The Writing on the Wall

Divining the future of a city one mural at a time



Sandra Zylla-Rolf

Michael Dvorak


617 Central Ave. NE

Minneapolis * 2001


Not all murals are community-created works of art. Encountering the mural that advertises the U Otter Stop Inn--a large-scale depiction of (what else?) otters at their favorite, er, watering hole--some passersby might argue that commercial murals like this one aren't works of art at all.

In any case, commercial enterprises have provided the Twin Cities with some of their best maintained and most enduring murals. The owners have a financial interest in seeing to it that the art is carefully kept up, after all. The transcription of Ravel's "Gaspard de la Nuit" emblazoned in gigantic notation along the side of the Schmitt Music building and the abstract designs of Peter Busa that have decorated the Valspar Corporation building since 1982 are permanent landmarks in downtown Minneapolis.

But back to the otters. Me, I think the anthropomorphic critters who take their leisure on the side of this area bar are, well, cute. And I don't mean "cute" in an ironic, kitschy way. Well, okay, the kitsch factor is impossible to avoid when you're discussing a few dozen undersea mammals drinking, carousing, singing karaoke, and dancing cheek to cheek. But, when done well, kitsch can be quirky and endearing rather than tasteless and garish. Besides, if you really dig otters, why shouldn't you share that love with the people?



Juxtaposition Arts


340 W. Broadway

Minneapolis * 2001


For years, the visual style of community murals positioned these paintings as a more organic alternative to commercial art. As a truly contemporary (or, if you insist, postmodern) form, however, graffiti style acknowledges, incorporates, and parodies the processes of the advertising industry--its logos and bright illustrations constantly overwhelming our visual consciousness. The graffiti designs stand out like a billboard, an advertisement for the artist. But when graffiti artists cooperate with businesses, the ideological and stylistic differences between these groups often emerge more fully.

The latest summer-volunteer youth project wasn't an easy endeavor for Juxtaposition Arts to conceptualize. The building's owners had contacted Juxta after admiring their work down the street at the intersection of Broadway and I-94W. But how do you reconcile the wild visual imagination of your team of graffiti kids with your host corporation's insistence that the resultant artwork be tasteful and include a good number of cows?

"'What's up with the cows?'" artistic director Peyton recalls hearing in planning discussions. "'I'm not really feeling it,' the kids would say." And the broad, bare side of that barn in the picture? That just had to be bombed, right?

Well, no, said the owners. Nothing too graffiti-styled, thanks. And so Juxta devised a semi-absurdist compromise. The cows are being lifted into space by curious (or maybe just thirsty) aliens. The larger areas of the mural have been covered with rolled-on acrylic paint, its details and nuances added by spray can. The painting's bright, textured surface is best appreciated from the street--as you get closer, the image is harder to make out. But passing cars can take it in. This summer, as the crew finished work on the mural, many drivers beeped their approval at the painters--though, as Juxta associate Josh Lemke notes, "When you're concentrating, those horns really scare you."


Marilyn Lindstrom, Doc Davis, Robert DesJarlait, and others


Tenth Avenue South and East Franklin Avenue

Minneapolis * 1994


Lindstrom likes to talk about how murals painted by her organization, Neighborhood Safe Art, reflect the "reality" of whatever community they create within. On this particular occasion, she and her youth volunteer crew were reminded that this reality includes bad decisions, broken laws, and dumb violence. During the course of the mural's creation, one young painter was shot by a dealer when he became involved in a botched drug trade. After a frightening stint in a coma, and continued paralysis on one side, the boy recovered in time to help finish the mural.

And yet these pieces not only reflect this reality; they help shape it as well. We Claim Our Lives is directly across from the old Franklin Theatre, future home of the Franklin Cultural Center. Immediately prior to the arrival of Lindstrom and Co., the theater was being used to hawk pornography. She and her crew assiduously cleaned the theater of its accumulated detritus. Once they began using the space as their workshop, other community activists began having thoughts of reclaiming the building for productive purposes.

This particular mural, divided into four frames, has begun to show its age. The third panel, featuring a peace symbol, has seen a noticeable amount of its plaster peel in the past few years and is in need of repair. In the symbolism of the piece, that panel represents the future.



Katherine Nobbe


Pillsbury House

3500 Chicago Ave. S.

Minneapolis * 1994


The deterioration of murals is a serious issue. Many longtime mural artists, including Marilyn Lindstrom and Ta-coumba Aiken, have begun to work more often with mosaic (see "Fifteen Hundred Tiles to the Mexican Border," p. 14), which holds up better against the elements. This pioneering work, which used a 3M Scotch print process to project computer graphics on a vinyl material, demonstrates another way of revolutionizing mural work in order to prolong its life. The designs of such murals can be stored electronically and permanently. "[The mural] is showing signs of wear, but it could easily be reprinted, and it would be exactly the same," says Jack Becker of the public-art group Forecast.

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