Most people who travel through the area at the western edge of St. Paul, around South St. Anthony Park and the West Midway, probably never realize they’re in a special place. This neighborhood, which offers an equal mix of industrial warehouses, modest homes, small entrepreneurs, and a thriving arts scene, has been quickly changing over the last decade. A hot real estate market, the Green Line light rail, and a growing demand for re-using industrial space has meant that the once heavily industrial area has thousands of new residents.
About 10 years ago, the neighborhood group seized on a new name and identity for the neighborhood. It became the Creative Enterprise Zone, and a new nonprofit emerged to attempt to brand and define the neighborhood. The idea was to ensure that the existing artists, “makers,” and entrepreneurs could thrive into the future, even as the new buildings began to grow all around them.
“Nobody knows that’s what this neighborhood is,” explained Catherine Reid Day, the chair of the board for the Creative Enterprise Zone (or CEZ). “It’s not visible to the eye. So making more public art in the area was important to us.”
This week the CEZ is going to bring branding to the next level when a team of more than a dozen muralists begin installing simultaneous murals all through the area. From Sep. 7 to Sept. 14, the Chroma Zone Mural and Art Festival will bring public art, placemaking, and whimsy out into the streets of St. Paul.
Multiple murals, all at once
While murals are nothing new to the Twin Cities, the idea of having an entire festival where artists paint murals in a neighborhood all at once appears to be unique. The festival was a long time coming, sprung from ideas that came out of a collaboration with the CEZ, Forecast Public Art, a local arts nonprofit, and an arts group named Burlesque of North America.
“The difference is that we have the number of muralists all here at same time, installing their murals at same time,” said Reid Day. “We have built one entire festival around that activity, by adding to it a chance to get in-depth and intimate with the artists, and to learn about their craft and the thinking behind their murals.”
With acres of industrial land uses, the CEZ has no shortage of places for murals. With plenty of large, unfenestrated walls to choose from, the St. Anthony Park zone provides some ideal canvases, and murals planned for the fest include the walls of a school, a sign shop, old and new factories, a welding shop, a recycling center, and a food co-op.
Earlier this summer, a dozen artists were selected for the festival. The list includes a large number of local artists, along with world-renowned muralists from New York, California, Argentina, Norway, and elsewhere. According to Reid Day, the selection committee was intentional about choosing a majority of people of color and women muralists, in an effort to “showcase how the art form has evolved from the masculine early years of graffiti to today’s more inclusive form.”
Why murals matter
“I think because of its large scale,” replied Christina Vang, when I asked her why she likes the mural as a medium. “[They] just have so much impact and visibility, especially in certain communities. It’s a good way to be representative of whatever community it exists in.”
Vang is an artist and designer who works as part of a team of Hmong-American artists called ArtCrop. Their recent projects include a large mural on the parking ramp of the Minnesota Museum of American Art in downtown St. Paul, and a mural on a barn near Hastings.
Vang’s team is planning a mural for the back wall of a woodworking studio near University and Raymond Avenues. The mural is going to be centered on the idea of “staying curious and paying attention.”
“The words we’re going to feature is ‘ask why,’ and we just felt that message would resonate with a lot of people no matter your walk of life — and every time you walk past that mural you’re going to experience a difference. ‘Ask why’ is going to mean something different to you every time you pass it,” explained Vang.
Another of the other muralists, who works under the name Biafra Inc., is planning a large mural for the wall of a carpet recycling facility in the West Midway industrial area.
“For me, part of what I really enjoy about them is the scale,” he said. “I love when you can walk up to an image that is so much bigger than you are. The feeling that comes over you is almost overwhelming because the impact is so great.”
The Biafra Inc. mural is going to focus on an image that he feels represents our politically polarized moment, and will center on a giant woman’s face watching a ship sink.
“I love that murals are forced to engage with the area they are painted in. It’s very fun to know that people experience their daily lives in front of your work every day, they become apart of the environment,” said the artist.
Breweries, talks, tours and Little Mekong Night Market
In keeping with the festival theme, Reid Day and the Chroma Zone team have a series of events planned. Naturally, the five local breweries in the area will be hosting events and artists’ talks, as well as a special guest appearance of the popular Little Mekong Night Market, which normally takes place five miles east along University Avenue.
There also will be a series of tours of the completed works, as well as a self-guided option. Because all the murals are centered in one area, it will be easy to see the artworks and muralists in action. The idea of strolling, biking or driving around the neighborhood while a dozen different artworks slowly climb the walls of the factories and warehouses should appeal to curious people.
“It’s open to the public in that sense; it’s right there on the streets,” said Catherine Reid Day. “We’ll encourage people who want to experience what it’s like to install a mural to feel connected to that process.”
When it’s all over, too, the Creative Enterprise Zone will be a bit more visible to the naked eye. With so many new artworks in place, the neighborhood will solidify its identity as a distinct community of artists, workers, and creative professionals. Plus it will look very cool, putting a whole new sheen, for example, on the beige walls of the carpet recycling factory.