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HOMETOWN TRIBUTE: Artist Roger Reinardy’s murals enliven Sauk Centre.

Art That Sets Us Apart

From murals to sculptures to painted fire hydrants, public art showcases what’s special about Central Minnesota towns. 

By Lisa Meyers McClintick


Kahnah’bek, an iconic 20-foot tall statue of a serpent painted bright green, orange and yellow, rises above Crosby’s Memorial Park on Serpent Lake. A fresh coat of paint three years ago took it back to its original colors, from when it was installed in 1977 as a mascot for the
town’s largest gathering place. Today it’s also a magnet for souvenir photos and selfies.

A few blocks aways, a mural completed in 2014 rises two stories high with a collage that blends mining, snowmobile manufacturing and silent sports. “I really think the mural has brought a different feel and theme to our downtown,” said Lisa Sova, Crosby’s administrator clerk treasurer. “It did a nice job of incorporating the history and different eras that have brought us to where we are today.”

This year, new art greets visitors traveling north on Minnesota Highway 210 in the form of a black-and-white mural of local miners on a brick building in downtown Ironton. A second mural celebrates the boom in mountain biking throughout the Cuyuna Lakes State Recreation Area, which borders both Crosby and Ironton. 

Towns across Central Minnesota are embracing art projects—from murals and sculptures to artsy bike racks—to showcase what makes their communities unique, to attract visitors and to bring together its residents. “Public art is popping up everywhere,” said Leslie LeCuyer, executive director of the Central Minnesota Arts Board. “We’re trying to educate local leaders that art is a way to build and take pride in one’s community. It makes their place a destination, and it has a strong economic impact, as well.”

Creative Minnesota, a collaboration of statewide arts and cultural organizations, and Minnesota Citizens for the Art, embarked on an in-depth study in 2017 to measure the impact of the creative sector by totaling the amount of local spending done by nonprofit arts and cultural organizations, the amount of money generated by performances, exhibits, concerts and other arts events, and local earnings from area artists. It estimated Benton, Sherburne, Stearns and Wright county artists, as well as non-profit arts and cultural organizations, generated $45.8 million dollars. Cass, Crow Wing, Morrison and Todd counties generated nearly $1.2 million.

“Tourism is one of Minnesota’s top industries,” LeCuyer said, “and the arts play a critical role in that.”

The two-story mural in downtown Crosby stretches up the outside wall of the popular Iron Range Eatery and anchors a plaza that used to be a vacant lot. A local group sought help from the Minnesota Design Team—a volunteer group of architects, city planners and tourism experts that consults with communities across the state—and turned the corner spot into a welcoming gathering place with benches, flowers, a dog run, a bike repair station and interpretive panels about the town’s history. 

Crosby and Ironton boomed in the early 1900s when they were part of Minnesota’s third (and smallest) Iron Range, but the modest towns fell on tough times by the 1980s when open pit mines closed. The towns hit their revival in the mid-2000s, when former mining land became a state recreational area. Mine pits were filled with spring-fed water. And woods covered the steep hillsides, making the area a mecca for silent sports that include biking on the paved Cuyuna Lakes State Trail, paddling, fishing and diving in the lakes, and popular mountain bike trails that are set to be expanded.

Cuyuna Brewing Company, a café/bike shop and the Iron Range Eatery now share Main Street with antique shops and other local businesses. Camper cabins (including one with a mural created by Minneapolis-based illustrator and muralist Adam Turman) opened in the past two years, and the town was featured in an August 2018 Outside magazine cover story on “America’s Smartest Towns.”

“We have gained recognition worldwide for the mountain bike trails we have,” Sova said.

Other Central Minnesota towns have turned to nature, history and their geographic location to inspire artwork and create a sense of place.

