Art is Purpose

Nils Heymann was a teenager when he fled the civil war in El Salvador, along with his mother, sister, brother, and other family members. They came to St. Paul, where his aunt was the first school principal of Latinx descent in Minnesota. And then he fell silent.

“I didn’t speak English, and with everything else going on in my life I kind of went quiet for about two years,” he recalls. Instead of talking, he worked through his emotions with art. He learned music and ceramics—any art class he could squeeze in.

He also visited Mia, as often as possible. “The first time I came to the museum, my little brain just exploded,” he says. “Seeing African art and the Chinese collection for the first time, seeing a van Gogh for the first time, I was blown away. That was the start of a love affair.”

Nils went on to study at the University of Minnesota. He traveled widely, during college and after, to India and England and Morocco. And then, when he was set to go to Boston for grad school, he went to Thailand instead and became a Buddhist monk. After seven years, he left the monastery and is now an art teacher in California as well as a meditation instructor.

He returns to Minnesota regularly and always stops in at Mia. “I visit my mom and I visit my ‘friends,’” he says, referring to his favorite artworks at the museum. And he thinks about what the museum has meant to him. “It saved my life,” he says, crediting Mia and the public library he frequented for grounding him amid turmoil. “Through it all, art was an anchor.”

Past Stories

Art is Purpose 2018

Essma Imady was 23 when she left Syria for Minnesota. She had struggled to determine her future, quitting chemistry college to pursue art, and then tanks were rolling through the streets. Her future was confronting her, whether she was ready for it or not.

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