DULUTH — The door to what was formerly Lutheran Church of the Holy Trinity was propped open with a cardboard sign: “Cult meeting downstairs.” The amplified Gregorian chants were audible from the sanctuary to the office to the lunchroom.
A woman set out brownies and pretzels in what would, in its church days, be a post-service gathering place. Asked about the soundtrack:
“I think the music is on to creep us out,” she said.
Troy Rogers, AKA Robot Rickshaw, is playing on the cult motif with a new arts collaboration based in the basement of the old church. The Embassy, as he calls it, mixes makers ranging from puppet artists to projectionists to musicians and robot wranglers under a single, church-like roof. Their symbol: a vintage upside-down triangle. Their handshake: a wave of the middle finger.
Augustine "Augie" Andersen of Spark Works bought the church about two years ago for a co-working setup. The main level has the signature necessities for an office worker without an office looking for fellow office workers: desks, chairs, a coffee station, a mini refrigerator, wine glasses. The Embassy has much of the lower level, wide-open rooms with room to build.
There are multiple visions for the church, said Rogers, as many visions as there are people working within it.
“Each of us has our own projects and a shared entity,” he said.
This weekend, artists and performers — like electric folkster Ingeborg von Agassiz, Rachelle Rahn of Duluth Kombucha, projectionist Daniel Benoit, Lake Superior Aquaman and musician Tim Kaiser — are part of what is being billed as a Church Bazaar, described in a Facebook event as being “art-infused church basement coffee an immersive psychedelic pancake feed dance party freak fest … maybe.” The event is 2-8 p.m. Saturday, March 7, at 2701 W. Third St.
“We’re using the church in the traditional way — as a place for gathering,” Rogers said.
Also like a traditional church: It’s open to the public.
Lutheran Church of the Holy Trinity, the physical church, closed in 2016 when its congregation merged with nearby Zion Lutheran Church and became Spirit of God Lutheran Church. Andersen bought the building in 2018 for $215,000, according to a Duluth News Tribune story about the sale.
Andersen’s tenets for the space hang on a wall, in topics ranging from mind, light and comfort to fitness, water, nourishment and air. His ties with the local arts community are evident: There are pieces from local painters hanging, and for sale, in many of the rooms.
Meanwhile, there are shiny silver signs of the Magic Smelt Puppet Troupe — the creatives beyond the annual rite of spring, the Run! Smelt! Run! Parade — on the balcony of the sanctuary. This weekend, there is scheduled to be an aerialist and a ventriloquist where there once was an active altar.
Jim Ourey of Magic Smelt is not an official cult member, but he is based out of the church and plans to host some of his puppet-making workshops there. Andersen is a friend of the Smelt Parade, which this year is on May 10, Ourey said.
"It's a wonderful space," he said. "I like the location, and Augie is very supportive. Magic Smelt is a lovey-dovey deal, and we like working with our friends."
In the lower level, off the lunchroom where Twisted Tea had been added to the potluck offerings — are workshop spaces. Rogers calls this the “subterranean lair” and it currently houses Tom Moriarty, whose partly finished mural covers a wall; Benoit, who could potentially use that same wall for his projection art; and Rogers, whose garage-like space is currently being used to create a trumpet, a head and face piece made from 3-D printed materials, and a marching-band-style drum kit holder for his band of robots.
“Here, there is a really vital energy and excitement,” Rogers said. “People describe it as intoxicating and dream-like.”
The idea is that the artists will continue to create — but also co-create projects with their neighbors. There’s a demand to try new things, artistically, but there hasn’t been a place for that, said Benoit, adding that individual art disciplines can feel like silos.
“We’re inviting as many collaborators as possible,” he said.
Drink the Kool-Aid
This past Friday, cult-curious artists and people in the food business gathered at the church for an informal happy hour. Visitors made introductions, wandered through the nooks, settled into the balcony, climbed onto the roof.
There was talk of taking the data from air quality reports and turning it into music.
Artist Kaylee Pollema described her piece for the bazaar — a double helix that breaks off and spins — earning oohs and ahhs from her contemporaries.
And in the kitchen, Benoit mixed a batch of purple Kool-Aid. Of course.
“There’s always free Kool-Aid,” he said. “Cult perk.”