Artist Ken Avidor with his winter-themed piece on Hennepin Avenue. Photo by Eric Best

A splash of color downtown

Updated: January 12, 2017 - 2:20 pm

Artist Ken Avidor taps into Minneapolis culture in a series of public pieces on Hennepin.

If you’ve taken the light rail downtown or driven down Hennepin Avenue recently, you’ve likely seen the work of Ken Avidor.

Over the past year the Twin Cities-based sketch artist and illustrator has brought a vacant building on the corner of Hennepin & 5th to life with colorful pieces that depict the daily happenings of downtown Minneapolis. The seasonal project is part of an initiative of the Minneapolis Downtown Improvement District to turn underutilized pieces of the public realm into positive influences.

Whether it’s ice skating across Loring Pond at the Holidazzle or catching a Minnesota Timberwolves game at Target Center, Avidor’s work captures a snapshot of Minneapolis culture in his own, often wacky, style.

“For me, it’s placemaking. It’s getting people excited. And it’s educating them about what’s going on in their city,” Avidor told The Journal. “I’m happy to be a part of their celebrating of downtown.”

The project began last summer when the DID partnered with the property owner of the vacant building kitty corner from the Bob Dylan mural. Kristi Haug, the manager of stakeholder operations for the DID, said the blank wall along the busy stretch of Hennepin offered an opportunity to turn a negative space into a useful addition of the public realm.

For the past few years, the organization’s Tactical Urbanism initiative, which addresses real and perceived safety concerns downtown, has put on several projects to liven up such spaces, from adding uniquely designed pianos for the public to play on the street to turning a downtown bus stop into a cozy living room with tea and cookies. In addition to Avidor’s art, the DID has put in more lighting and wayfinding at the large street corner in the Warehouse District. The organization and city leaders are in the process of implementing new safety measures in the area, which in recent years has been a hotspot for gun violence.

Photo by Kurt Moses
Photo by Kurt Moses

While the comic book artist taps into regular fixtures of downtown — the new U.S. Bank Stadium, the skyways and even winter bikers — there’s also some uniquely Avidor iconography. From Godzilla roaming the streets of Minneapolis to Billy Idol biking through the downtown Open Streets festival, the pieces aren’t your typical depictions of downtown. And the DID is completely OK with that. Other than for a few DID ambassadors and its #playdowntown hashtag, Haug said the pieces are mostly driven by Avidor’s creativity.

“I love things that make no sense at all,” Avidor said. “Unlike a lot of commercial work when they don’t want me to be crazy, these guys are different. They want me to be crazier.”

The St. Paul resident started the project with calendars of artistic representations of daily events, which Haug said they may revive next summer when there are more people out and about. Since the fall Avidor has done seasonal pieces that depict a hodgepodge of goings-on. Each piece, which instead of a mural is actually a vinyl graphic that is installed in about an hour, can be a nearly two-week process, Avidor said.

The current winter wall art shows Tiny Tim from “A Christmas Carol” at the Guthrie Theater, Valentine’s Day lovers and Father Time ice skating with Timberwolves player Karl-Anthony Towns and DID ambassadors. While many real-life locals may have not noticed themselves on the wall, comedienne Kathy Griffin supposedly took notice of herself when she was performing during the Twin Cities Pride festival and took a photo.

“The fun thing about downtown is that people have a lot of fun here. And [the DID] want to make it really fun, and that’s why it was fun to work on,” Avidor said.

The initiative is continuing on a month-to-month basis until the space, located near the Warehouse District light rail station, is leased, Haug said.

“We think it’s been a nice addition,” she said.

Beyond the project, Avidor is an avid sketcher, often illustrating what he sees as a biker and transit-user in journals, and is an active courtroom sketch artist. He is currently wrapping up a graphic novel, “Bicyclopolis,” which should be finished by the spring, and is part of a couple groups of urban sketchers, artists who draw the people and places around them.

Submitted photo
Submitted photo