Murals spark conversations about public spaces, growth

Downtown murals have been increasing in Great Falls, and at least eight more are coming over the next week.

The fourth annual ArtsFest Montana kicked off Aug. 12 with the artists workshop and muralists getting started on their walls.

Cameron Moberg is back this year as the festival’s curator and ran the workshop of 15 artists.

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They spent the morning in the classroom at NeighborWorks Great Falls and then hit the streets to learn mural techniques on the back of the State Farm Insurance office at the corner of 1st Avenue South and 5th Street.

Moberg and the other muralists primarily use spray paint cans and for some in the class, it was their first experience with that style, though many have been dabbling in art already.

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The basis of the class is learning graffiti art, which “whether we like it or not, it’s our roots,” Moberg said of street art.

it also sparks good conversation about art and ethics, he said.

“It’s a conversation of who gets to decide what art is and what’s public space.”

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Some of this year’s artists will use a combo of spray paint and brushes. They often use house paint or a paint sprayer for large wall areas and prep, Moberg said.

This year’s mural festival has a new mix of muralists from all over the world, though Moberg and Fasm are returning.

Local artist Sheree Nelson is also participating again this year. She’s participated every year of the festival and installed murals at local businesses over the last few years to include The Living Room and The Wild Hare.

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Every year, one of the biggest challenges is finding walls to paint and rising the funds to pay the artists, Moberg said.

The business owners who agree to have their walls painted don’t get a say in what mural is painted and that’s a hesitation on the part of some property owners, Moberg said.

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“But hopefully, they’re seeing the work we’re doing and learning to trust us. We work hard to create beautiful pieces,” Moberg said.

Moberg said that sometimes people want to control the art that’s installed, particularly on their own buildings.

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“You don’t get the best art that way. Not everybody’s gonna like the same things. That’s the point. It’s diverse. If you want a diverse city, you need diverse art.”

This year, they’re installing at least eight new murals on seven downtown buildings, according to Downtown Business Improvement District, which organizes and funds the festival. They accept donations year-round for ArtsFest.

Moberg said they also work to pay the artist good rates for their work and flights and other travel costs were higher this year.

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Coming back every year, Moberg said he’s able to see the evolution of Great Falls, perhaps more than residents.

“Sometimes we are in it so maybe we don’t see the growth,” he said. “For those of us who come in once a year, we see it.”

Moberg first came to Great Falls to install a mural in 2018. After that trip, the idea of ArtsFest MONTANA solidified and the first mural festival was held in 2019.

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“The difference between when I did my first mural here and now, it’s incredible,” he said of downtown Great Falls.

He said he hopes those taking risks and pursuing projects downtown keep at it since “it’s inspiring others” and spurring more growth.

“I see a lot of good things happening,” he said.

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Murals and artwork in public spaces are “activating spaces,” it’s a bit of a buzz work, but “there’s no better words for it,” Moberg said.

Two of the artists, John Isaiah Pepion and Louis Still Smoking, are painting behind Allure Aesthetics at 525 1st Ave. N.

It’s near the First United Methodist Church, where a tent encampment has been a controversial topic for months.

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“It’s a big deal to get art closer to that space,” Moberg said.

“It’s not art’s job to get rid of homelessness, that’s impossible. But when you activate space, there’s more people there,” which can reduce unwanted behavior and improve safety. “Hopefully public art cleans up an area, but also brings together people from all walks of life.”

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It can also spark conversation with people in the area, who might be down on their luck and not doing anything wrong, furthering community understanding.

He said there are more downtown mural festivals this year than he’s ever seen and that Great Falls was one of the early adopters.

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“This is the way of downtown now,” Moberg said. “There’s no stopping this.”