As Casey Opstad and Chad Caya worked to create a colorful mural on the south wall of Rhombus Guys Brewery this fall, an elderly gentleman who lived in the area would pass by daily and subtly question their work.
“He’d shake his head,” said Opstad, who struck up a conversation with the man he knows only as Michael. “He’d say, ‘I still can’t see the wheat.’
“We told him to go back. And he’d say, ‘How far -- to Thompson?’ ” Opstad said. “Eventually, he came around though, because we talked every day.”
The artwork, consisting of about 4,500, six-inch individually painted squares, is 22 feet wide and 45 feet tall. The mural, best understood from a distance, is reminiscent of the “pointillist” technique, the use of dots to create an image that only when viewed from afar becomes recognizable. The French artist Georges Seurat is renowned for this technique, which he demonstrated in his most famous painting, “Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte.”
“(Seurat) painted circles; we did squares,” Caya said.
The artwork “challenges people’s idea of what a painting should be,” said Opstad, a Grand Forks native and ‘95 graduate of Red River High School. “It is right on the border between what we want it to be and what it is.
"It’s the idea of breaking an image down into a grid -- people are comfortable with putting things into boxes,” he said. “It simplifies the process as well.
“It is a theme everyone could get behind: agriculture," said Caya, whose design features a lot of modern art elements.
The project took about a year and a half to complete, said Caya, and the final phase -- including sealing, then priming the wall and adding two finish coats on top of the primer -- consumed about three weeks.
“The primer is the barrier between the sealer and finish coat -- so there are totally four layers,” said Caya, who, since coming here from Bismarck to attend UND, has lived downtown. “It’ll be there for many generations. It may have to be touched up a little, in 15 years or so.”
But getting to the finish line took many steps and a lot of determination.
Caya and Opstad had been thinking about doing a mural somewhere in town for a few years, according to Caya said.
“We wanted to do it on a wall with brick that wasn’t decorative,” he said, noting that he and Opstad, his business partner who lives in Missoula, Montana, did not want to ruin the historical integrity of any building.
The south wall of Rhombus Guys Brewery was optimal, in part, because it has no windows and can be viewed from a distance, and because of the way it “picks up the morning light,” Opstad said.
Opstad and Caya approached Matt Winjum and Arron Hendricks, owners of the building which originally was the Metropolitan Opera House. They agreed to the project, persuaded by the plan which would result in beautifying as well as preserving the wall.
The building is constructed with a porous brick that was quarried in a low-lying area near south of downtown, in the Belmont Road and Reeves Drive neighborhood, between 13th and 17th avenues south, Caya said. The wall that displays the mural was an interior wall that was exposed after an attached structure was razed sometime after the Flood of ‘97, Opstad said.
Opstad’s design, using a wheat theme, fit well with the brewery which has occupied the 130-year-old structure for several years, Caya said.
Funding for the project came from Bank Forward, which declined to make public its contribution. A donation of $3,000 in paint was provided by Sterling Glass and Paint and Pittsburgh Paint, Caya said.
“We definitely want to support the community,” said Brady Trenbeath, market president of Grand Forks with Bank Forward. “We wanted to support what we thought was a wonderful project.”
The bank has not had the opportunity to support public art to the degree it has supported other projects, Trenbeath said, but bank officials wanted to support Caya, a longtime bank customer.
“(Caya) kept us in the loop," he said. “We think it turned out great. It’s cool.”
Caya counts it as a plus that “we did not take (money) from any arts groups, or government or city funds -- it was privately paid for,” he said.
Why no murals
Caya said he wondered for a long time why other cities -- Winnipeg, Bismarck, Fargo -- have so many murals and Grand Forks has none. They weren’t allowed here, he found out. He credits Andy Conlon, a Grand Forks employee, for clearing a path to making murals possible.
Conlon, senior community development planner, said the city only permitted panels, such as plywood, or tarps which could be affixed to buildings.
When Caya went before the city’s Planning and Zoning Commission to explain his plan and to propose some flexibility in the code, he received a favorable response.
“The initial concern -- and justifiably so -- was that this is such a significant, historic building,” and members wanted assurance that any action taken would preserve and not damage it, said Conlon.
Caya showed examples of other murals and described his plans for the Rhombus Guys Brewery building. After meeting with that commission and the City Council, Conlon rewrote the code to clarify its interpretation. Caya’s proposal was OK'd by the City Council in June.
Others have expressed a desire to create murals and are working to overcome various hurdles, including funding, Conlon said.
With this increased interest in public art, the “ghost signs,” such as Coca-Cola, Spearmint Gum and other commercial signage on downtown buildings, may be restored to their original vibrance in the future, Conlon said.
“I think we’ll continue to see more and more (of this art), especially as the weather warms up in the spring,” he said.
Caya, who owns Caya Painting and Historical Restoration, said he and Opstad “work perfectly as a team. He’s good with design -- he’s the true, bonafide artist -- and I’m good with the technical aspects of it and the product knowledge.”
Opstad used a computer program to lay out the squares for the mural in a grid; each square was assigned one of 32 colors. Then, starting at one corner, the pair drew the series of boxes and, after that, wrote the color number for each box.
“It was like paint by number,” said Opstad, an alumnus of Red River High School and UND who holds a master's degree in fine arts from the Minneapolis College of Art and Design.
He and Caya see their work having an impact beyond aesthetics. One of the benefits of the mural is to encourage use of the nearby parking ramp, where people can get a good view of the mural, Caya said.
“People complain that there’s not enough parking downtown, but 90% of the ramp is open and free, and it has an elevator," he said.
Opstad is hoping that kids growing up in this community will see the mural and be inspired by art, as he was as a kid here, he said.
“At the Columbia Mall, there used to be metal sculpture -- I just loved that," he said.
So far, reaction to the mural has been positive, Caya said.
“I can’t believe the feedback we’ve gotten .... We‘re proud to be part of the public art downtown," he said.
He and Opstad are eyeing other buildings for murals and have about a half-dozen projects in the works, he said.
“I want to work with the city as much as possible, so there can be more of these projects,” Caya said. “We just want to give something back to Grand Forks.”
His ultimate goal, he said, is “to beautify downtown, one mural at a time.”