has pieces of art from as close as her neighbors to as far away as Washington and Wisconsin. She's received paintings, drawings, figures, sketches and more. Her one rule for submissions: "If it fits, it sits."
"I may have gotten that from a cat meme," Borka said. "But that's my one rule. It has to fit in the gallery."
She also won't mail pieces of art to people if they see something that they like. They'll have to visit in order to retrieve art. But people are free to mail artwork to her or leave it in the gallery. She does request that artists sign their art in some way, though that's a suggestion, not a requirement.
"I just think it's nice to have something to identify yourself," Borka said. "For example, I sign with my initials and a paw print, since I don't really like my signature. Another lady uses her tag from geocaching. Others tag their Instagram handles. Whatever works."
Borka shares updates on the gallery on her Instagram account, @FreeLittleArtGalleryDuluth. She especially likes to share little updates on her figurines that she places inside the gallery to ostensibly view the art. Each of the figures have been named in honor of historical figures, such as cell donor Henrietta Lacks and astronaut and teacher Christa McAuliffe, in order to give them a bit of personality.
"I figure that makes them less likely to be stolen, or at least it might help us be able to get them back if they do disappear," Borka said. "It's a lot more fun to be like 'Hey, help us find Christa,' or 'Oh, no, Norman's missing!' I don't know if it's actually worked or if people are just 'Minnesota nice' enough to not mess with them."
So far, Borka's gallery has been really well-received by her friends and neighbors. But she would like to see more people take the art home with them.
"I appreciate that people have been respectful of it, but I hope they realize that they're also welcome to take something they like with them," Borka said. "You don't have to make art to take art. So when you stop by, if you like a piece, feel free to take it with you."