[Featured Image: Photo by Julie Johnson Fahrforth – A section of the 40′ long concept drawing for the Mni Mural.]
Publisher’s Note: This article has been amended after publication to include the names of some additional artists who participated in these projects.
Mankato is a rapidly growing arts community. It’s growing not just in the number of artists from various backgrounds and types of craft, but it is also putting art at the heart of our culture. Among the many projects springing up across the region, murals have become an important means of expression.
Seven muralists and their projects have been especially noticeable around town. Each muralist has a personal story to share including the things that have inspired their art and fuel their future projects.
Public art is amazing, it can be a part of the history of a community or progress and change with it as well.Dana Sikkila
Julie Johnson Fahrforth
Julie Johnson Fahrforth began her journey into public art by designing and painting traffic boxes before beginning her work with murals. One of her projects, the Mni Mural on the Minnesota River flood wall near the intersection of Riverfront Drive and Main Street is hard to miss and well known to the community. In collaboration with several other artists, the flood wall project took a year to plan.
Before painting the actual mural, she and the artists practiced a couple rounds. As part of the process, they rolled out a forty-foot sheet of paper during one of their first meetings and drew with pastels their own visions of the river.
Although multiple artists were involved in the project, Fahrforth recalled wanting the finished mural to look like the work of one person. Each artist started with an image then drew inspiration from and on top of what another had started. This process went through several iterations, sometimes weeks apart.
Craig Nagel, another Mni artist, helped execute the final vision. He and Fahrforth had collaborated on another mural project for the New Ulm Grand Center for Arts and Culture in 2018. Other key contributors included Andrew Judkins, Ann Judkins, and Michael Cimino all three of whom contributed large portions of the mural’s design and painting.
Before the project could continue, the artists had to obtain permission from the city and the Army Corps of engineers. “And I felt strongly about going to the Dakota and asking them if we could paint behind Reconciliation Park,” Fahrforth added.
Through a friend, Fahrforth made contact with the Mahkato Mdewakanton Association who did not have a problem with the mural but also suggested that she participate in a sweat lodge ceremony at Prairie Island. Fahrforth accepted the terms and expressed enthusiasm about the experience that stayed with her while she worked on the mural.
She recalled the smell of sage burning, singing prayers, and especially feeling the cold earth after she entered the sweat lodge. “I held on for dear life because it was so hot in there!” Fahrforth said.
When asked what makes art worth it, Fahrforth offered, “You can’t beat expressing yourself. Keep doing it. Do it a lot.”
Originally a native of Colorado, Kendrick Daum described his young self as “a punk juvenile” who tagged alleys, abandoned architecture, and freight trains.
After years of dodging train workers and officers of the law, Daum grew tired of the inability to share what he loved with the public without fear of prosecution. “Even though it feels like you are a superhero with an alter ego, it can be depressing not sharing your aptitude with others,” Daum said.
A miraculous recovery followed a weeklong long coma and stay in the ICU in the summer 2007 when he was 21. On the seventh day, doctors had encouraged Daum’s family to turn off his life support equipment, but they refused to give up on him. Thankfully, they held out because the next day, Daum woke up—in more ways than one.
After “a difficult recovery,” he relearned basic activities such as walking, reading, and tying his shoes. He knew how easy it would be to fall back into old toxic habits with peers who liked to spend their free time at the bar. So she decided to make a life change and commit his life to art.
“I started spending my nights in train yards and under bridges, honing my craft,” he said.
He began to paint commissions for businesses around Mankato. In 2015, he and his partner, Keith Hood, spray-painted the sign on The Design Element off of Highway 22. He also has a piece titled, “Hokusai Hardware,” on the alley side of Rock Street Auto. A piece titled “Wild Loons” on the side of Nakato bar in North Mankato, and a quick no-budget winter piece on the side of Mankato Makerspace which announce the words “You’re Never Done Learning” are among his other works.
Perhaps the best known and long-standing mural painted by Daum in Mankato is called The Hive and has rested atop the 410 Project store front since June of 2016.
“Every project is different,” Daum described his process. Generally, his budget and allotted time determines the project, but he prefers to bounce ideas off his fellow artists at Mankato Makerspace or anyone in the near vicinity. He added, “I sincerely prefer for an audience to conjure up their own meaning from my work, I will always ask what you think before I provide my own biased perspective.”
Jasmine Hancock, a fourth-year Painting and Sculpture major at Minnesota State University, Mankato has been painting the Alice in Wonderland mural for Curiosi-Tea since December 2018.
When Heidi Wyn, owner of Curiosi-Tea, still had her shop in Old Town, Hancock paid frequent visits there to draw. When Wyn was planning her new shop along Commerce Drive, she approached Hancock and asked if she would be interested. Since Wyn was looking for an artist who would convey their own interpretation of Alice in Wonderland, she found Hancock to be the perfect fit.
