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Art hits the wall in New London

NEW LONDON — Block by block, as volunteers sponged and dabbed paint Thursday onto the looming, white exterior walls of Mord’s Hardware in New London, the shape of a grinning little boy sitting on an inner tube in the water began to take shape.

Depending on how many volunteers show up and how fast they work, the completed mural could be done by today, giving visitors a huge work of art to look at when they enter the town’s Main Street.

“It’s a community project that we did kind of mob flash style,” said Jeff Vetch, a member of New London’s Art Alliance.

The day started out with just Vetch and Kristen Allen facing the white wall. But soon the call went out and 40 volunteers showed up before noon and went to work.

“People just started coming around the other side of the table and started helping. It was kind of beautiful,” said Allen, who hopes that if people participate in the project, “ownership of this wall will spread throughout the community.”

Funded by a grant from the Southwest Minnesota Arts and Humanities Council and local sponsors, the mural is a temporary piece of artwork on the stark-white painted walls of the hardware store.

It won’t be permanent.

It’s expected the mural will be replaced with a new community project this fall that could focus on telling the story of the community’s history.

“We want this to be a vibrant exhibit space,” said Allen, an artist and another member of the Arts Alliance.

The mural is large, but it’s just the tip of the iceberg for New London’s focus on engaging the community in art experiences.

Funding for this project is also the tip of the iceberg when it comes to grants.

On July 1 New London received a $262,500 grant from ArtPlace America, a collaboration of national foundations.

Of the 1,200 inquiries ArtPlace America received, it awarded 55 grants this year.

The city will have 2½ years to use the money, including leveraging it to obtain additional funds.

“It’s a pretty significant grant,” said Vetch, the art grant project coordinator.

Although the mural was planned before the city received word last month they were one of four Minnesota projects to win the ArtPlace America grant, it’s being incorporated into the community’s overall grant plan, said Allen, who is the artistic director for the project.

“This is the first in a series of community engagement projects,” said Allen, during an interview Thursday at her art studio, which provided a window seat view of the mural project underway across the street. “We wanted to weave it in.”

The grant application has some specific areas for using the money, including training people on how to conduct community-engaged projects, providing assistance in seeking other grants and helping to connect art with local businesses and natural resources — especially the Middle Fork River that snakes through the back side of town.

“We’ve got this wonderful river in our backyard and we’ve kind of turned our back on it,” Vetch said.

The grant and the process of looking at the community as a canvass is “about creative place-making,” Vetch said.

There is flexibility in how some of the grant money can be spent, which will be guided by an advisory committee made up of local residents and a Minneapolis art consulting group.

That local input will be important as the project takes shape over the next 2½ years, Vetch said.

Like the large wall at the hardware store that is serving as a blank canvass for projects, it’s hoped people will see other canvasses in town where art can happen.

Allen said she doesn’t want the town to be involved with just one mural project and call it done and good.

She said if the community looks for other exhibit space,s “there’ll be organic art sprouting up all over the place.”

Allen said the goal isn’t just to make the town “pretty” but to engage people and entities, like the fire department, garden club and businesses, in art that will also have a positive economic impact for New London.

It was just a few years ago when the grocery store closed and hardware store was for sale, and Allen said she worried the town would blow away.

But with vibrant new boutiques in town, a strong artist community, new volunteers and this latest grant, Allen said “to see this new rejuvenation gets us all fired up.”

Carolyn Lange

A reporter for more than 30 years, Carolyn Lange covers regional news with the West Central Tribune.

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