The Writing on the Wall

Divining the future of a city one mural at a time

Such vandalism rarely impinges upon murals, it should be noted. "It won't last for two weeks," Lindstrom recalls being told when she and her crew of neighborhood youth were painting on Park and Lake. "They will destroy it." This lurking "they," however, did not spray tags or other visual noise onto the new wall painting as officials had suspected. Community art, as opposed to the kind of commercial visuals imposed upon the community, tends not to create the antagonism that makes someone scrawl one's personality upon it.

Murals are far more likely to be victims of extremes in weather or local redevelopment than of vandalism. The vivid colors that once marked "Welcome to Elliot Park," for instance, are visible only in archival photographs now. The "Celebration of Life" mural, designed to mark the entry to the African-American community in north Minneapolis, has a precarious future because of local political developments. A list of prominent murals that have vanished over the years would be too long to include; a list of prominent murals in need of repair or touching up would, sadly, be overlong as well.

"Our desire to have murals far outstrips our capacity to take care of them," says Jack Becker of Forecast, a St. Paul arts nonprofit. Most community groups or businesses believe their work is finished when the painting is concluded. In fact, says Becker, the life of the mural has then only begun. In eight to ten years, he estimates, paint begins fading or plaster begins cracking and murals need to be touched up. Instead, however, many are painted over, and the cycle begins again.

Michael Dvorak

A novice in the world of public art, I recently undertook a monthlong survey of as many murals in Minneapolis and St. Paul as my eyes could take in, with just a few guidebooks and the helpful advice of experts guiding my forays. Below are about 20 of the works that stood out, accompanied by a mélange of my impressions, the artists' commentary, and whatever other material seemed interesting. (Also, City Pages' David Schimke visits a studio the size of a hangar where a team of Mexican and American artists are creating a mosaic that will go up on a wall in Minneapolis's Longfellow neighborhood just a few weeks hence.) By the way, I am by no means claiming that these are the "best" murals in the Twin Cities, and just because I omitted a piece doesn't mean it isn't noteworthy. So let's just stop that flurry of letters to the editor starting "How could you overlook the puzzle-like, negative-image lettering on the side of the U of M studio arts building?" and "What kind of idiot would fail to mention Roger Nelson's work on the Kmart building on Lake Street?" This piece is meant as an introduction, not a conclusion.

In any case, these existing murals are now part of the psychological landscape of the Cities. True, they may be a part of our subconscious landscape: When I mentioned I was working on this article, some half-dozen friends and acquaintances chimed in to suggest a mural I just had to include--if only they could remember the exact location. But that's how public art operates, subtly shifting your mood without commanding your full attention.

One way or another, public space will be arranged according to some sort of aesthetic. If we're fortunate, the community that will be shaped by that aesthetic will have some say in the process. It can be one of restyled graffiti. Or, if you prefer, it can be one of steel and glass and unadorned concrete--or Taco Bell ads.



John Biggers, designer;
painted by Ta-coumba Aiken,
Seitu Jones, and others


Olson Memorial Highway and Lyndale Avenue North

Minneapolis * 1996


The sound wall might be the most depressing of all modern architectural feats, rising above the ruins of former communities as a monument to sheer, unadorned utility. Cars must be moved along highways. People must be shielded from the roaring noise of those highways. Walls must rise.

The first such structure that the Minnesota Department of Transportation allowed to be painted was heralded by its creators as "a gateway to the African-American community," which accounts for the African motifs in the piece. On the far left, fireballs shoot from an amorphous void into a checkered grid. As you follow the pale blue panels rightward, recognizable shapes slowly emerge from these patterns. Paint drippings cohere into ornate combs, descending from above to gently touch spirit stools occupied by totemic animals. At the midpoint of the wall, the shapes rise off the wall to create a vivid three-dimensional effect. Then they sink back into the surface on the far right, fading first into rudimentary sketches, then into nothingness again.

This vision of life's mutability, of existence emerging from the universe and then returning, might soon be reflected in the fate of the mural itself. As part of the controversial redevelopment of the near north side, nearby Bassett Creek will soon be "reclaimed"--that is, brought above ground--and the land on which Celebration of Life now rests will become structurally unsound. (See "Home Is Where the Art Is," February 28). Two proposals have been floated in response, to be debated in public discussion on September 22. One would relocate the mural, risking structural damage. An alternative plan would pony up money to reconstruct it elsewhere, even though its original creator, John Biggers, died earlier this year. The mural's dilemma seems uncomfortably fitting, since much of the African-American community celebrated in "Celebration of Life" has already been displaced.

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