Mural celebrates 60th

Balma’s mural will be on display in Minnetonka Center for the Arts, along with his other work. Submitted photo.

For the past few months, artist Mark Balma has been crafting a new work in a decidedly ancient style - one used around the world, including the famed Sistine Chapel.

The fruits of his labor were unveiled this past weekend at the Minnetonka Center for the Arts for the organization's 60th anniversary celebration.

The subject matter of Balma's 16-foot by 9-foot fresco, "We the People," is a "natural consequence of being alive today and in the last 10 years. There is nothing intentional or predetermined. I was given complete free reign on the subject matter," Balma said.

He used a quote from civil rights leader E.D. Nixon as an inspiration: "Your spark can become a flame and change everything."

The fresco features images of key political and social figures and events from recent years, from the toppling of a dictator's statue to President Barack Obama - complete with his parents standing behind him.

Balma doesn't have any particular political or social axe to grind with the image.

"I just like to combine images and try things that haven't been done. I look back to the '40s, the Mexican muralists or Picasso's 'Guernica.' There was a quiet social activism with these groups. That's something I build on here," he said.

The Minnesota native's life has been dedicated to art. He started his studies at Atelier Studio Program of Fine Art and then went on to study in Italy.

Through the years, he has completed several similar large-scale paintings, including painting a ceiling mural in the Basilica of Santa Maria degli Angeli in Assisi, Italy, which was completed over a 15-year span.

"A fresco and architecture go hand in hand and there is a certain architectural element to fresco painting that I enjoy. It has the opportunity to be part of everyday life very easily without hanging a picture on the wall. It's something intrinsically connected to the space, which is very different than any other kind of work," Balma said.

Frescos are created via wet plaster applied to the surface being painted. Paint is mixed into the plaster, which is absorbed into it as it dries.

"There is very little room for mistakes. Once the paint is there, you can't erase it. You can chip off that section and try again, but you can't erase it. Once you start, you have to finish that section in about eight hours," Balma said.

Between the scope and the nature of fresco, Balma needed to have a clear idea of what he wanted to portray. That included crafting a full-scale drawing of the image. After that, there was preparation to be done.

The first steps were done in mid-August at Ridgedale Mall. Balma was joined by student volunteers from the center's outreach program to help lay out the grid on the frame, grind pigments and mix paints.

After the opening, the piece will be on display in the center's café, along with a number of Balma's other works.

For the 60th anniversary, the center also has an exhibit, "Minnesota Artists," featuring a dozen top creators from the area, which will be on display through Oct. 30.

"There aren't any schools that train you in fresco painting. You have to train with a painter. After that, you are pretty much self-taught," Balma said. "I'm just trying to keep the medium alive for another generation."


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