Museum director Lyndel King's art-saturated home

·6 min read

The fountains in Lyndel King's backyard include a theatrically animated pair of sculpted crows. The water flowing down their beaks makes their bottom mandibles rise and fall so the copper-toned creatures seem like long-lost friends catching up, with water for words.

For King, often described as "the grandmother of the Twin Cities arts scene," "art is about story — we can find ourselves in art," she said. Oh, the stories her art collection could tell about her travels, her dreams and her home.

A chemist turned stylemaker and arts scene visionary, King has led a life of passion and intensity. She focused her knowledge and energy into building the Weisman Art Museum, where she held the reins for 40 years, retiring last summer and leaving it as the highly rated institution it is today. In the process, she became a pioneer and role model — a daring female institution builder.

When she took the helm of what was then called the University Gallery in 1981, it was located in an upstairs, hard-to-access space in the warrens of Northrop Auditorium, with operating hours that matched Northrop events. She and her team worked with starchitect Frank Gehry to find a space to build a new museum on the University of Minnesota's Minneapolis campus.

"Frank Gehry's design for the Weisman not only brought world-famous architecture to the Twin Cities landscape, it turned the university campus to face the Mississippi River," said Linda Mack, author and retired Star Tribune architecture critic.

King's home, chock-full of sculptures, paintings, pottery, figurines, photos and other artistic output, is a testament to her career, curiosity and style even if it's not housed in an eye-catching building like the Weisman. In fact, the 1915 Minneapolis Craftsman where she and her husband, Blaine, have lived for nearly 50 years is studiedly unassuming from the outside. Inside, she has more art in one bathroom than most people have in their entire homes.

Come fly with me

And you can travel the world as she has done in just a few feet in her five-bedroom, four-bath home, which is quiet except for opera playing on a stereo and the skittering of her dogs, Angel and Phryne. The front room, teeming with art like all the others, is painted the same red as frescoes in the Villa of the Mysteries in Pompeii.

Behind that is a room adorned with William Morris wallpaper from 19th-century London. In the back, where King bumped out the house to make room for more art, sits a gallery with quilts, religious figurines and bone figures from the American Southwest.

She and Blaine gleaned their knowledge, and pieces, during their travels, which included camping in Europe for six months in their younger days. King didn't set out to become a collector. As she tells it, it just happened.

"You buy something that you like and if you buy something similar, then it's a coincidence," King said. "But if you buy a third thing like the first two … well, here we are."

Her eclectic collection, pieces of which she exhibited in "More Is More," an installation cut short by the pandemic, includes photographs by JoAnn Verburg, ceramics by Warren MacKenzie and sculpture by Melvin Smith.

The home is also filled with Navajo textiles, Catholic crucifixes and Ethiopian crosses. Mexican milagros share space with disembodied hands and feet from Eastern Europe, and the first thing she ever collected, a small $8 pot she bought as a child at a market in New Mexico.

The loaned pieces to the museum have rejoined the family home now.

Their value to her is not just material or aesthetic but spiritual. Vesna Kittelson's 1994 piece "Lyndel Queen," fashioned with acrylic and pencil on paper and featuring a portrait of King wearing a tiara constructed to look like the Weisman, playfully toasts her leadership.

King points to a painting of a horse by Cameron Booth, a former art professor at the University of Minnesota. "Look at all that color," she said, noting the gray equine amid pinks, purples, reds and golds.

Some of the art in King's home is also functional. King has a coat that artist Nancy MacKenzie crafted from onion net bags and twine and a Carolyn Halliday jacket crocheted from electrical wire. She might just wear them. And she loves shoes. When she retired, it was during the pandemic. They had a "shoe-by" themed event to mark the occasion.

King's home also is full of religious iconography — sculptures of saints and martyrs.

"What I love about these images is the intensity, the passion," King said.

If she has the ardor of a convert, it's because she is, although not so new anymore.

Counting crows

King, 78, grew up on the plains of western Kansas in a place called Hugoton, "named for Victor Hugo," she said proudly. Her mother was college-educated but not her father, who operated a grain elevator for work. He tended to wounded creatures great and small. The family had a menagerie of creatures, including a pet crow named Oscar that lived with them for 20 years.

He was smart and mischievous, King recalled.

"He would pick up a stone and drop it on the [family dog]," King said. That might have been a prank or an invitation to play. The crow left a lasting impression, and resonates in King's collection, with passerines on pillars and in art pieces throughout the house.

King didn't visit a museum until she enrolled at the University of Kansas. That first visit awakened a passion, even as she kept up her main studies — biochemistry and viruses. After college, she went to work at labs in Kansas and Louisiana before moving to the Twin Cities. Her husband was to work on an advanced degree in journalism at the University of Minnesota. She started taking classes at the university, as well, in art history.

"In those days, the classes were mostly men, if you can believe it," King said. "I was the token woman."

Pretty soon, she had taken the career leap and was in the doctoral program. Art was to be her new destiny, one that would see her become a pillar and a pioneer for women.

Blaine, meanwhile, ditched the academy for practice, becoming a copy editor at the Star Tribune, from which he long ago retired.

But now they're just as busy as before. She sits on several boards, including the Schubert Club in St. Paul.

"I'm just on the small arts organizations that really need me," she said. "I'm never going to be the biggest donor."

Back in her backyard, there's another fountain, this one based on casts of the couple's faces, with theatrical embellishments. Blaine's has horns as well as the water spilling from his mouth. Lyndel's has a halo, also with water spilling from her mouth.

Two figures telling stories, and spilling life-sustaining drink.

"Persistence is one of my Janus-like features," she said. "The other is that I'm too dumb to know when to quit."

Rohan Preston • 612-673-4390