We paint . . . BIG

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December 21, 2009 // UPDATED 10:23 am - December 21, 2009
By: Sarah McKenzie
Sarah McKenzie

Mural artists Mike Fitzsimmons and John Grider of Broken Crow are leaving their mark all over the city

 Mural artists John Grider and Mike Fitzsimmons collaborate under the name Broken Crow.

The inspiration for the name comes from the band Why?’s song “Broken Crow.”

The following lyrics struck Grider as getting at the longing to break out of the routine and be part of something extraordinary: “I know, all beautiful places are prone to natural disaster. But being swallowed by the earth in Manila beats a slow death in the Midwest.”

“That pretty much summed up my need to travel and do something bigger than where I’m from,” Grider said, talking about the impetus for the murals.

The 29-year-old Uptown resident has been working with Fitzsimmons, 30, of St. Paul for five years. They have created more than 30 stencil-based murals together — dramatic and eye-catching pieces with vivid colors that often prominently feature wild animals. Most of their work is in Minneapolis, but they’ve traveled all over the country and in Europe to do murals.

They are on a mission to “quadruple-handedly paint the largest stencils known to man and womankind” according to statement on their website — brokencrow.com.

Their murals grace the walls of many popular hangouts and businesses in the city, including Grumpy’s two locations, the Denny Kemp Salon, Cal Surf, Shuga Records and Campbell Mithun.

Denny Kemp has four Broken Crow murals in his salon at 605 Central Ave. SE. There are three murals of goats and one of two giant gorillas.

Kemp also has two Broken Crow murals at his home in the Whittier neighborhood. One is of a cherub, the other a giant squid.

He said he loved how “bold” their work is and their unique approach to stenciling.  

While the Broken Crow boys have spent most of their time painting walls in urban areas, their next major project on their agenda will take them to rural areas in the Midwest. They are on a mission to paint barns — at least 30 of them across the state. They’d like to incorporate portraits of farmers in the murals.

So far they have a few barns lined up to paint starting this spring.

Grider and Fitzsimmons are in the process of securing funding for the project, and plan to dig into their pockets for the barn murals, too.

“Both of us are new parents. We want to be home more,” Fitzsimmons said. “It’s kind of opposite of what we’re doing now. … It’s important for us to keep doing different things to keep people interested and to keep us interested.”

The duo recently painted four huge canvasses for a party in a barn outside of Milwaukee.

They like the idea of using nontraditional surfaces in rural areas typically devoid of public art for their work.

“Anyone can paint in New York or L.A. with a certain amount of desire to do so. It’s not a hard thing to navigate,” Grider said, adding they want to do their part to raise the profile of the region’s creative talent. “We live in one of the more culturally fertile areas of the world. … Every time we sign a piece out of state its says Broken Crow Minneapolis.”

The mural artists get a lot of satisfaction out of their work, which they do full time.

“There is nothing cooler or more fun than being able to paint something really big outside in a really short amount of time,” Grider said. “Kids get really excited [about the murals]. Public art is the ultimate arts advocacy. When you get a kid excited about art, that’s the best thing. I kind of grew up with the idea that you can be anything you want to be when you grow up. I believe it wholeheartedly.”

Their work reaches a broader audience, too, than it might if they were confined to art galleries.

“Making art attainable to a broader audience takes it out of the pretentious gallery form,” Fitzsimmons said. “[The mural] eliminates the boundaries that the art world has created. It’s nice to know that with people being bombarded with all kinds of advertising everywhere that they can take time out to see something that’s a little bit different that’s not pushing anything but an aesthetic and a feeling.”

They like the idea of making wild animals part of the urban landscape with their murals. In one favorite project in Brooklyn a couple of summers ago, they used their art as a tool to fight for the environment.  

“It was both extremely challenging and rewarding, and ultimately solidified the idea that we needed to be working together all the time [to address] global warming,” Grider said.

A note of thanks from someone living near one of the murals is the ultimate reward.

“Even giving any glimmer of positivity through our process, I think we’ve done our job right and it doesn’t really matter what we’ve painted,” he said. “It’s kind of like planting seeds. If you can make someone’s life better through art, that’s awesome.”