FARGO — Less than two days after an online uproar forced a Bismarck photographer to cancel a 7-foot-tall mural of climate activist Greta Thunberg, a former Fargo city commissioner stepped in to bring the artwork east.
“This is Fargo stepping up to the plate. This is like a phoenix coming out of the ashes, showing the counterbalance to the ugliness. That’s what is important to me,” said photographer Shane Balkowitsch, who uses a bygone process known as wet plate photography.
“I’m glad we’re going to be able to display his art here,” former Fargo city commissioner Mike Williams said.
Williams saw the news about Balkowitsch’s mural, which is to be based on a photograph he took of Thunberg when she visited the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation in October, and thought bringing it to Fargo was an opportunity he could not pass up.
“Public art is a big priority," Williams said. "I want to make sure we feature this great artist.”
The mural was originally slated to be installed at Bismarck’s Brick Oven Bakery, and a permit had been all but approved, Balkowitsch said. A story by KFYR-TV spurred negative online comments and threats of boycotting the business.
“I was told that there was no way the city could not approve this because it would be a First Amendment right," Balkowitsch said. "But then the threats came in."
He pulled his application, which was scheduled for approval Thursday, Feb. 13.
Thunberg, a 17-year-old from Sweden, has become an international leader against climate change, a title which has also made her a target for critics.
After Balkowitsch’s story received national attention, calls from around the country began pouring in, he said, noting that the mural may be installed at six other sites across the U.S.
“I don’t want to get too excited, but I am really excited right now because Fargo seems to be locked in,” Balkowitsch said.
Williams said funds to bring the mural to Fargo totaling $1,300 will be generated through a grassroots effort. “I already have people who are helping,” he said, declining to identify the two spots where the mural may hang in downtown Fargo.
“People have asked me, ‘Why did you choose Greta?’ Well, it’s my most celebrated piece of art,” Balkowitsch said.
His photograph of Thunberg, titled “Standing With Us All,” has more than 2 million likes on social media. An original wet plate of the photograph now sits in the U.S. Library of Congress. The photo has also been included as one of the top 50 photographs of 2019 by the Royal Photographic Society in the United Kingdom.
Balkowitsch said he isn’t trying to make a political statement as much as he wants to stand on the "right side of history."
“I think I’ve done enough by calling the plate ‘Standing for Us All.’ I don’t need to go into any more narrative about what is this doing for you? What does Greta mean to you? What is this doing for you and your psyche? What does it matter what I think about it? I’m the artist. You tell me. That history now is all attached to that piece now, and as an artist, it is a silver lining.
“So now the piece is even more significant because there is this history of what happened all around it.”
On Thursday, a different mural by Balkowitsch already on display was vandalized by eggs. He said he feels the vandalism is tied to the online uproar over the proposed Thunberg mural.
The vandalized mural, “Liberty Trudges Through Justice,” was installed in downtown Bismarck in the spring of 2019. It's a wet plate photograph inspired by Eugène Delacroix's painting “Liberty Leading the People."
Bismarck police said they responded to the report of vandalism at 109 N. 4th St. around 4 p.m. No arrests have been made.