Back in February, while surveying the sprawling monument to the apocalyptic post-human landscape that surrounds the Metrodome, I wrote about Peter Busa’s mural “Demolition,” commissioned by the Valspar Corp. in the early 1970s to decorate the outside of its headquarters. One of the most eye-catching features of a largely featureless stretch of I-35W between the I-94 exchange and the bridge, I called it “probably the first piece of artwork in the Cities created for the sole purpose of being seen from the highway.”
For better or worse, the interstates radically changed the visual landscape of the Twin Cities in the ‘60s and ‘70s, and Busa was a sort of pioneer in exploring how non- or semi-commercial art could take advantage of these new transit ways. (By “non- or semi-commercial art,” I suppose I mean “things that are interesting to look at that aren’t billboards.”)
In this approach, Busa had at least two acolytes I’d like to take a look at, both of whom we might call folk-art practitioners who remain mostly anonymous. Both these acolytes created large-scale non-commercial public artworks meant first and foremost to be seen and experienced from a car traveling down the highway. These two visual monuments dominate interstate travel through Minneapolis, and to me, have always seemed oddly of a piece.
The first is the “Love Power” mural, at Washington Avenue and I-35W. The second, further east down I-94, is the “United Crushers” piece on the old Archer-Daniels-Midland silos near Dinkytown. No doubt you know both of these works well if you’ve spent any time in traffic near downtown Minneapolis.
The “Love Power” mural decorates the side of the building on Washington Avenue just east of I-35W. “LOVE POWER,” proclaims a smiling Jesus, standing before a rainbow with arms wide open. There is a phone number (it still works) and the descriptor “music & miracles ministry.” Near Jesus in a neat script is the phrase, “Whosoever will may come,” which one would assume comes from the Bible, but in fact does not. It’s similar to a verse in Revelation, but the exact phrase seems to have been coined by Protestant hymnists in the 18th or 19th century.
Anyway, you know which mural I mean. It’s probably the most recognizable depiction of Jesus in the state of Minnesota.
Love Power has been a shelter and food kitchen, remains an active congregation, and has a colorful recent history as an art and music venue (documented in part here by the Twin Cities Daily Planet). The mural itself and not the venue behind it is my primary interest today. I can’t seem to find a specific date for its creation, though it’s reputed to have gone through a number of iterations over the years. Some people I’ve talked to over the years who have lived around the West Bank claim to be able to mark the history of the neighborhood through the changing expressions on the Lord’s face: there was the older, even weirder Love Power Jesus, who apparently bore a stormier, more inscrutable countenance. A newer, more accessible Love Power Jesus, blue eyes sparkling, has been there since at least 2000.
The most notable alteration, of course, is when unknown graffitists added an “I” to the front of the marquee sentence fragment, giving it a more sinister political spin: “I LOVE POWER.” The “I” is long painted-over, but you can still make out the general shape.
I asked a few prominent local sign painters and muralists if they knew who was responsible for the mural. Most of them dismissed the idea that it was a well-known professional, but instead an inspired amateur whose name is lost to history. The mural doesn’t appear to be signed.
Whether its artist was an amateur or a professional, it’s easy to squirm uncomfortably when confronted with the painting. It’s not at all badly painted – despite some dubious modeling in his robes, Jesus’ face is pretty capably rendered – but it is really odd. Jesus, for all the inviting sparkle in his eye, wears a truly bizarre expression. It’s not hard to understand why someone gave in to the temptation to recast the figure as a trippy, power-mad theocrat. There is something very aggressive about the gesture of painting a three-story Jesus making direct eye contact with every one of the thousands of motorists whosoever would glance over at him while speeding down the most heavily used interstate in Minnesota.
Which brings us to another bold hand-painted gesture, about 2 miles east. On some of the old Archer-Daniels-Midland grain elevators that have sat empty for decades and have miraculously escaped demolition for all those years, an audacious bunch of graffitists wrote the eponymous phrase “UNITED CRUSHERS” across the top, in a bold, black-and-white san serif, one letter per tower. It’s hard to gauge how high the letters are, but they’re extremely visible from 94 West as you approach the Witch’s Hat in Prospect Park, so they must be several feet high, at least. The piece has been there for as long as I’ve lived in Minneapolis, and doesn’t appear to be going anywhere soon.
A piece of that size and ambition, painted in such a hard-to-reach place on a prominent local landmark, involves some real coordination and effort. In its own way, it also says, “I LOVE POWER.” Not necessarily the absolutist Puritan variety darkly hinted at in the altered Love Power mural, but perhaps the power to defy the laws of gravity and of the state, and the power to command attention and respect (if that’s not putting too fine a point on it).
I suspect the United Crushers made their move at a time when it looked likely that those grain elevators would fall to U of M expansion plans, but the process has moved slowly enough that it’s now been around long enough to serve as a minor local anti-landmark. Like its freeway-anchored cousins “Demolition” and “Love Power,” it too is posed for maximum visual effect at 60 miles per hour, and a perfect piece of renegade public art for the post-Robert Moses era: oddly aggressive, larger than life, and inspiring a kind of commuter awe.