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Neighborhood hopes murals will grab public's notice

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Andy Sagvold and his daughter Talula
Andy Sagvold and his daughter Talula worked on filling in the mountains on Aug. 16 for a mural designed by Yuya Negishi, on the side of the building that houses both Kim's Oriental Market and Myngoc Jewelry on Snelling Avenue in St. Paul.
Marianne Combs | MPR News

As Minnesotans drive up and down Snelling Avenue on their way to and from the State Fair, they may notice some new art along the way. Four new murals are going up in the Hamline Midway neighborhood. The project is designed to get drivers to slow down and even stop in to some local businesses.

      For project manager Jonathan Oppenheimer, it's the realization of a dream he came up with a couple of years ago, when he was "trying to find a way to build a sense of identity and connectedness between the people who live here, the folks who work here, go to school here.

Project manager Jonathan Oppenheimer
Project manager Jonathan Oppenheimer stood before a mural on the side of Snelling Cafe in St. Paul. Oppenheimer has no public art experience, but pitched the project idea to the Knight Foundation last year, and was granted $25,000 in matching funds.
Marianne Combs | MPR News

    "And public art really seemed like a great way to do that, right on Snelling Avenue, which is so highly visible."

    Many residents consider Snelling Avenue unfriendly to pedestrians. Taggers, however, find the local businesses attractive targets for graffiti.

    "A lot of the immigrant businesses, which are thriving and bustling and have such wonderful people that work there and shop there, often aren't so connected to a lot of the residents in the neighborhood," Oppenheimer said.  

  The four murals going up are located on the sides of highly visible walls belonging to hair salons, grocery stores and restaurants. Afeworki Bein, owner of Snelling Cafe, a restaurant that serves Eritrean food, said his customers are enthusiastic about the new art.

    "They really love it!" Bein said. "And I love it too!"

    Bein said that when Oppenheimer approached him with the idea, he wasn't so sure. "I said, it can't hurt, it's OK," he recalled. "Then when they did it, I loved it." He said he's changed the route he takes to work, so that he can pass the new mural on his way.

Snelling Cafe's mural
Snelling Cafe in St. Paul is a popular destination for lovers of Eritrean food. Owner Afeworki Bein says he loves the new mural, which was painted by Blaster of the artists' co-op Rogue Citizen.
Marianne Combs | MPR News

    Each of the murals is the work of a different artist. Lori Greene, owner of the Snelling business Mosaic on a Stick, created the mosaic mural for Star Food Market. She worked with a team of volunteers, after meeting with the African market's owners. She described the work as "really colorful," with "mountains and goats and a river running through it," among other images.  

  Greene, who has led other efforts to build community through public art, said she finds the Midway Murals project exciting.

    "I live by two of the murals, so I get to walk by them almost every day," she said. "I know it's going to make the neighborhood feel different. I think it will make people stop and look and pay attention, rather than just driving through. And all of these restaurants and markets have something to offer, so it's worth checking out."

    Perhaps what's most impressive about the project is how it came about. John Oppenheimer had never managed such an effort before; he's studying social work and public policy at the University of Minnesota. But he pitched the idea to the Knight Foundation last year as part of its arts challenge, and received $25,000 in matching funds.

Artist Lori Greene, one of the mural artists
Artist Lori Greene, owner of the Snelling Avenue business Mosaic on a Stick,is one of the artists creating murals for the Midway Murals project. She says she hopes the public art lures more people to the neighborhood.
Marianne Combs | MPR News

    "Which was just awesome," he said, "that a guy off the street, with no connection to any business or organization, could put forth an idea like this and get funded."  

  The project will cost $90,000 all told. Oppenheimer has raised more than $79,000 so far.

    While the Midway Murals project ends this Saturday with a community celebration, Oppenheimer said, more is to come.  

    "We've got a public art working group," he said. "We're going to continue to meet quarterly to build on this. We need to take these four murals and what we've learned from them and think of public art in so many ways. It's not stopping here."