Mark Brown/University of St. Thomas
Students check on the Anthony James Portal Icosahedron sculpture on the first day of spring semester in Schoenecker Center on February 5, 2024, in St. Paul.

Meet the Artists Behind the Schoenecker Center’s World-Class Art Collection

Anthony James is a rock star in the contemporary art world. A trained visual artist, his monumental sculptures – constructed from a mesmerizing combination of stainless steel, glass and LED lights – have appeared on all seven continents and even played a starring role in a Hollywood blockbuster.

And now, one of his pieces calls the University of St. Thomas home.

“It’s quite the honor,” James said. “I feel very blessed and at peace that it’s here in such a state-of-the-art educational facility.”

Portal Icosahedron was recently unveiled inside the Schoenecker Center, the university’s new central home for STEAM education. The piece – which serves as a dazzling focal point to the facility’s grand atrium – is just one of about a dozen works of art acquired for the building’s grand opening. Taken as a whole, they make it vibrantly clear, this is an academic facility dedicated to STEM and the arts.

Sourced from a diverse pool of local and world-renowned artists, the collection ripples out from Portal Icosahedron, filling public spaces across the building. St. Thomas alum and entrepreneur John P. Monahan ’73, a longtime art lover, donated the portal sculpture and the funds to build the nearby art gallery that bears his name.

“It was a unique opportunity to put the A physically in a STEAM complex,” said Marria Thompson, curator for the John P. Monahan Gallery and university art collection. “And in honor of the building’s mission, we wanted to do that in a very collaborative and interdisciplinary way.”

Painting titled Dormant Debt by Phillip Hua
"Dormant Debt" by Phillip Hua

Each work inside the Schoenecker Center is more than a pretty picture. Instead, they thematically (and often, very physically) incorporate the disciplines of a STEAM environment.

On the second floor, two glimmering pieces have been installed by San Francisco-based artist Phillip Hua. Using technology and digital processes, Hua’s works blur the digital and physical worlds of painting. Composed first on rice paper, the artist then digitally scans his work-in-progress and prints the final piece using acrylic ink and gold metal leaf.

Painting titled Ancestors by Frank Big Bear
"Ancestors" by Frank Big Bear

Around the corner local Ojibwe artist Frank Big Bear explores a constellation of themes in his piece “Ancestors.” A vibrant Prismacolor pencil drawing, the work features fantastical backdrops, Anishinaabe culture and plenty of odes to nature.

“We sought out work that would highlight the juxtaposition of science, technology and art,” Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences Bill Tolman said. “We wanted bold, provocative, colorful pieces that would grasp at the unique intersections of life.”

In the case of Portal Icosahedron, James bases his piece on sacred geometry – an icosahedron is the fifth and final platonic solid, having 20 triangular sides. He then uses each of the sculpture’s glass triangles as a portal, revealing endless interior reflections. The illusion is meant to explore ideas of an infinite cosmos, tying science and the spiritual together.

“It doesn’t really matter whether you’re a child … or a dean of the university, you’re going to get something out of it, because there’s a unity of language that happens when we get sucked in by this sacred geometry,” James said. “In so many ways, it’s the language of the universe.”

His work has caught on across the globe. In 2023, James installed a portal sculpture at White Desert’s base camp in Antarctica, making him the only visual artist in history to have work exhibited on all seven continents. A sculpture titled 80’’ Icosahedron also recently appeared as a sort of supporting character in the Netflix film "Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery.”

John P. Monahan ’73 first discovered James’ work at a gallery showing in California. Completely absorbed by the artistry, Monahan acquired a portal sculpture for his own personal art collection. But in the months that followed, he couldn’t stop thinking of St. Thomas and the university’s recently announced STEAM complex.

President Vischer, John P. Monahan, and Anthony James pose for a photo in front of the Portal Icosahedron at the Monahan Gallery Opening and James Glass Sculpture Unveiling in the Schoenecker Center on February 15, 2024 in St. Paul
President Rob Vischer, John P. Monahan, and Anthony James pose for a photo in front of the Portal Icosahedron at the John P. Monahan Art Gallery dedication and sculpture unveiling inside the Schoenecker Center on Feb. 15. (Brandon Woller '17/University of St. Thomas)

“I saw the renderings of the center, and I thought, ‘an Anthony James’ would just be perfect for this space,” Monahan said.

His idea would eventually become reality. The Portal Icosahedron and the John P. Monahan Art Gallery were dedicated at a special ceremony on Feb. 15. Attendees were the first to view the gallery’s inaugural exhibit and witnessed, alongside Anthony James himself, the official unveiling of the portal sculpture.

“Art is my passion, and there was never a question that the gallery was the right choice, the right gift for me to contribute,” Monahan said. “With the Icosahedron right out front, it’s just an amazing space … I don’t think you’ll ever be able to enter this building and not see the students enjoying it.”

Focal points of inspiration

All the pieces inside the Schoenecker Center were chosen for their potential to encourage creativity and innovation. A universitywide committee worked for months to develop a list of artists, eventually settling on a mix of original work and site-specific commissions.

The committee also wanted art that was one –of –a kind and produced just for St. Thomas. To achieve that goal, they commissioned five regional artists known for their interdisciplinary methods.

They also wanted to go big. Several floors big.

Tia Keobounpheng, an interdisciplinary artist based in north Minneapolis, is creating a piece that will soon span the first and second stories. Her geometric line drawings usually measure little more than a few feet in dimension. This time around, she is creating a massive, 10-foot wide by 20-foot tall piece – all while still using her trusty colored pencils.

Keobounpheng’s starting with 20 boxes of pencils but acknowledges she may need to order more.

Working with interconnecting concentric circles, her piece explores how geometry reflects the natural order of the earth, standing as a common language across cultures.

“I hope that anyone who is viewing this work can see themselves as belonging, just as they are – without the need to change or alter themselves,” Keobounpheng said. “When we all feel a sense of belonging and acceptance, it allows us to really nurture our unique strengths, and I think everybody benefits.”

Conscious that the Schoenecker Center is just feet from the mighty Mississippi, the committee has commissioned a piece by interdisciplinary artist Annie Hejny ’12. A St. Thomas alum, Hejny’s artwork reflects personal and communal relationships with fresh water.

The Minnesota Water Steward has developed a novel painting technique, in which she incorporates collected water and sediment from freshwater sources. For her St. Thomas commission, students enrolled in faculty Craig Eliason’s fall 2023 art history course, Art and the Environment, helped Hejny collect water and sediment from the Mississippi River.

Calling them her “water paintings,” Hejny hopes her work will inspire others to preserve and protect the vital natural resource.

“Water is life. So, to be in a building where there's science and technology, engineering and mathematics, and, of course, art, – it’s all connected, not unlike the ways that we are all connected through water,” Hejny said. “It’s really an honor to have my work in this building – and I love that it’s a STEAM building – on view for each student who walks inside.”