FARGO ― Former Fargo City Commissioner Mike Williams smiled Saturday, March 21, as a giant portrait of Greta Thunberg ascended above an alley behind the Front Street Taproom in downtown Fargo.

“It’s a celebration of art and expression,” he said of the replica based on Bismarck wet plate photographer Shane Balkowitsch’s piece titled “Standing With Us All.”

With temperatures lingering in the 20s as wind chilled the air, a crew of three people hoisted the portrait of the 17-year-old climate activist onto a lift and bolted her to the side of a wall that faces the alley. Now anyone who walks by can see the moment Balkowitsch captured the Swedish girl when she visited the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation on Oct. 8.

Balkowitsch planned to hang a similar piece in Bismarck at the Brick Oven Bakery. Those plans were canceled after the news drew negative comments and threats of boycotting the business. Some of his other art was vandalized in the Bismarck area.

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“I heard him on the radio, and I could just hear the hurt in his voice,” Williams said of Balkowitsch. He called the artist shortly after that to say Fargo would take the controversial piece of art. “I knew we could find a place for him.”

After people found out the mural would be displayed in the downtown area, they called Williams to donate money to help covering the costs, he said.

“Now it will cost a few hundred bucks to install it,” he said.

The gesture meant a lot to Balkowitsch, the artist told The Forum in a Saturday morning phone interview. Others around the world also contacted him about putting his photos of Thunberg on display, including in Los Angeles, Paris, Poughkeepsie, N.Y., Standing Rock and most recently The Hall CP in College Park, Md.

Dusty Urness drills in the final screw to the Shane Balkowitsch wet plate photographic mural of Greta Thunberg as Larry Larson runs the lift  in the alley of the Front Street Taproom on Saturday, March 21. David Samson / The Forum
Dusty Urness drills in the final screw to the Shane Balkowitsch wet plate photographic mural of Greta Thunberg as Larry Larson runs the lift in the alley of the Front Street Taproom on Saturday, March 21. David Samson / The Forum

“It just feels like justification, like we finally won,” Balkowitsch said.

City leaders have been pushing for more art in Fargo for more than a decade, Williams said, noting it was a priority in the Go2030 comprehensive plan put together in 2010.

“We want these alleys to turn into pedestrian walkways where we enjoy them,” he said.

A public celebration was planned for Wednesday, March 18, to unveil the portrait, but that has been postponed in an effort to reduce the spread of the coronavirus. It’s unclear when the celebration will be held, but Williams said he hopes to see one organized after the pandemic dies down.

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He and others still wanted to hang the piece of art, even if there was little fanfare.

“We didn’t want it to linger, and we were hoping to have a celebration to get it up earlier, but like everything else, the coronavirus is changing our plans day to day,” he said.

It was right to postpone the celebration, Balkowitsch said. For now, he feels like he is fulfilling his promise he made to Thunberg’s family.

“What I promised was I would share it with the world,” Balkowitsch said, adding he feels he his spreading Thunberg’s message as well.

A plaque will be hung near the portrait that has information about Thunberg, Balkowitsch and those who helped bring the piece to Fargo. The portrait will be visible from First Avenue South and Island Park, as well as the alley behind Front Street.

Larry Larson displays the placard to accompany the Shane Balkowitsch wet plate photograph mural of Greta Thunberg for hanging in the alley of the Front Street Taproom on Saturday, March 21. David Samson / The Forum
Larry Larson displays the placard to accompany the Shane Balkowitsch wet plate photograph mural of Greta Thunberg for hanging in the alley of the Front Street Taproom on Saturday, March 21. David Samson / The Forum