Midway Murals bring artistic ambition to Snelling Avenue

Arts / Article

Photo courtesy of Midway Murals project

Part of what makes Jonathan Oppenheimer willing to launch a project like Midway Murals (a Knight Arts grantee) is his propensity to not fully consider what he’s getting into. “If there’s something I decide I want to do, I don’t always think it through, which is a blessing and curse. I don’t do a lot of wondering if I can do this,” he says.

According to Oppenheimer, the goal of the Midway Murals project is to “transform a half-mile stretch of Snelling Avenue during the summer of 2015 by commissioning four experienced public artists to collaborate with immigrant business owners and the Hamline Midway neighborhood to create murals.” Each of the four artists will create a separate mural, working over many months with business owners to craft an idea that will come to fruition in July and August with the installation of a piece where the businesses reside. Lori Greene will work in mosaic; Greta McLain in paint and mosaic; Eric Mattheis in spray paint; and Yuya Negishi in traditional and spray paint.

But there’s a lot more going on than simply having four artists create murals to hang outside of local businesses. As project lead, Oppenheimer wants to use the power of public art to connect with more than typical art consumers. “Public art has always fascinated me because you find it in these unexpected places. You’re not going to an art museum, it’s not always intentional that you’re going to see an art exhibit or art opening, but it just kind of grabs you and can pull you in at anytime,” he says.

Artist Yuya Negishi

Artist Yuya Negishi.

If you live, work or spend much time around the Midway neighborhood, you’ve probably seen this dichotomy of small, thriving businesses and shops coupled with a fair amount of rundown-looking buildings and alleys. When Oppenheimer moved into the neighborhood, he says what really stood out to him where the positives and possibilities. “You can talk to people in the neighborhood and hear anything from ‘Snelling needs some work’ to ‘Snelling is a dump.’ But I don’t see it that way,” he notes. “I walk and I see all these thriving businesses–bustling places like Snelling Café or Sunshine Beauty Salon. I can come home from work on the light rail at midnight, and it’s the most happening place in town.”

Public art projects can take many forms and exist for a wide range of reasons. Sculptures can represent the history of a place in large or small ways. Community street art can serve to unite neighbors in a common cause. And the very act of publicly decorating a part of the neighborhood can signal that a place is valued and cared for. Oppenheimer is attempting, with the Midway Murals project, to achieve all of these objectives in the most thoughtful and meaningful ways possible. “What can I do to bring people together that feels natural, that people will want to be a part of, that will expose people to different folks they wouldn’t normally interact with?” he asks. “And at the same time, beautify this stretch of road that’s so highly visible and so highly traveled? And so it was just like, ‘wouldn’t public art be great?’”

Mosaic muralist Greta Mclain

Mosaic muralist Greta Mclain.

A significant aspect of the mural project is creating ways to bring people together. “To me, that meeting each other in person is the kind of stuff that breaks down those barriers, racial barriers, notions we have about people who are different from us, sexual orientation, class. Just being in the same space with one another and finding common ground and finding that common humanity–I don’t mean to sound too profound about it. But I believe in that,” says Oppenheimer.

On Friday, February 20th, the Midway Murals project will be hosting a launch party. It will be part fundraiser, part community event, and part information session. A crowd-funding campaign was launched on February 16th in order to help further fund the overall project, and there will be opportunities to make donations during the launch party. There will also be music and art and, most significantly, the artists involved in the project, as well as business owners and members of the neighborhood.

“Why do I get excited about the party? It’ll be cool that there’s a DJ. It’ll be cool because we’re going to have new Midway shirts, and we’re going to have art, and we’re going to show a cool video. But it’s really because having all those people come together is really awesome,” Oppenheimer says.

Throughout my conversation with Oppenheimer, he kept touching on being undaunted by the challenging parts of the project. Those challenges, that hard work seemed to reassure him that he was doing it right: “When all is said and done, what I want to be able to say is that I did everything possible to reach out to every member of the community and soak in the wisdom and knowledge of people who’ve worked in different communities. If you just look at the folks who own these businesses on Snelling–Ethiopian, Eritrean, Oromo (and I’m still learning a lot about the history)–it’s a balancing act, and we have to get that right.”

The Midway Murals launch party is on February 20th from 4 p.m. to 7 p.m. at the Turf Club, 1601 University Ave. W., St. Paul. For more details, visit midwaymurals.com.