Photo: William Hurst
Moira Villiard - September 2020
Aanjibimaadiziwag Manidoonsag is a truly community piece of art – an exceptional feat considering this mural was installed during the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The wall Obije was referring to was the western wall of what is known as the Seafarer’s Center building on the corner of 3rd Street and 21st Avenue West. It was on a part of the building that is shaded most of the day – particularly in the winter months and Obije knew that was the perfect place to install a piece of art. He had seen a piece from Villiard’s wild rice series shared on social media and said, “I want that!”
Villiard secured funding through the Arrowhead Regional Arts Council (ARAC) through the Individual Art Project grant. It was a big job so she put together a team with artists Michelle Waabanangagokwe Defoe, Heather Olson, and Aurora Webster, and secured more funding from the St. Paul Foundation & Minnesota Foundation through a grant they had awarded to the American Indian Community Housing Organization (AICHO).
Aanjibimaadiziwag Manidoonsag is an Ojibwemowin phrase for The Small Spirits are Changing Form. The name came from the dragonfly imagery in the piece inspired by fellow artist Vern Northrup. It also sparked an idea about how to get the community involved during a time of physical distancing.
A few years prior, Villiard had worked with Northrup at Bayview Elementary as a visiting artist. He told an Anishinaabe story about how dragonflies inhabit many different bodies during their lives and how that reflects how the Spirit takes many forms which is why they are sometimes referred to as being little spirits. The dragonfly story would go on to inspire the mural, and Villiard decided to create coloring sheets for kids to create their own dragonfly designs. The request for completed images was forwarded to the Neighborhood Youth Services center and shared on Facebook, and youth who submitted designs were awarded a $25 gift card in appreciation. “I wanted to instill the knowledge that you can and should be paid for your art,” said Villiard. The youngest artist was four years old. The dragonflies were recreated in the mural as designed by the kids (albeit tidier with the artists keeping the designs within the lines).
Other community-inspired images in the mural include fish designed by kids from the Steve O’Neil apartments and participation by neighborhood children while they were outdoors painting the mural.
The artist team took on different aspects of the 60’ x16’ mural, most of which was painted directly on the surface of the building. Although Villiard was the lead on the project, she insists it was a collaborative effort – that everyone on the team brought something different and necessary to the project. The hand offering asemaa (tobacco) was designed by Villiard and represents gratitude for life and connection to culture. Michelle Waabanangagokwe Defoe was responsible for the traditional blueberry and floral Ojibwe designs – something she references frequently in her moccasin designs. Aurora Webster worked on one of the arched window space areas which were painted on plywood then attached to the building, and Heather Olson, with her organizational and carpentry skills and “has a brain that works in all the ways mine doesn’t”, stated Villiard. Artist Laurel Saunders also dropped by to include the scene depicting the manoomin (wild rice) harvest under the window arches and Danielle LaPorte is responsible for giving permission for the team to use her floral design in the upper right area of the piece. All of the artists filled in where necessary to complete the mural, including the tribute to the contemporary landscape of Duluth in the upper center area requested by Obije.
There are many stories told and imagined in this mural. The bright colors bring the shady corner to life and offer a mural in a more residential area of Lincoln Park. With Indigenous artists at the helm of this project, the presentations of native stories – both ancient and current – are genuine. As Michelle Defoe shared on Native Report, “Over the years, we’ve slowly been creating space here for us, with our own voices and our own vision. It’s important that we tell our own stories.”
Photos: Shannon Laing and William Hurst
The Seafarers Center, 2024 W 3rd St (21st Avenue-facing wall)