An artist’s rendition of Greta Thunberg on a mural in Bismarck, North Dakota, was recently withdrawn from consideration after protests against the mural. I feel deeply saddened and aggrieved.
I grew up with the belief that I could do anything I set my mind on doing – that I had the agency to go out and lead a life, or develop programs, or run an organization that could help a community become just a little better. I could paint a mural, if that were my choice. One might lead the youth of the planet in confronting climate change. What is the message for young people in places like Bismarck today? Don’t bother trying to honor a young hero? Don’t emulate that young hero? Don’t be an artist with a vision for public art?
I grew up in Bismarck, too, and it pains me to see a formerly supportive community make headlines for narrow thinking. I remember how early experiences – positive or negative – can have an out-sized impact on how we understand ourselves in the world.
Communities across the globe have stepped up and volunteered to be places where the artist –Shane Balkowitsch—will share his wet plate photograph/mural of Greta, called “Standing for Us All.” Fortunately, the silliness of the protests will result in world-wide attention to this artist and this mural. His technique is a re-invigoration of the wet plate photography which originated in the 1850’s and gives historic photographs their silvered, timeless appearance.
Shane, himself, is a model worth emulating. The Smithsonian has accepted his photographs into their collection. He is 51, and started his artistic career in only 2012.
Bismarck hit the news for two other controversies. Burleigh County Commissioners considered banning refugees, as the national administration newly allowed government entities to opt out of resettlement. Lutheran Social Services has been a leader in refugee resettlement, but friends tell me no refugees have been allowed in recent years. North Dakota is hardly “full up” and its non-white population remains very small. The third brouhaha? Custer Park, a small city park named after General George A. Custer, was proposed for renaming. Opponents cite Custer’s heroic/mythic status. You might remember him for fool-hardy decisions that destroyed both Indian villages and later his own troops. Both of these fights are tempests over not much real, but seem to reflect our time’s propensity to stir the pot.
Meanwhile, I find hope in the stirrings of a new populism taking back our collective power. If one small community says no, the World may say yes. We do have models to emulate that can Stand for Us All.