“I’m very happy for the opportunity,” Hancock said.
If a customer visits Curiosi-Tea and sees Hancock’s murals in the bathrooms, her inspiration for the project may not be immediately obvious. Hancock’s steampunk mural design was born out of her research about fashions in the late 1800s to the early 1900s.
She is currently working on background details before diving into the characters and story line from Wonderland.
Her favorite subjects are Alice and Cheshire Cat. For Alice, Hancock focused on the fashions from the original Alice time period. “I go into a lot of big details about who Alice actually was and how she was dressed that was considered appropriate,” Hancock said.
As for the Cheshire Cat, Hancock researched cats that were pampered and treated like royalty. In Alice in Wonderland, the Cheshire Cat belongs to the Duchess. “Obviously, she’s not going to have some mangy, old run-of-the-mill kind of cat,” Hancock said. “She’s going to want something beautiful and glamorous.” After considering various felines, she created a hybrid of Abyssinian and an Egyptian Mau.
After Alice and Cheshire Cat, Hancock will tackle the Red Queen. “I would like to do a royal portrait style of her hanging up somewhere in the tea shop. I’m also focusing less on the human aspect of her and more like a porcelain doll. I want her to definitely showcase more of the steampunk robot feel but not necessarily all robot. She’s going to have that grace and beauty of an actual queen but she’s not gonna look as human as Alice is because you know, she’s the leader of Wonderland and she’s going to fit in very much with her environment.”
Once Hancock has graduated from college and has more free time, she said she would love to create a series of illustrations based on Alice in Wonderland.
Holly Dodge who recently graduated with an MFA in Creative Writing, also discovers release in this medium of murals. She has tackled a handful of mural projects in the area: a signal box mural in front of the Blue Earth County Library, the entire third floor of the Mankato Family YMCA, a large mural at Hoover Elementary library, and has collaborated with other artists on an equally impressive mural at West High School. Just this year, Dodge also painted a building-wide mural for Jr.’s Academy child care center.
“I have done some smaller paintings for individuals as well,” she added.
When Dodge was in high school and living in Mountain Lake, she spent most of her time at a local music venue and youth drop-in center called The Studio. The owner, ironically
named Art, commented one day that she should “jazz up” one of the all-black walls with a little color. She accepted his challenge and soon had her first large spray-painted mural.
“That project gave me the courage to start thinking bigger and bigger,” she said.
Through the following years, she occasionally painted odd projects here and there, but in 2009, another opportunity presented itself. She saw that the YMCA was seeking artists to paint murals on the bare walls of Chesley Skate Park. She submitted an idea, then was thrilled when she was selected.
“I ended up painting a mural that kept growing larger and larger,” Dodge said of the experience. “When I was all finished, it was approximately 80 feet long and 8 feet high. I was hooked. I really enjoy the challenges of painting on location and on a larger scale. I also love how forgiving paint can be—if you screw up, you just paint over it and try again. There is something very cathartic about that.”
Dodge was one of the five artists selected to paint a mural in one of the five window wells located on the ground floor of the Ardent Mills building in Old Town Mankato. Each design focused on the history, spirit, and culture of Mankato. Each artist also received a $500 stipend to paint their individual design onto a plywood cutout which Ardent Mills provided.
“I was really excited to participate in the Ardent Mills project because I really admire that location and the Mill itself,” Dodge said, “and because it offered the unique opportunity of painting the work at home rather than on location. The flexibility of that was very appealing.”
For images on that project, she chose a rabbit, a snake, and a bee. Historically, rabbits and snakes represent rebirth and transformation, while the bee traditionally symbolizes luck.
“I wanted the piece to be a statement of hope under distressing circumstances—which was weighing on my heart at the time,” she added. “Rabbits are a particularly interesting animal because though they seem skittish and weak, they are actually quite strong and have very acute senses. They typically use their senses to avoid danger, but if they are in harm’s way, they can really fight. I really admire that juxtaposition.”
Justin Ek, a Mankato native for thirty years, runs a family business called Bellissimo Paint and Coating and has designed multiple murals around Mankato, including the one on his own building. Once covered with mandalas, the blue backdrop on the side of his building in Old Town now features dream catchers. Ek said he believes this will bring some healing transformation to the city.
Ek added that he has “many irons in the fire” as far as his projects go. His most recent project is the Wooden Spoon in Old Town. Ek and his crew began the project on June 10 and it will likely continue throughout the summer as he juggles other priorities. The Wooden Spoon’s future mural will display a chicken with brightly colorful spoons and bees.
