The Shiny Robot artist space couldn’t be more emblematic of the changes that have taken place in Northeast over the past few decades. Unassuming on the outside with humble industrial roots, 503 1st Avenue Northeast is now a breeding ground for some of the most recognizable artist to come out of Minneapolis.
Originally constructed by the landlord’s grandfather, the structure began as home to a felt manufacturer. More recent history saw it quartered into both a mattress factory and art studios, replete with shaking walls and dust pouring through holes in the floorboards as artists attempted to wield a steady brush only meters away.
Somewhere in there, florists renovated then abandoned the second floor, and the third story’s early tenants moved to Europe.
Throughout much of these changes, artist John Alspach stayed put. It is here, tucked above Fox Tax and the Red Stag, that John has settled into the role of Shiny Robot’s progenitor and foster dad to a space teeming with creative folks.
Shiny Robot’s gravitational pull is undeniable, whether we’re talking about John’s oft-referenced accumulating and its ability to become the center of his entire life, or the space’s nearly two-and-a-half-decade long role as melting pot and hub for the Minneapolis arts community. The variety of work making its way into the outside world is impressive, ranging from original woodworking working, mixed media paintings, comics, salvaged sculpture… even re-worked motorcycles!
As he gave photographer Ben LaFond, Chris Cloud and me a tour of the Shiny Robot space, John shared with us the story of Shiny Robot and shed some light on a place that, despite remaining hidden to 98% of the population, has borne testament to not only the changing face of a neighborhood, but the Minneapolis arts community as well.
Without further ado, we’d like to introduce you to John Alspach, artist and caretaker extraordinaire, whose own words will serve as a guide through the wonderfully unique world that is Shiny Robot.
Origins and Accumulation
I’ve been in the building since probably 1994 and started Shiny Robot on my own in ’96 when all the other people who’d been here left at the same time. When I walked into here it was just a big empty space. It was white, clean. They’d just put in the new bathroom and then left. It’s almost shameful. I’ve obviously done a lot to change that situation a lot since then.
I’m an accumulator. Some things—like the giant speakers—are the reasons I’m here. A friend wanted to store his speakers and then he wanted to have a party with them, and this was the space to have the party. So now I have the space and I have the speakers. But a giant metal sign came down in a storm and they cut up the pieces and I said, “Can I have the all pieces?” I’m slowly starting to get to work on those. I don’t know why I have chairs hanging from the ceiling.
As the amount of stuff has amassed, it’s gotten less friendly to the public. [The space] I have has gotten smaller and smaller and the amount of stuff I’ve gotten to work with has gotten [bigger and bigger], so if I can get to a point where I can spread out a little bit and this whole area can be a gallery space again I’d love it. I kind of miss that.
The Enemy Within
A friend and I were talking about how when you work for somebody, you can do something really amazing—put a lot of work into it—and they’ll get fixated on something like, “You know that’s a really beautiful robot that you made, but can you make it a little bit more shiny? We want sparkle here.”
We were laughing for a really long time and I said, “That’s what I want my studio to be called, ‘Shiny Robot.’” He said, “Well, you have to do it otherwise I’m going to use it for something.” So I had to get to it first.
It’s the thing they want to add to it that will totally ruin it for you. And you always come up against those things. But I only come up against myself here.
It used to be that I felt like Minneapolis was the kind of place that only took things from you, took energy from you and didn’t give anything back. But that was because I didn’t have a community. I didn’t know other artists. Nobody saw my work…. And then I started meeting people and making friends and connecting to the people that were here. Now I’ve got stuff going on all the time and I don’t feel any loss of energy.
I used to wish I could be in New York so I could have that feeling of always something going on, and now I feel like there’s always something going on here.
Northeast’s Silent Observer
When I first found this space, I didn’t lived in Southeast and I wasn’t familiar with Northeast at all. There wasn’t a lot going on. It used to be that there was nobody around and [the neighborhood] was scary and bleak. There weren’t any businesses, there weren’t any people walking around.
But now you go down stairs, you go outside, there are people at the Red Stag, there are lights on at Fox Tax, there are clubs, there are people going to restaurants… It’s a lot more fun.
I started coming over here because I needed a studio space and a friend hooked me up. When we started looking for a house in Minneapolis, I said, “Northeast is super cool. There’s all these interesting things and I’m over here all the time…” So that’s where I ended up being based. It’s drawing things closer and closer, pulling in objects from everywhere.
Still today, I don’t think the people who live in the apartment building across the street, or the lofts over there are aware of what’s going on. It’s like, how would they ever guess? I don’t have visitors often. I don’t care. I mean, what I do gets out into the world and is spread all over the place so if people get to see that, and if they want to see where I do it or what I do they can always contact me.
Sarah Brumble: If Shiny Robot were a fruit, what fruit would it be?
John Alspach: There’s no way I’m answering that. Get the hell out of here.
JA: I think it would be a banana. One that’s starting to get maybe almost too brown, and now you have to decide “Am I going to eat this as a fruit or make something else out of it?”
(All photos © Ben LaFond)