by NATHANIEL NELSON
After four years, 26 murals, and dozens of buckets of paint, the River Arts Alliance (RAA) is finally nearing completion on its HBC Fence Project.
Last Saturday, the RAA held its final public painting event for the project, a community-focused artwork that has been underway for the past several years. The final set consists of five separate murals, which were painted by more than 25 community members working together.
The work was the brainchild of Bernadette Mahfood, who initially had the idea six years ago along with Julia Crozier after seeing the empty space around Levee Park.
“We felt there was a need to put up art in that area, and we saw the HBC fence seemed like a blank canvas to us,” Crozier recalled.
Crozier, RAA board member and the project coordinator, has been working on the fence since the beginning, even before she was on the board of the RAA. After the two had finished their work on the Blue Heron sculptures, Crozier and Mahfood began brainstorming their next project, which ended up being the HBC fence mural.
“Bernadette and I wanted to get the community involved, and we knew we wanted to do murals,” Crozier said.
From there, the idea began to take shape.
According to Crozier, the two wanted to get public art into a high visibility area, but to do so in a way that would connect the community. Eventually, they decided to do a public mural based around communication.
“We wanted something that was aesthetically interesting, community-focused, that honored the region, the culture, and the business,” Crozier said, “and we thought telling the story of communication would be a nice fit.”
The plan was for there to be 26 panels painted by the community, paired with mosaic pillars and a sculpture element that would all flow together through design and color. Through the murals, Mahfood and Crozier wanted to both give the community something to rally around and beautify the public space.
Mahfood approached HBC about the project, and pitched their idea.
“They loved the design idea and wanted to do it,” Crozier said.
Mahfood was the initial lead, planning the beginning stages and the first year. Sadly, Mahfood was soon diagnosed with cancer and passed away, so Crozier was brought on to lead the planning in her stead. It wasn’t Crozier’s first mural or work, having worked on murals all over Southeast Minnesota over the past 15 years, but it was her first time in a leadership role.
“I didn’t know if I could do it,” Crozier admitted. “But I was a part of this project since the beginning so it made sense.”
She added that the experience has been filled with learning, but she loved working with the community. Over the years, dozens of individuals have contributed to the paintings, which culminated in the last public painting day on Saturday. Now, all that’s left is to tweak the final pieces and plan the installation.
Mary Farrell, a local filmmaker and photographer, attended two painting days including the most recent. She was interested in the fence due to its public nature, and blurring the lines between individual and artist.
“I thought it was unique and interesting to open it to the public. Even though we might not be an artist like Julia, she wanted us and the community to find their creative side,” Farrell exclaimed.
By keeping the painting open to the public and only acting as a guide, Crozier was able to tap into the community love for art and their own personal expressions, Farrell said.
“Julia has these designs, that are well thought out, but everyone can come and paint as they please. I needed some guidance myself, but everyone was free to express themselves,” Farrell recalled. “I don’t know if they would feel like a part of an art project regularly.”
As a member of the RAA herself, Farrell knows what it is like to be an established artist, but she said the project was able to show the public that they do not need to have a gift for art to enjoy it. She also noted that the event was highly intergenerational, with young kids, adults and elderly people working together on the same pieces and connecting, which Crozier admitted was one of the goals.
“When you’re working on art together, you start to connect. It also builds a relationship, both with the people and the art itself,” Crozier said. “They see ownership in the work, and pride in what they do. Some things might get covered up, but people will always be able to point and say, ‘I did that.’”
The final phase will end in autumn, Crozier said, as the whole project will be hung and displayed in the fall. There are currently nine pieces hanging in the park, with the city holding onto 11 following the renovations at Levee Park and five still to be completed.
In the end, the mural will fulfill the visions of Mahfood and Crozier by giving the community something to be proud of, and an experience on which to look back.
According to Crozier, the next installations should happen in August and, if all things go according to the plan, the full mural should be visible by early October. She also plans to hold a capstone after the installation for people to view and celebrate their hard work.