BISMARCK — Public objection and threats to boycott a local business have put an end to a Bismarck artist's plans to install a mural of Swedish environmental activist Greta Thunberg in a local alleyway.
Shane Balkowitsch, a renowned practitioner of glass plate photography, had planned to put the mural of the teenage activist on an external wall of Brick Oven Bakery, which opened about five months ago in downtown Bismarck. Employing a 160-year-old technique, Balkowitsch took the the image of Thunberg to be used in the mural during her visit to the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation in October.
The artist and Bismarck native said the proposed 7-foot mural was meant to beautify the city and commemorate a moment in North Dakota history — not to make a political statement about climate change or the oil industry, which Thunberg has opposed. Oil and gas production is a major economic driver in the state, and the industry employs thousands of its residents.
"It was all about the art. It was not about the controversy," Balkowitsch said.
Balkowitsch withdrew his public art application with the city Wednesday, Feb. 12, after local news station KFYR-TV posted a story about the proposed mural on its Facebook page that generated over 1,000 mostly negative comments. Some commenters said they would boycott the bakery, while others threatened to vandalize the mural if it were installed. News of Balkowitsch withdrawing his application was first reported by the Bismarck Tribune.
The owner of the building, Rolf Eggers, had given his blessing to install the mural, and the city's Renaissance Zone Authority would likely have approved the project at its Thursday meeting, Balkowitsch said. Bismarck Community Development Director Ben Ehreth said city staff recommended approval of the mural and mentioned that the board cannot consider subject matter when deciding whether to allow a piece of public art.
Balkowitsch, who owns a studio in Bismarck, said the bakery and Eggers "cordially backed out" of hosting the mural after the public backlash took a "hostile" tone. Audibly upset, the artist told Forum News Service he had no choice but to withdraw the application out of consideration for the bakery and said he never would have put the business through the ordeal had he known how the proposed mural would be received.
"I'm a business owner in this town. ... I can't have someone's business [and] livelihood catching one on the chin," Balkowitsch said. "I can't ask them to step in the fire with me."
Bakery co-owner Sandy Jacobson said she asked Eggers not to allow the mural after seeing the impact the photo had and realizing the potentially harmful effects on her business. Jacobson said nobody made negative comments to the bakery staff in person, but she said she received one Facebook message from someone who vowed to "put efforts into public shaming." Jacobson said she also read through the comments on the KFYR post, some of which included threats to vandalize the side of the building.
One commenter said, "There is no way I will patronize or recommend the business to anyone if that mural goes up." Another said Thunberg was a "propaganda machine from the Left." Many others suggested the mural should be a portrait of someone from North Dakota. Balkowitsch noted that there is currently nothing on the wall and that he's done several other installations in Bismarck, including one of North Dakota boxing legend Virgil Hill.
Jacobson said the bakery didn't have anything to do with the mural and pointed to Eggers as the one who is passionate about climate change. Eggers could not be reached for comment in time for publication, but he told the Tribune he would not divulge his personal views.
As restitution for the situation, Jacobson said Eggers has told the bakery's owners they may now use the wall for advertising or artwork of its choosing, but Jacobson noted they would not put up "anything controversial." When asked if the ordeal had the potential to hurt the business in the long run, Jacobson said she hoped it wouldn't and that North Dakotans are very forgiving.
The original glass plate upon which Balkowitsch made the photo for the now-nixed mural has been archived at the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C. Balkowitsch said he still plans to install the mural somewhere else and will begin looking for other venues across the country. The artist said the experience has left "a bitter taste in his mouth" and he may not ever install another project in his hometown.
"The worst part is that I'm from here," Balkowitsch said. "It just seems like this was not meant to be."