Paint the town: Dickinson artists, businesses move to promote need for art

Growing up in Dickinson, local painter Chris Herold said art was "swept underneath the rug, per se." He said he didn't take advantage of the few creative outlets -- like classes run through Dickinson Parks and Recreation -- offered in the city wh...

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Press Photo by Nadya Faulx Art Avenue, shown Friday in the alley on the west wall of Bernie’s Esquire Club, is one way locals are trying to promote art in Dickinson.

Growing up in Dickinson, local painter Chris Herold said art was “swept underneath the rug, per se.”
He said he didn’t take advantage of the few creative outlets - like classes run through Dickinson Parks and Recreation - offered in the city when he was younger. An artist since he was young, it wasn’t until he was a student at Dickinson State University that he got serious about painting. Today, the travel agent creates his abstract pieces in an attachment next to his garage.
Even now, the art scene around the city is “not as exploited as I think it should be,” he said, “especially in a growing community like this.
“There are a select group of people that are aware of it, but the community as a whole probably isn’t,” he said.
But that very growth is transforming Dickinson’s art community, as well as bringing in new people, new ideas and, importantly, new funding. A more thriving space - and market - for art, particularly visual art, is emerging.
The art scene is beginning to gain more exposure, Herold said, “which is great.”
Beautifying downtown
Western North Dakota may always be known more for oil than art, but a collaboration of local businesses, associations and community members in Dickinson is working to change that.
Efforts to beautify the city’s downtown neighborhood kicked off last Sunday with the Bolt the Benches and Paint the Town event, which will eventually see a number of benches and alley murals throughout the area.
But organizers say it’s just one step in a longer process to bring Dickinson’s art scene to the surface.
Josh Hardin and Amanda Galster, co-curators of the Celebrations ‘n’ Crafts store and gallery in downtown Dickinson, said the effort to fill the alleys with local art was an adventure they were planning, even before they began work on the gallery, which opened in early April.
The opportunity to put their plan into action came when Laurie Willett, a member of the Downtown Dickinson Association and an assistant project manager for Scull Construction, the sponsor of the event, asked if they wanted to get on board with the Bolt the Benches initiative.
The alley next to Bernie’s Esquire Club, now dubbed “Art Avenue,” will be the first strip to receive a spray-painted mural; several other businesses have expressed interest in being a part of the project.
“It’s cool to just sit back and think that the whole alley is going to be filled with awesome art by local artists,” Galster said.
Willett, who has lived in Dickinson for about two-and-a-half years since moving from Michigan, said her passion (if not talent) for art was a reason she wanted to join the DDA’s newly-formed beautification committee.
“We got wonderful feedback from the event,” she said. “It’s much-needed for the downtown area. It got people talking; they want to see it. There’s more foot traffic.”
Using Fargo and Rapid City, SD, as models, Hardin and Galster said they want to see a downtown with fewer offices and more eateries and retail stores.
“The things we’ve seen and been influenced by in larger cities, we’ll try to bring here,” said Hardin, a native of Watford City who has spent time in Minneapolis.
Galster is a Dickinson native who studied art and science at DSU before attending chiropractic school in Portland, Ore.
“People need a reason to come down here, and it isn’t to see a lawyer or a dentist,” Hardin added.
Their gallery alone has been a draw for local artists who before had a limited number of spaces to showcase and sell their work. Herold, one of the participants in the Paint the Town mural contest, said that after college he never had much connection to the greater art community in town.
“Now that there’s a gallery, I came into connection with other artists down here,” he said.
The shop now carries work from 28 different local artists, mostly from western North Dakota.
“I’m optimistic for what’s going on, the movement that’s begun,” Herold said. “There are quite a few artists that are very talented in the area.”
Celebrations ‘n’ Crafts began offering art classes this summer, held at The Brew coffeehouse nearby and taught by local artists. Galster said she’s glad more people are realizing that art, more than being just a hobby, is such an important part of life.
“I think it’s great to be able to get more people (aware of) art, be more open to it,” she said, “and see that it’s not just something that kids do with a crayon or something.”
