The three-story, blue-gray home stands on the corner of 31st and Portland. If you drive by on the one-way heading south, nothing would stick out about this particular property. Walking, though, provides a difference perspective.
We bounce in and out of our neighborhoods every day and often miss what they're made of. More important, we miss who their made of. Today we start a stroll through my neighborhood -- Central -- here in south Minneapolis to conduct a series of interviews with the people who live here. They're the people who often go undetected, because they're right under our nose. But I followed mine, and found Matt Carlyle.
Matt Carlyle, 32, is one of those people you'd deem as a character. He's a metal worker, an artist, a builder and a naturalist. Most unusual, he's all these things all the time.
The first thing you notice as you approach this corner lot is the "unkempt" lawn. In summers, it is a mixture of gardens, wild plants and trees. In the winter, the standout features are the tallest plants sticking through the snow and random metal sculptures scattered about.
Walking up on the porch of this 100-year-old house offers a museum's storeroom of artifacts. An antiquer's old piano, an ornithologist's birdhouse, a toy collector's set of earth movers, and even a naturalist's pig skull atop an old couch. Yes, a pig skull. Somehow, though, there's a sense of belonging to it all. So while it's nothing like your grandma's tidy porch, it's not quite the opposite, either.
Walking inside provided a continuation of this aura. No skulls, but a large pulley hung from the ceiling; beat-up lamp stands without shades or bulbs stood atop the worn wood floors; old art decorated the walls. Bookshelves, another old piano, some plants and a couple of canisters of lacquer were punctuated through the house. But it's not all "storeroom" inside. Mixed in with all these odds and ends was all the life of a comfy residence -- cupboards, television, sofa and kitchen table. We sat down and saw more stuff -- an axe head, some bean sprouts in a jar sprouting away.
Carlyle looked like a combination of woodsman and gear head. Flannel, khakis and an old sweater were all featured in his layers. His hands are a workman's pair, shaped and stained with labor. He's got a scruffy blonde head of hair, an old tattoo on his chin now covered up with a scraggly, light-colored beard and mustache and an intensely calming look in his eyes.
He is a city boy. But he's no slicker. He dropped out of Minneapolis public school after the eighth grade. I don't know what kind of student he was, but he apparently didn't turn too many heads, because according to him, it took his school a full year to finally get around to contacting his parents about his absence. That was OK; Matt had other plans.
He worked construction, the trade of his father for 45 years. His father is now 88, and lives at this property, which he also owns. He bought it 29 years ago.
Matt's artistic pursuits slowly took over after dropping out -- had been for some time, evidently, as he said he'd been playing with torches since he was 3. For Carlyle, though, one needs to use the term "art" loosely, because it isn't so much about artistic acts as it is about his ever-expressive lifestyle. This is what makes him such a character.
For instance, I asked him about a challenge facing every artist: how to go from using your mind to be creative, all the way to the other end -- thinking about cut-and-dry things like bills.
He answered briefly, "It's continual."
He didn't mean that finance comes naturally to him. (He had said, "I don't deal with banks at all.") What he meant was that he ties financial security into his way of life in his own terms.
"Pretty much every time I drive my truck around the city, to go run errands or whatever, I usually find enough stuff to double the amount of fuel that I spent."
Stuff equals scrap metal.
"Drive down the alley," he continued, "see some decent metal someone's thrown away, and you stick it in the truck." I had always seen his truck parked outside, an old beat-up steel beast with two pistons welded on the grill, a reinforced iron-pipe rear bumper with table vise attached.
See, Carlyle never got the memo that people are supposed to compartmentalize their lives according to work and family, house and car and office, weekend and weekday. "Friday, Saturday, Sunday -- those days don't compute to me," he said.
There's a striking lack of conformity. This is what separates Carlyle from most people; this is what separates him from most artists. Because for Matt Carlyle, art isn't his life; his life is his art.
It all starts with his philosophy. Gesturing around, he tells me, "I like to remove things from the waste stream. Just about everything you see in here is from the garbage." He then proceeds to show me where he found each knick-knack on the table.
"More than making something out of metal," he continued, "everything goes with it: where you get your food, where you eat."
From this same motivation he grows what he can in his yard, sometimes letting nature take charge. "I generally just try not to mow it and things really cool pop up."
Of course, that's what brought the city inspectors last summer. A metropolitan area, with all of its people, needs some semblance of oneness, and a bird with such distinct feathers as Carlyle's goes against the uniformity.
But despite butting heads with the city, and though Carlyle longs for the day when he can have some land in the country, he also knows he belongs to a place where there are people close by and he counters the trend of not knowing who lives next door.
"I don't' think it matters where I end up," he said. "I'm gonna know the people who are around me. That's your resource."
Carlyle also recognizes the security aspect of a connected neighborhood:
"Us having a presence out here, being out there hoeing your garlic; that's what keeps the crime down."
Of course, an artist does make things. One cool example of his work is the 10-person pedal vehicle knowd as the "Pedal Cloud." It can be yours for an afternoon here in the metro area if you choose. But to me, Carlyle's distinction isn't in a particular work, but in his 24/7 mode that wrings out of every situation his singleness of purpose. It's a rare authenticity to see someone just be himself.