With Circle Inn, Ek began with a simple heart design with the words Lo no strong which is short for lower north strong. It’s a message of strength during so much pain in the world right now,” he added.
The family who owns Ruby Ranch had previously engaged Ek to paint a house. After following him on the social media page Look at this Project!, they decided they would ask him to paint their silo too. The project is scheduled for August where the silo needs to be washed, primed, designed and then painted. “They said ‘I trust your vision,’” Ek said. “Me being me went wild. The design is my heart having freedom.”
When asked whether he prefers it when clients bring a specific vision or when he is given more creative license, he said he likes it both ways. “I have customers who want me to bring their vision to life and some who love my vision and trust me wholly,” he said. “I like the ones who have plenty of direction. It gives me a very good map to the destination. I also love the freedom. I often have things I’m dying to try.”
When Abby Daleki finished grad school in 2017 with an MFA in Studio Art from the University of Delaware, the biggest challenge she faced was finding her identity as an artist. She taught at Lincoln University in Pennsylvania for a year which she felt helped.
“I frequently deal with creative resistance and not wanting to make,” she explained. “But once I get up and going, that resistance dissipates.”
Mom & Pops owners Casey and Shawn Neitzel presented Daleki with an opportunity to paint a mural for them. “They both expressed their love and obsession for my paintings and wondered what the possibilities were of getting my style on the side of their shop,” Daleki recalled.
Initially, she hesitated. Her main concern was stepping on the toes of local artists who astounded her with their incredible work. But the Neitzels insisted on Daleki’s painting style.
It turned out, Ek also lent a hand.
“He even hired his team to power wash and prime the wall for me!” Daleki said. But at the same time, the Neitzels desired that Daleki make the ultimate decisions about content, color, and direction. “Casey did, however, assist me in choosing all the bright colors to use!” Daleki added.
She prepared a couple mockups for the Neitzels. Together they chose the most abstract ice cream cone that rests in the center of the completed mural.
“I am quite pleased with the results! I do tend to obsess over line quality and having a crisp edge,” Daleki said. “But I managed to finish the mural without completely obsessing over those things. I realized that most of those minute details are unnoticeable. It reminds me to
step back and look at the big picture… literally.”
As of May 2020, she quit her full-time job to pursue freelance graphic design so she could continue working from home during the pandemic. She has one mural scheduled for a private residence and continues paintings at her home studio while she prepares for an upcoming show.
Dana Sikkila, Director of the 410 Project, has also been involved with community mural projects. Through the years, she’s designed small pieces mainly inside buildings, but the Fallenstein Playground was her first large mural in the public.
“The experience showed me how much young people can benefit from art in public areas and or seeing public art being made, especially in an area where children play and gather,” she said.
Over a year ago, Fallenstein Playground contacted the 410 Project about creating a mural inside the tunnel in the middle of the playground. Sikkila and three other artists from the 410 Project, Mallory Murphy, Tori Lowe, and Irie Jenson, spent the month of July painting.
That piece took about two weeks to complete and Fallenstein Playground was Sikkila’s work. As the weather warmed this year, the playground staff reached out to her about painting the sitting walls surrounding the park. The playground staff wanted the walls to become an interactive tool for its young visitors.
In describing how the process affects the vision, Sikkila said, “Painting plays a big role, not every surface is as smooth as a canvas,” she explained. “The playground walls are very porous and bumpy so pulling a straight line can be difficult, but we try not to let that affect the final work. So many times we have to go back and do touch ups but it’s worth it.”
On this project Sikkila is working with a group of female and non-binary artists. She said they have reached about halfway on the Fallenstein Project. “It’s amazing to work with other artists to bounce ideas off of,” she said. “We’re always collaborating while painting in some way or another.”
For Sikkila, each mural is about advocating for how art can bring more awareness to people and places. She believes that the community is gaining appreciation of the value of storytelling through visual art.
“Art has always been used to tell stories,” she said. “Stories about history, current events, advocacy, people and communities. Art, even abstract art, can create new conversations, help develop ideas, and be used as an educational tool. Even art at a playground can invoke conversations and thought. Public art is amazing, it can be a part of the history of a community or progress and change with it as well.”
- Mni Mural in MankatoLIFE’s Attractions Directory
- The Nakato in MankatoLIFE’s Bar & Restaurant Directory
- The 410 Project in MankatoLIFE’s Attractions Directory
- CuriosiTea in MankatoLIFE’s Bar & Restaurant Directory
- Wooden Spoon in MankatoLIFE’s Bar & Restaurant Directory
- Circle Inn in MankatoLIFE’s Bar & Restaurant Directory
- Mom & Pop’s in MankatoLIFE’s Bar & Restaurant Directory
- Fallenstein Playground in MankatoLIFE’s Attractions Directory