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Mural artist brings 1500s N.D. Indian village to life: Cyclorama is in gallery expected to open this spring at expanded Heritage Center

FNS Photo by Mike Nowatzki At the expanded North Dakota Heritage Center in Bismarck, artist Robert Evans of Sherborn, Mass., puts the finishing touches on a 50-foot-long mural depicting Double Ditch Indian Village north of Bismarck in the year 1550. 1 / 2
FNS Photo by Mike Nowatzki A mastodon skeleton is displayed Thursday, March 6, 2014, in the expanded North Dakota Heritage Center in Bismarck. 2 / 2

BISMARCK – After months of trying to recreate a North Dakota Indian village with his paintbrush in painstaking detail, Robert Evans said he has gained an appreciation for the Mandan people’s way of life nearly half a millennium ago.

“Especially having been through a North Dakota winter,” he said.

Last week, the artist from Sherborn, Mass., was putting the finishing brushstrokes on a 50-foot-long curved mural at the expanded North Dakota Heritage Center in Bismarck.

The panoramic painting, known as a cyclorama, gives visitors the sense of stepping into the earthen-lodge Double Ditch Indian Village that once stood seven miles north of present-day Bismarck. Historians believe the village housed up to 2,000 Mandan around its peak in 1550, the year depicted in Evans’ mural.

State Historical Society officials said the public should have the opportunity to enjoy Evans’ work later this spring, when they expect to open the first two galleries built as part of the $51.7 million, 97,000-square-foot expansion and remodeling project that began three years ago.

The final two galleries are scheduled to open in November in conjunction with North Dakota’s 125th anniversary of statehood.

Striving for convincing

For Evans, recreating a piece of North Dakota history that predates not only statehood but also photography and contact with European explorers meant a lot of research – and a little guesswork.

He received research materials from the historical society about a year ago and began designing a 7-foot-long painting that served as a model and grid pattern for the larger composition.

“I’ve painted bigger, and many are smaller,” he said, adding the tendency nowadays is to digitally replicate a small-scale painting into a large mural. “So the opportunities to work large are fewer today than even 10 years ago.”

Evans, whose work has been displayed at the Smithsonian and a number of other museums of science and history, relied on artifacts or pictures of artifacts for many of the details in the Double Ditch mural. Early photographs of American Indians and pictures of everyday people in various poses served as models for many of the roughly 200 painted figures populating his mural.

European artist-explorer Karl Bodmer’s 19th century prints and portraits of a Mandan village and its people also provided context, though Evans said the museum’s archeology staff have pointed out liberties taken by Bodmer that needed correcting.

The Mandan inhabited Double Ditch Indian Village from 1490 to 1785. It was one of seven to nine villages in the area that housed up to 10,000 tribal members and served as centers of trade between the tribe, its nomadic neighbors and later European traders, according to the State Historical Society.

A smallpox epidemic in the early 1780s apparently prompted the Mandan to abandon Double Ditch and the other villages near the Heart River.

Evans said he looked at “pretty much everything” he could find that was relevant to the subject and time period – including visiting Double Ditch multiple times – to refine the design for his acrylic-on-sheetrock mural.

“It’s really just to try to get it as convincing as possible … as authentic as possible,” he said. “Where you can, you use images of reconstructions or reenactments, things that help you do that. But often you have to make up stuff, and so that’s the challenge is to make it consistent enough to be believable.”

Along the way, he’s received input and feedback from museum staff and Cory Spotted Bear, a Mandan tribal member and consultant on the project.

“Every little detail needs to be pretty much vetted,” he said.

After four months in Bismarck working on the project, Evans is ready to return to Sherborn, where he lives with his wife in his childhood home. He jokingly said he doesn’t want to know how many hours he logged on the project since early November, when he began painting the mural while listening on a transistor radio to the Boston Red Sox playing in the World Series.

“Just like when I was a kid, only this time they won,” he said.

Expansion nears completion

Like Evans’ mural, the first two galleries of the expansion project are now in their final stages.

The 2009 Legislature authorized $51.7 million for the expansion, with $39.7 million appropriated from state funds and $12 million to come from federal and private sources. The State Historical Society Foundation is “very close” to reaching the $12 million mark, Expansion Coordinator Claudia Berg said.

The project has nearly doubled the size of the original Heritage Center that opened in 1981, adding a new glass entrance, a café and new display galleries.

“By expanding the space, we’re able to bring out a lot more of our collections, tell more storylines,” said Chris Johnson, museum division director for the historical society.

Construction began in March 2011 and was originally expected to be finished by January 2013. The project is on budget but has faced delays related to the availability of construction materials, unfavorable weather, a shortage of labor and worker housing and the complexity of the museum’s environmental controls, Berg said.

Last week, crews continued to hang limestone panels on the outer walls. Johnson said that work and other checklist items must be completed before the museum can open the first two galleries, which were originally scheduled to open last July and September.

The Adaptation Gallery, which features dinosaur fossils and other prehistoric pieces in the Geologic Time exhibit, and the Innovation Gallery, which focuses on the state’s early peoples, are mostly completed and will have soft openings later this spring, Johnson said.

Exhibit installation will begin in July in the Inspiration Gallery, which will cover the time period from 1860 to the present day and be arranged into six themes: newcomers and settlement, conflict and war, agriculture, industry and energy, communities and cultural expressions. With 19,000 square feet of remodeled space, it is larger than the other two galleries combined.

A fourth space dubbed the Governor’s Gallery will host traveling exhibits, the first of which will examine rural electrification in North Dakota.

Both galleries are on track for the Nov. 2 grand opening, Berg said.

The Heritage Center’s exhibit space remains closed to the public. The museum store, state archives and historical society offices have stayed open during construction.

Mike Nowatzki

Mike Nowatzki reports for Forum News Service. He can be reached at (701) 255-5607.