When the first mural was painted on Rolla’s Centennial Wall in 1988, nobody could have foreseen what that single artwork would unleash. Thirty years later, more than three dozen murals have been painted on walls, propane tanks, garbage cans, city park buildings and more.
“The Centennial Planning Committee asked the Rolla Arts Council to paint a mural depicting the history of Rolla for our 100th anniversary in 1988,” said Jo Dunlop, with the Rolla Arts Council. “Maura O’Malley, Esther Krumwiede and Don Smith spearheaded the mural.”
That mural needed to be redone in 1999, with Vern Skaug, a professional artist from Minot, directing Rolla Arts Council members in the 200-hour repaint on 19 panels, each measuring 4x3. Centennial funds, grants and Rolla Arts Council fundraising paid for the costs of the repainting.
Every year through 2017 – except 2016 – a new mural was painted, or faded pieces were reworked, often several yearly. Some murals were requested, like the North 40 Restaurant hiring Skaug to design bison and scenic murals on its building, as the owners raised buffalo. Skaug directed Rolla Arts Council members with the painting. The Arts Council painted other murals to beautify areas around town.
“We like to promote North Dakota history,” Dunlop said, “with Lewis and Clark, Rolla in 1903, an American Indian mural at the Rolette County Historical Society Museum in St. John, and others.”
The monarch butterfly mural on Doug and Mary’s grocery store is unique, showing a butterfly Helen Guilbert raised, tagged and released.
“Mrs. Guilbert had grown milkweed in her garden for years for the butterflies to eat and to lay their eggs. She would take the cocoons to classrooms, where the kids could watch them hatch. They would then be tagged and let go,” Dunlop shared. The butterfly depicted in the grocery store mural was later found in Mexico and Guilbert was notified. The painting includes the tag on the butterfly.
“Many people are surprised by the number of murals. You never know what you might find around the corner. The murals have made great backdrops for pictures of tourists and locals,” Dunlop said.
So does the 30-foot-high metal sculpture of wheat created for the community’s 125th anniversary, commemorating area pioneers, said Northern Plains Electric Cooperative member Charmaine Disrud. “Students designed models, and the Arts Council directed local welder Ross McDougall to build it,” she said. The sculpture of three stalks of wheat stands on the eastern edge of Rolla.
Dunlop said only six to eight local artists, plus associate members, have made up the Rolla Arts Council over the years. One artist is 92-year-old Velma Raasakka, who said she helped with most murals.
“It was an honor to be asked. I felt like part of Rolla history, because I graduated from high school here. But for all of us, it was a labor of love, and fun, reminiscing and enjoying the camaraderie among us painters. Local people were so amazed at the artistic ability in this area. We’re not a big group, but we’re a busy group. And we’re not done yet,” she said.
“We enjoy sharing our talents with the community. On the Fourth of July, we display our work, and invite others in the community to display their artwork. We would not have been able to complete our tasks without the guidance of Vern Skaug, our present art teacher, who still teaches a class once a month, and his expertise,” Dunlop added.
Perhaps the Arts Council has a small number of members, but the results of their artistic work have been big, making Rolla the North Dakota city of murals.
Bill Vossler is a freelance writer and author, based in Rockville, Minn. He has furnished articles for North Dakota Living and its predecessor, North Dakota REC/RTC Magazine, over the years.