In Monticello, at the bustling intersection of Minnesota Highway 25 and Broadway Avenue, two shiny silver swan sculptures by Elk River-based metal artist Sue Seeger represent the city’s popularity as a winter destination for thousands of trumpeter swans that gather on open stretches of the Mississippi River. Above the statues, regional photographer Chris Lommel’s portrait of Lake Maria at sunrise was printed on hundreds of tiles that attach loosely to the building. A breeze riffles the kinetic display, making the mural-sized photo look like it’s shimmering. Up to 35,000 people drive past it each day.

In Elk River, visitors to the Nature Explore Center and Handke Center early childhood program can explore a replicated eagle’s nest and admire a sculpture of running deer. It provides families with a playful, interactive and educational outdoor spot, while also tempting them to see the real eagle’s nest and wildlife at the Sherburne National Wildlife Refuge about 18 miles away. 

Artists in Buffalo in Wright County painted different themes on a parade of giant fiberglass buffalo that dot the downtown, which hugs a picturesque lakeshore. In Delano, volunteers have been working since 2017 to create a meditative labyrinth that is inspired by an ancient labyrinth at France’s Chartres Cathedral near Paris. It encourages people to wander its paths and linger longer than it takes to eat an ice cream cone at the popular Peppermint Twist across the road. The labyrinth officially opens in September.

And in Sauk Centre, artist Roger Reinardy has been painting his hometown for the past few years. Vibrant arched murals in downtown depict local history with native tribes, early pioneers and world wars. He also created a scene with veterans on the town’s American Legion, a portrait of famed hometown author Sinclair Lewis on the Palmer House hotel, and a whimsical view of a conductor and musical notes on the curved 86-year-old bandshell, where people gather weekly for free concerts along the Sauk Lake shore. 

“Art can transform a whole town,” LeCuyer said, citing Sauk Centre and how art has enlivened its physical appearance and increased hometown pride. “It’s such an exciting time.”

Funding for projects often comes from a combination of sources, such as Minnesota’s Legacy Amendment, which was passed in 2008 to devote a portion of state sales tax to funding for arts and culture. Regional arts councils, community fundraising, beautification programs and local grants—including targeted community Partner Funds hosted by the Initiative Foundation—can help finance art projects or match funds. Those projects, in turn, can draw visitors who spend money on food, entertainment and even lodging.

Painting Progress
Communities that invest in visual arts projects, festivals and art fairs, performance venues and creative spaces and studios such as Brainerd’s Franklin Arts Center, strengthen the local economy, said Theresa Sweetland, executive director at Forecast, a St. Paul-based consulting company that supports public art projects across the nation.

“We want to help people make positive changes in their communities through arts,” she said.

Sweetland advises arts supporters to work with city and regional planners and look for ways to incorporate art into existing projects. That could be anything from stamping poetry into new sidewalks, which St. Cloud has done, to decorating storm drains or reimagining fire hydrants.

Yes, fire hydrants. Milaca has enticed curious travelers off Minnesota State Highway 23 to seek out its almost three dozen fire hydrants, all of which are individually painted. Kids and adults cruise through town on the lookout for Sven the Snowman from “Frozen,” “Despicable Me” minions, Mike Wazowski from “Monsters, Inc.,” Batman and other superheroes.

Little Falls, which has had a wealth of history-inspired murals for years, made a conscious decision to jazz up its more utilitarian city infrastructure. The city ordered bike racks with playful themes such as giant paper clips and crayons. Artists also spruced up about 20 trash cans by painting everything from abstract patterns to coffee and doughnuts and flowers. Next up will be new benches.

Whether it’s a small project or a large art installation, local leaders say anything that helps a community stand out, give it vibrancy and knit people together is pivotal, especially when it also attracts young people and economic reinvestment.

“It’s not just an economic impact,” LeCuyer said, “but quality of life.”

For More Information
Check out these websites for more information about public art initiatives in Central Minnesota. 
Central Minnesota Arts Board 
East Central Regional Arts Council
Five Wings Arts Council 

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