Flood wall turned to outdoor canvas

Artists bring life to Minnesota River flood wall in Mankato


Artist Michael Cimino spray paints the “Dawn” section of the 540-foot long Mankato Flood Wall Mural project featuring the Minnesota River. The mural was painted during the month of July by five artists that attracted a number of onlookers who stopped to take photos and watch the artists work on the large outdoor canvas. Photo by Steve Palmer


When the city of Mankato flood wall was built over 40 years ago residents of the city gained peace of mind knowing it would hold back the Minnesota River from the devastating floodwaters that often threatened or caused severe damage to parts of the city.

Now, a group of five artists, led by Julie Johnson-Fahrforth, have used a portion of the off-white cement wall as a huge outdoor concrete canvas to paint a 540-foot long mural to bring some visual life to the sturdy structure which has guarded the river city for so many years.

The idea for a mural had long been proposed but never started after running into opposition from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers who built the wall and wanted it protected. Another major concern was how the wall mural would be cared for long term.

Johnson-Fahrforth restarted the mural idea about a year ago, and this time the project received support last April from the Corps of Engineers when they were reassured that any artistic effort wouldn’t hide cracks or other flaws that might form, escape detection and compromise the integrity of the wall.

Along with Johnson-Fahrforth and the other artists, Michael Cimino, Craig Nagel, Andrew Judkins and Ann Judkins, they determined the feasibility of a mural when they painted a basic scale on 20 large cardboard panels to match the 20 sections of concrete flood wall.

Forty inches of flood wall equaled to one inch of drawing on the cardboard panels. After hours of research, two renderings of the mural, pre-planning meetings with the city council and discussion with Dakota Indian representatives, the concept of Dawn on the Minnesota River was approved to depict how light falls on the river during a 24-hour period from sunrise, midday and sunset.

On July 2, after pressure washing the 8-foot tall by 540-foot long section of the wall to prepare for the mural, artists applied 25 gallons of primer and underpainting in spray paint that took three to five days.

Acrylic paint, applied with paint brushes, was used to paint scene details. Finally, a protective acrylic sealer and varnish were added to finish the mural to make it last 30 to 40 years.

Spray paint is an efficient, effective way to paint all of the pits in a concrete wall. It fills in rather than having the artist using more paint to apply with a brush.

Artist Michael Cimino said a total of 315 cans of Ironlak spray paint was ordered and, along with acrylic brush paint, together cost about $4,500. Ironlak is a heavily pigmented, artist-quality spray paint that worked well for the mural outline.

The artists teamed together to outline the massive mural to decorate the flood wall from the historic railroad depot building to the white buffalo sculpture in Reconciliation Park off Riverside Dr. in downtown Mankato. The park is near the place where 38 Dakota were executed in a mass hanging after the U.S.-Dakota War of 1862.

Cimino was the most experienced in applying spray paint to set the outline of the river’s blue water on the wall. He said it was a good way to get the basics of the mural in place.

The mural Dawn on the Minnesota River begins on the left side and blends to dusk on the right. The mural depicts the river bend behind the wall as it would have appeared in presettlement times.

There is no wildlife or structures painted on the natural river except for on each end it has a 40-foot section of stencil work of indigenous Minnesota River fish painted by Cimino to bookend the mural.

The artists felt that by adding wildlife it would be too small and make the mural too busy which would distract from the theme of the river. Instead the well-thought-out mural only reflects a tranquil picture that focuses on the water.

“We wanted the mural to show how it was before humans or industrial influences appeared and base it solely on landscape,” Cimino said.


Artists working on the Mankato flood wall mural sometimes spent 10- to 12-hour days painting at the beginning of the project. Photo by Steve Palmer


Cimino was the spray paint artist who specialized in highlighting and shading details for the mural. He has painted other murals in Mankato, New Ulm and Eagle Lake and was excited to be working on the largest one he’s been associated with and being part of a team effort.

“Julie contacted me on the conceptual planning of the mural to help figure how to bid out the job and form a plan to make it last against the weather or vandalism,” he noted.

The artists sometimes spent 10- to 12-hour days painting at the beginning of the project. “The mornings were great for best light on the mural, but by 3 o’clock, the wall starts to shade and gets tougher to paint past that time,” Cimino explained. “So we do details in the morning and color blocks in the afternoon,” he explained.

There were only a few weather delays when it rained and the artists couldn’t paint. However, the artists continued to paint ignoring the noisy freight trains that rumbled past them shaking the ground just several yards away from the flood wall canvas.

“There were a lot of people driving past looking at what we were doing or stopping by to watch and hang out as we painted and take photos,” Cimino commented.

The artists usually worked on different sections at the same time, but once in awhile, they had to play musical chairs. “Sometimes we had to work over the top of each other, but I’m really proud of how we painted so well together. We met the challenge of producing a consistent piece of art just as if one artist was doing the mural alone,” Cimino added.

Cimino acknowledged there was a certain amount of pressure on the team of artists to get the mural done right. “This was going to be the biggest public work of art for the people of Mankato to enjoy,” he commented. “The team of artists all put a lot of effort into the mural to make it as good as possible. It was a rare opportunity for all of the artists to do something like this.”

He added: “Public art is important as it tends to strengthen and brighten a community, and this is our way of giving something back. Many have hoped for something like this, and hopefully, it will spur more of the same and add to the quality of life in Mankato.”

The amount of money raised for the project totaled more than $20,000. The Twin Rivers Council for the Arts said a $6,000 grant from the Mankato Area Foundation helped push the fundraising effort past the $18,000 goal for the project to meet expenses for materials and paying the artists. Another $4,288 came in the form of a City of Mankato Community Grant while donations from businesses and individuals accounted for the remaining $10,000 pledged to the project.

Twin Rivers Council for the Arts is a collaborative alliance of local arts and cultural organizations, individual artists and community members who share a vision for the arts in Greater Mankato.

Twin Rivers Council and the artists will conduct yearly inspections of the mural wall to do touch ups as needed and look for any damages that can be corrected.

Every five years a resealant of the mural will be applied to maintain color and quality. An inventory of exact matches of paint will be kept in case of vandalism or graffiti damage.

“We’re not too concerned about that right now,” said Cimino. “Studies show there is less vandalism in an area where murals are present.”

“We’re very happy with how the mural turned out,” said Noelle Lawton, director for Twin Rivers Council for the Arts. “The work went smoothly, and the artists really jelled together, they worked under some hot weather temperatures, and when there was a rain delay, it was a good time for them to rest,” she added.

“Overall, we couldn’t be more pleased.”

#DawnontheMinnesotaRiver #FloodWallMural #Mankato

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