Alan and Nicole Milligan pose with one of the pinwheels for “Better Angels,” their new sculpture scheduled to be installed on Landmark Plaza in downtown St. Paul later this week. Photo by Brad Stauffer

Sculpture on downtown plaza will evoke unity at a time of civil strife

By Carolyn Walkup

We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.

— Abraham Lincoln
March 4, 1861

At a time of great fear over the deadly COVID-19 pandemic and widespread rioting over the killing of a black man while in police custody in Minneapolis, two local artists are about to unveil a public sculpture that is meant to brighten the mood of its viewers. Titled “Better Angels,” from a line in President Abraham Lincoln’s first inaugural address, the sculpture is made up of thousands of blue and white pinwheels arranged in a gigantic arc, evoking angels’ wings fluttering in the breeze.

“I think it’s time that people want a little bit of joy,” said Nicole Milligan, who created the sculpture with her husband, Alan.

The sculpture, which measures 20 feet long by 10 feet wide by 14 feet high, is scheduled to be installed in the coming week on the grassy plaza between Landmark Center and St. Peter Street in downtown St. Paul. “It’s something that can be managed in this time of social distancing,” said Amy Mino, executive director of Landmark Center, which sponsored the artwork along with the St. Paul Downtown Alliance and the Rice Park Association.

Mino credits the Milligans with coming up with the idea for the sculpture. The couple actually proposed it before the coronavirus closed all of the indoor art galleries in the Twin Cities.


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The Milligans have created much public art in the United States and Europe, including “Oarsman Before the Sun” on St. Paul’s Raspberry Island, “Samuel Beckett Chess Set” exhibited in Belfast, Dublin and Paris, and the recently completed “Cloud Horse” in Sisseton, South Dakota.

“We wanted to give more vitality to the downtown streetscape,” Spencer said. “When we have these kinds of visual engagements, like murals and farmers’ markets, they create a strong sense of place.”

“Public art is a way that people can participate and remind themselves that there’s still beauty in the world,” Nicole Milligan said. “And this is a way for us to give back to the community. I wanted to make something beautiful for my city. I’ve lived all over Europe and met my husband in Ireland, but I’ve always come back home.”

Nicole grew up in St. Paul, just down Selby Avenue from the couple’s home and studio in Ramsey Hill. When she is not creating art, Milligan is writing it. She is the author of 10 novels, including White Truffles in Winter and In the Company of Angels. She has won many awards for her work, including a fellowship from the Minnesota State Arts Board.

The Milligans have lost a lot of art commissions this year due to the coronavirus. “We were going to have our biggest year,” Nicole said. “I still have hope it will all work out. Americans rebuild. That’s who we are.”

The Milligans build their sculptures with help from first offenders of nonviolent crimes who are on parole. Through Project Remand, the parolees learn about construction, welding and concrete making, among other skills. “They get a sense of ownership from working on public art,” Nicole said. “We can help these people shift their lives a bit.”

A model of the Milligans’ sculpture as viewed from the side of the 20-foot long archway.

The Downtown Alliance is paying half of the costs of the “Better Angels” project with the support of private foundations, according to its president, Joe Spencer. The Downtown Alliance was familiar with the Milligans’ work through a previous sculpture, “Uplift,” a depiction of hot air balloons that was chosen last year over 70-some other proposals for the same St. Peter Street space, according to Spencer.

“We wanted to give more vitality to the downtown streetscape,” Spencer said. “When we have these kinds of visual engagements, like murals and farmers’ markets, they create a strong sense of place.”

“Better Angels” is just one of several public artworks the alliance had planned to install downtown this year. However, all but one of the others were put on hold due to the pandemic.


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