A welcoming Willmar: bringing life to words through art

With funds from Blue Cross Blue Shield, a new public art project will be going up in downtown Willmar. A mural and sculpture are being created to represent the Willmar Welcoming Resolution passed by the Willmar City Council in 2018.

WILLMAR — When the Willmar Welcoming Resolution was passed by the City Council back in May 2018 , there were some comments about whether words on a page could really make Willmar a more open and welcoming city.

Three years later Willmar Main Street , along with $27,000 in funding from Blue Cross Blue Shield/Healthy Together Willmar, hope to shine a colorful light on that welcoming resolution in the form of a public art project in downtown Willmar. The goal is to create a visual embodiment of the resolution, to give life to those words on a page.

"How do we take this resolution on a piece of paper, probably not top of mind for everyone every day, and how do we remember that and embrace that as a community," explained Sarah Swedburg, former Willmar City Planner and coordinator of Willmar Main Street.

The art project includes a mural and a sculpture, to be displayed in downtown Willmar.

The mural, to be created by Lili Lennox, will be placed on the east facing wall of the Midtown Plaza building, at the intersection of Litchfield Avenue Southwest and Third Street Southwest.


Lili Lennox will be painting a mural for downtown Willmar, focusing on a theme of food and diversity. Submitted photo / West Central Tribune

The metal sculpture will be created by James Church. A permanent home for the sculpture is yet to be found, though Swedburg said they want it located in a visible area of downtown, perhaps near First Street.

James Church is the sculptor behind One of Many, a bronze and steel sculpture to be placed in downtown Willmar. Submitted photo / West Central Tribune

The Willmar City Council approved the contract with Lennox and Church back in December 2020 and the two artists are both hard at work on the art pieces.

"They know the importance of bringing the Willmar community into these pieces," Swedburg said. "They are not just creating art for us, but with us."

While there is no set deadline for the artworks to be completed, Swedburg is hoping to hold an unveiling event during or around Willmar Fests this year.


Community cookbook

Lennox, a Twin Cities-based painter, has plenty of experience painting murals and large pieces in greater Minnesota. She grew up in Morris and helped her father, a professor for the University of Minnesota Morris, paint scenery for the theater.

"He used to design scenery for the Barn Theater, up in Willmar, in the summer. I would go help him paint scenery there," Lennox said.

That experience painting large scale scenes for the theater, along with a graphic design background, led Lennox to painting large public and private art pieces. Her portfolio includes murals in Robbinsdale, Park Rapids, Crosby, Eveleth and Montevideo. She was the artist that painted the train car mural located near the old Milwaukee Road Depot in downtown Montevideo.

"It is fun to paint a big picture on the side of a big wall," Lennox said. "It can represent a nice sense of identity for a town, it can turn into a landmark."

Lennox has worked a several public murals across Minnesota. Submitted photo / West Central Tribune

Lennox was intrigued by Willmar's project and its focus.

"Celebrating the diversity of the people in the Willmar area," Lennox said.


Her inspiration for the mural, which will be painted on aluminum composite panels and hung on the building's wall, is food.

"Food is an incredibly relatable and approachable way to learn about different cultures," Lennox said.

The 13 foot tall by 12 foot wide mural will include nine crockpots and illustrate different types of cuisine from the many different cultures found in Willmar.

"It is pop art, it is colorful, it is cool and it is like the most recognizable kitchen appliance," Lennox said.

Concept art for Lili Lennox's mural for Willmar's Welcoming Resolution public art project. Submitted art / West Central Tribune

The mural will also include an interactive element. Lennox is asking community members to submit family recipes on her website , A QR code, sort of like a barcode, will be placed on a plaque near the mural. Visitors to the mural will then be able to scan the code with their smartphone and be able to see all the different recipes available, to perhaps then make those meals themselves.

"It has morphed into this ongoing community cookbook," Swedburg said.


Lennox greatly enjoys painting public art murals and feels they perform very important tasks, especially in smaller cities and towns. Not only do they bring attention to art and artists in the community, but also can add vitality.

"I think these kinds of art projects are really necessary for small towns, to keep a little bit of life happening," Lennox said.

Diverse fabric

Church first heard about Willmar's art project about a month after his wife passed away. He was looking for a new project to sink into.

"It sounded like the perfect thing to jump in on and focus my thoughts on," Church said, whose late wife and in-laws all immigrated to the United States.

He liked the theme and the community aspects of the proposal.

"They didn't want this just to be an object given to Willmar, but that it would be an artwork involving the community; that it would help with the themes of integration, connection, bonding. That really appealed to me," Church said.

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A in-process photo of the Out of Many sculpture being created by Church for Willmar. Submitted photo / West Central Tribune


Church's sculpture, titled Out of Many, will be made from stainless steel and bronze, and will also be draped with a kaleidoscope of different textiles and fabrics. The sculpture's outfit will be cast in acrylic resin, allowing the entire piece to be outdoors. There will also be a lighting element.

"I am still actively sculpting it every day," Church said.

Church is asking for the community's help to create the textile. He and the sculpture will be in Willmar at 1 p.m. May 15 at the intersection of Sixth Street Southwest and Litchfield Avenue Southwest. There he will explain the sculpture to the public and ask for examples of different textiles and fabrics that could be added to the sculpture.

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A close up of the in process One of Many sculpture. The piece will also include layered acrylic fabric inspired by textiles from Willmar's community. Submitted photo / West Central Tribune

He doesn't need physical samples of the fabric, but he will need pictures or the opportunity to see it. Church is asking for people to wear a mask and practice social distancing.

"We can talk through how to design the dress with fabric patterns that represent you and your groups of friends and family in Willmar. If you bring fabric patterns to the meet up, great, if not, perhaps hearing about the project will inspire you to add your input after the get-together," Church said about the event.

Those interested in taking part can also contact Church through his website , or on Instagram .


Church has done public sculpture work in the area. Last year he submitted the piece, Keeper of Memories, for Hutchinson's annual Sculpture Stroll. It was his second year participating in the event.

Church feels fabric is a compelling way to illustrate diversity and culture. Many cultures have their own traditional textiles, fabric or handicrafts. It is a way to show not only what makes a culture different but also what it has in common with others.

"It is tying it together," Church said.

Swedburg agreed and is looking forward to how Willmar's diversity is represented in the sculpture.

"It is such a fun twist on community," Swedburg said. "Fabric and textile, to me is culture, everyone has their own twist."

A mural is set to be painted on the east facing wall of the Midtown Plaza building in downtown Willmar. Erica Dischino / West Central Tribune

Shelby Lindrud is a reporter with the West Central Tribune of Willmar. Her focus areas are arts and entertainment, agriculture, features writing and the Kandiyohi County Board.

She can be reached via email or direct 320-214-4373.

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