Places to reach out to
Even with all of the community - and city - support for the downtown beautification project, artists and organizations are up against a number of challenges. The oil boom-related growth that’s allowing for expanded arts programs has also made it more expensive for local artists to set up studios and make a living selling their work.
“The art community here doesn’t have a lot of places to reach out to,” Willett said. “Rent’s going up, dance studios can’t open, you don’t have an arts center just for kids to take art classes.
“All these things that artists want, they aren’t here. And you have to start somewhere.”
Much of the focus of the boom has been on building the town’s infrastructure, but Willett said that often the little details that make “the community who they are” end up forgotten. She said it will take business partnerships, like Scull Construction’s, to provide financial backing to events like Bolt the Benches in order to get them off the ground.
Dickinson State University’s fine and performing arts department is up against its own challenges related to the boom. The department is just coming back from a dip in students, said recently elected department chair Marilyn Lee, after students began to choose schools in the eastern part of the state, where the cost of living is lower. She said she hopes a new scholarship competition will bring back attention to the school and its visual arts program.
“If we could ever get the housing situation leveled off and be more reasonable, then we’ll start gaining more students back,” she said. “We’re beginning to stabilize now, but it’s definitely has hurt us quite a bit.”
The department isn’t the only area that’s been hurt: Dickinson State University’s annual Arts Roundup, which brought in vendors from around the region to sell their work, was canceled earlier this year after the DSU Foundation cut ties and funding for the event.
There has been talk that another group might step in to take over the event or some iteration of it, but there are “no specific plans,” said Josh Nichols, executive director of the non-profit Arts North Dakota and a member of the Dickinson Downtown Association, which through its Sneak Pique Productions with the Oddfellows Lodge has already been bringing various musical and theater events to the city.
Nichols said North Dakota is full of “little bitty pockets of art” and community art councils.
“You’ll find that more and more across the state, there’s so much talent,” he said.
Though many area artists keep their work to themselves, the loss of the Arts Roundup this summer meant a lost opportunity to bring in vendors who make their living on the arts circuit.
“If we don’t have a venue set up for them, they just don’t stop by,” he said.
‘The right time’
More than just art events, Lee said she thinks it’s time for Dickinson to get its own community arts center.
“What I would love to see for the community is there would be a center, a building where we could have theater, dance programs, art programs,” she said. “It would be for all ages. That would be ideal.”
The town is ready for it, she said, and “this is the right time,” with so many newcomers coming from out of state. Many come expecting the same amenities they enjoyed back home.
The arts department, located away from the DSU campus on West Villard, has seen more phone calls and drop-ins than ever before from people looking for art, Lee said.
“I’ve had more people just walking in and asking, ‘Is this an art gallery?’” she said. Many call looking for art classes for their children, or things they can do at night after work.
“There is a real need,” Lee said.
The Strom Center partnered with local leaders and graduate students from the University of Mary in 2013 to conduct a feasibility study for an arts center in Dickinson; Nichols said a facility like the Jamestown Arts Center would be a “real asset to the community.”
The study found that the possibility is there, if community support and funding is there as well.
Hardin said he and Galster are hopeful that the movement they helped spark within the artistic community with their gallery and Art Avenue will continue to expand alongside Dickinson.
“We’re growing, and that’s not going to stop for a while,” Hardin said. “And with the growth, we have to provide for the people that are coming. And if the people want it, yeah, that will happen.
“The culture’s here. People want all this,” he added. “They want an artistic side to the community.”
Faulx is a reporter with The Press. Call her at 456-1207 or tweet her at NadyaFaulx

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Press Photo by Nadya Faulx Celebrations ‘n’ Crafts curators Josh Hardin, left, and Amanda Galster read a document in between customers on Friday at their store and gallery in downtown Dickinson. The two North Dakota natives are part of an emerging art community in Dickinson.

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