In the Spotlight

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An Artist's Tour of Minneapolis Murals
By Mary Stucky
September 24, 1997

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For the first time ever, an artist has received an award from the national organization that represents public works employees, the folks that bring you streets, bridges and sewers. Not surprisingly, that artist - William Cochran - produces public art murals, the most recent of which adorns a bridge in Frederick, Maryland. While in the Twin Cities recently to receive his award, Cochran and his wife, Theresa Cochran, wanted to see the work of local public art muralists. Jack Becker of Forecast Public Artworks, based in St. Paul, gave them a tour, and MPR's Mary Stucky went along. The tour started at Mark Balma's fresco on the ceiling of the University of St. Thomas building in downtown Minneapolis.

Cochran: It's magnificent. This is one of the nicest murals, contemporary murals, I've ever seen. Very fine mural work is not that common. It really is not that common.

Becker: I think it's the second largest fresco in the country in terms of just scale. But it's also one of the few real frescoes in this part of the country that uses a traditional method. Each of these panels portrays sort of a contemporary interpretation of the seven virtues.


Becker: Yes that's Madonna on the head of a raven.

Cochran: What did this cost?

Becker: I think in the neighborhood of $300,000. The thing is most people don't know that most of the public art here in the Twin Cities is privately funded. This mural was completely funded through private donations. And there's a history of patronage in Minneapolis that a lot of other cities envy. Yet most people don't recognize that the Twin Cities public support of the arts is quite weak in comparison with other cities.

Becker: Let's go upstairs.

(Sound of footsteps)

Cochran: It used to be considered that an artist would take a work of art and plop it down in a public place and that would be considered public art. Today I think there's a great movement afoot to really take advantage of the specific opportunities that interaction with a non-art public provides. Because you can create things in that kind of context that are very meaningful that can't be created in any other way, and that's when things begin to really get exciting.

Stucky: Does the public really have an impact on what the artist produces? Can they reject what he does and therefore have him change it? Is that what artists do?

Cochran: It depends on the artist. The kind of public art we do is intended to build community by being a co-creation with the community. In the community bridge project we asked 175,000 people, which is the entire population of our county, one question. What we asked them is: "What object represents the spirit of community to you?" And we got thousands of responses.

Theresa Cochran: So for instance, one of the stones looks like a quilt square, because quilts were created in circles. There's another stone that looks like it has a spider web on it, suggested by a 34-year-old single mother. She said each strand in a spider web is delicate and fragile, but by the time you put them together they're strong and they're flexible just like community. When you start putting all these ideas together on the bridge, that's the voice of the bridge. And it's the voice of the community.

(Sound break)

Becker: We're on Lake Street headed east now in South Minneapolis, and it is something of a mural corridor here from Lyndale over to Bloomington on the east - there must be a dozen murals in the vicinity.

Cochran: It's wonderful to have such a concentration of public artwork in a single place. There's not a dozen murals in all of Frederick, the city that we come from. I think that shows a great cultural vitality in the city. There's art everywhere.

Becker: The next one we're going to see is at 35th and Chicago. If you look up now on the side of the building of the Pillsbury House, it's wrapped around the building. It involves a new process developed by 3M. They actually take the artwork, scan it with a laser, and then they printed it out 62 feet long by 12 feet high. And it looks like a painting but doesn't have a drop of paint.


Becker: Forecast helped to fund this mural which was done by Catherine Nobbe, and she researched the history of this Powderhorn Park area and got photographs, family photos, she interviewed people, she did workshops with kids, and some of their drawings, and things they wrote.

Cochran: It says: "We encourage in that form of dance that everyone be an individual." She started at one point and said, "I want to dance just like you." And I said, "You can't dance like me. You're not me." So she went out there and kinda threw her shoulders back and she danced. She danced real well. That's great.

(Sound break)

Becker: This is another one of Marilyn Lindstrom's murals. We're at the corner of 12th Avenue South and Lake Street. And she worked with rival gangs from both neighborhoods to create a safe space, and it's called neighborhood safe art spot. And, as you can see, there's no graffiti or dissing of this mural, and there's a theory that if you work with young people to create a mural who otherwise are vandalizing spaces, that they will respect this work.

Cochran: This is beautiful. I love this. It's art that has been very carefully targeted to deal with the issues this community is dealing with, and it has a very unique feeling that reflects the people that worked on it. (Boy, it's really raining now.) It's a peacemaking art.

Stucky: I bet there are those who say art doesn't have to serve a purpose.

Theresa Cochran: Art for art's sake.

Stucky: Yeah, art for art's sake.

Cochran: It doesn't have to serve a purpose. Sometimes, though, when art is created to serve a purpose it can be more meaningful than art for art's sake. I think public art is heading toward a time when artists will discover how to become indispensable to the culture, and they will be able to do things with art that cannot be done any other way and that absolutely need to be done.

Becker: Now I want to show you the mural that Marilyn and her young crew did after this mural, and you can see how the talents of the young people really develop.

(Sound break)

Becker: We're on Franklin and 10th Avenue South in Minneapolis, and it's a wall of the People of Phillips Neighborhood Association that this "We Claim Our Lives" mural was put on a couple of years ago. The thing about this section is it's inspired by graffiti and involved graffiti artists in creating a legitimate mural.

Cochran: This is really a true gift to the community. This is really gorgeous.

Becker: We have one more roadside attraction coming up here at Franklin and Chicago, done by one of the newest members to our community who has really enlivened public art named Rafala Green. It's called the Phillips Gateway Project and it replaces what used to be a liquor store that the community demanded its removal and in its place is a gateway that features some giant concrete benches that are being covered in incredible mosaic tile murals.

Cochran: This is amazing. I can't believe this city. I hope people realize what they have here. You don't see things like this on the East Coast. You know, the culture is getting wiped out everywhere with franchises and mega-malls and all of that, and to see this kind of grassroots vitality and this kind of creation that draws on the roots of the culture is astonishing. This is something that would never be allowed to be paved over and replaced with a fast-food restaurant.


Cochran: When this kind of love and effort and creativity are put into a place like this it almost becomes sacred ground.