A community’s triumphs are rarely the work of one person. When our student athletes perform well, we celebrate the group effort. When a new business flourishes, it only does so with support. When a charity is successful in its mission, it is through the hands and hearts of many.
Cooperation is the key to success.
For proof, you need only look to downtown Great Falls. The historic city center is thriving, having undergone a (seemingly endless) series of revitalization projects, from the placement of pedlets outside local businesses to signal box artwork on many a street corner. In fact, several of these projects have been art-related—a multitude of mediums, subjects, and styles to appeal to Great Falls’ similarly diverse populace. Every sculpture erected, every parking meter painted, every crosswalk emblazoned with trout has been the result of community leaders, artists, and volunteers working together to see the vision through.
In 2018, it was through one such collaborative effort that Great Falls’ newest public masterpieces came to life.
From the Bay to the Big Sky
Cameron Moberg is a painter, though not the kind Montanans are accustomed to. Using spray cans in favor of a brush and palette, his studio is the streets and his canvas is whatever it needs to be. The unversed might call it “graffiti,” but only a fool would argue it isn’t art.
“A lot of people don’t understand the value of public art,” says Moberg, “but all walks of life are happy to see it come in.”
Internationally known, Moberg’s murals have been the cornerstone of revitalization projects across the United States. When an opportunity came to share his art with Montana, he was happy to take it.
“My kids have a teacher here in San Francisco and her dad, David, works with NeighborWorks in Great Falls,” Moberg explains. “I got to chatting with him, and he said, ‘I’d love to get some of your stuff here.’ So I flew out, we walked around the city and met with local business owners, talked about ideas, and dreamed.”
That was February 2018. The seed was planted; now it needed time to grow. Moberg returned to the Bay, but remained in contact with Carol Bronson, Director of Community Initiatives at NeighborWorks Great Falls.
“We applied for a grant with NeighborWorks America to get Cameron up here to bring art to the community in a different way,” she says.
She explains that NeighborWorks has long sought to make Great Falls neighborhoods safer and more vibrant, helping coordinate a number of beautification projects to that effect. What they’ve found is that the presence of art can have a transformative impact on a community. By attracting viewers, public art generates more foot traffic to nearby businesses while also deterring criminal activity in the area. What’s more, it bolsters community pride.
“What makes a community is a mix of all that’s original about it,” says Bronson. “People want to get excited about their community.”
With the grant money in place, NeighborWorks reached out to downtown business owners, looking for walls to be painted on. Brian and Abby Thompson of the Hi-Line Climbing Center and Alison Fried of Dragonfly Dry Goods offered up their buildings as canvases, and just like that, the project sprang to life.
“When the idea stuck, I rented a van and loaded up supplies,” Moberg laughs.
In a flash, he made his way to Great Falls and got to work painting downtown.
And he was not alone…
A Local Touch
During his February visit, Moberg had been adamant about finding a local artist to paint with—someone whose style would complement his own and translate well to street art.
He found that in Sheree Nelson.
A local freelance commission painter, Nelson had no experience with street art, but that didn’t concern Moberg. The medium could be taught; it was her method that interested him—single subjects with vibrant colors, a style informed by her degree in commercial advertising. It was the perfect blend of boldness and beauty.
“When Cameron asked if I’d be willing to work with him, I was pretty excited and pretty nervous at the same time,” Nelson admits. “I’m fifty years old. I’m late in the game for this type of art, but it went better than I’d hoped, and I hope to do more. It was a super awesome experience.”
Moberg painted the Hi-Line Climbing Center solo, adorning it with an enormous meadowlark, but Nelson had a hand in the painting of Dragonfly Dry Goods. Her contributions include the brightly-colored orchids and half of the heart.
“Cameron laid it out and asked me to paint it fifty-fifty with him,” she says. “I was just tickled.”
Moberg’s depiction of locally-significant subject matter and his inclusion of a local artist give the murals an authentic Montana vibe, all the while presenting Montanans with something they haven’t seen before. It is equal parts familiar and new.
“It gets people stopping,” says Nelson. “Great Falls is the Western art capital of the world, but the young crowd is kind of done with Western art. This is something that gets them interested in the community.”
The Future is Now
A well-travelled artist, Moberg believes Great Falls to be among the more forward-thinking communities he’s painted in, particularly in regards to the needs of its young people.
“It’s sad when you go to a community and the kids say, ‘I can’t wait to move away from here.’ We want to give them a desire to stay,” says Moberg. “Something like this gives them ownership of their city.”
On the day prior to painting Dragonfly Dry Goods, Moberg worked with teenagers at the Calvary Chapel of Great Falls, helping them paint their youth group’s van.
The next day, some of the teens stopped by the mural to say hello. Moberg returned the greeting and encouraged them to join him.
“I said, ‘You know what you’re doing. Jump in,’” he recalls.
The teens eagerly accepted his invitation. Like Nelson, they picked up some spray cans and left their mark on Great Falls.
The downtown mural project has received an immensely positive reaction from the Great Falls community. Those involved in its planning and execution have yet to hear a negative response.
“Every time I walk outside, someone is taking a photo. It doesn’t matter what time of day,” says Alison Fried, owner of Dragonfly Dry Goods.
“I think this will be a catalyst for more interesting and unique things here,” says Bronson.
On the face of it, public art doesn’t seem like a major victory for Great Falls, but the downtown community will tell you otherwise. Every business owner, every resident, every city official can provide you an example of how art has enriched the community. A pop of color and a skilled design are all it takes to refocus our attention on the wonders all around us.