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All for One Making community-centered art in mankatO

On a stormy weekend in July, Michael Cimino set out to paint a mural on the wall of Bellissimo, a paint shop in the heart of Mankato’s Old Town. Cimino and the staff at Bellissimo, including Justin Ek, co-owner and the visionary behind the project, had spent the past few weeks preparing—laying down a base coat and outlining the mural’s design, a series of interwoven mandalas. But despite their careful planning, Cimino and Ek had no idea what would happen next.

Cimino specializes in community murals. Rather than paint everything himself, he creates an elaborate coloring book on the wall, inviting the public to fill in the blanks with the colors of their choosing. Cimino has a background in ceramics, but he began to explore murals more after a friend, an Iraq War veteran, invited him to organize a community mural on the side of an American Legion building in Eagle Lake.

Cimino sees community murals as an opportunity to invert the traditional, indirect way people experience art. With community murals, people direct the experience themselves. Rather than passively absorb the art, they have a role in the finished product. Cimino merely acts as a facilitator. “My prerogative is to create something where people can feel like they participated in a project and invested in the growth of their community—at least aesthetically,” he said.

“A project like this isn’t going to look perfect, but then again, if it was, it wouldn’t be as successful,” Cimino said. “To make this happen, I have to forgo my idea of what it ought to be, my vision of perfection and success, and hand it over to others. It wasn’t intended to be the most aesthetically perfect mural, but a reflection of the community.”

He typically partners with small businesses when doing a mural to help with outreach, permissions, and promotions. When Ek reached out to Cimino about the idea, he was excited to work with them. Partnering with a paint shop on a mural provided particular benefits: “They provided the permissions, the wall, the drop cloths, the paint. They really added some legitimacy to the project.” They named the project “All for One” to reflect the community focus and the aspiration of bringing people together to make something that would inspire pride. The project is supported by the Preservation Alliance’s Artists on Main Street initiative, in partnership with Springboard for the Arts and Mankato’s City Center Partnership, and supported by the Bush Foundation.

Bellissimo and Cimino set up a Facebook event, spread the word, and put up fliers. But the storms complicated their scheduling. At first, they reluctantly announced that they would be canceling the session on Saturday, focusing on Sunday instead. When the storms unexpectedly veered away from Mankato, Cimino and company abruptly announced that Saturday was back on.

Given the shifting weather and schedule, and that no one had done an event like this before in Mankato, Cimino kept expectations modest. “We expected 40 or 50 people,” he said. “But we got over 400.” There were so many people he had to usher hopeful participants into a line and find space for the growing lines on an increasingly cramped wall.

The massive turnout revealed to Cimino and the organizers the real thirst for people to engage in not only the arts, but also to participate in the community at large. “People want to be part of their community’s growth, at least visually,” Cimino said. They want to have a stake in how the community evolves and looks. Cimino felt that the experience underscored how important it is for him and other artists to create those opportunities for others to engage.

Doing so sets a precedent. “I saw people working on the mural who I’ve never seen before in all my years working in the Mankato arts scene. It wasn’t the usual suspects. It was lots of families,” he said. Cimino hopes that projects like this inspire people to have greater confidence in their own creativity. “So often people say, ‘I’m not an artist,’ or ‘I’m not creative.’” Experiences like the “All for One” mural challenge that idea. People begin to recognize their own latent creativity and that the barrier to entry for participating is much lower than they once thought.

“People want to be able to engage—whether it’s through the arts or anything else,” Cimino noted. “They just need to be presented with the right medium.” Once they are, he said, “It can really light a spark.”

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