It's three weeks before the opening of Broken Crow's next exhibition, and the basement floor of Mike Fitzsimmons' St. Paul home is covered in paint, stencils and completed and nearly completed paintings that will make up half of the show. The other half is stockpiled at the home of John Grider, four blocks down the street.
Slightly grizzled in hoodies and baggy pants, and sitting on lawn chairs in the art-strewn basement, Fitzsimmons and Grider -- the ubiquitous street-art duo known as Broken Crow -- look like overgrown teenagers. But over the course of nine years, the 32-year-olds have turned collaborative art-making into a thriving grown-up business. The two have a knack for finishing each other's thoughts, evidence of their decade-long partnership.
"A lot of the time that we spend on a project," says Grider, "we end up having conversations about other paintings we want to make."
"We still make work by ourselves ... " Fitzsimmons begins.
"[ ... but] we just trust each other," says Grider. "I think it's more fun to have someone to bounce ideas off of."
While both were drawn to street art in different ways -- Fitzsimmons has a fine-art background, while Grider is decidedly more DIY -- the artists found in each other a kindred spirit, and have been painting around the country and the world as a team ever since. Their latest homecoming exhibition, "We Did What We Could," opens Friday at XYandZ Gallery in Minneapolis, their second show at the gallery in as many years.
Even if you don't know the name Broken Crow, you have more than likely seen their work: large-scale, colorful murals of wild animals stencil-painted on sides of Twin Cities buildings in an unmistakable gritty-yet-refined style.
"Animals interacting with human environments has always been a huge theme," Grider says.
Fitzsimmons: "When we're painting a mural, just painting the animal on the human environment is part of the interaction."
By utilizing the weathered, ready-made canvases of city buildings and walls, the prolific pair subtly make a statement about the effect of urban development on nature. While some of Broken Crow's animals are reintroduced into their natural habitats -- wolves, owls and bears, oh my! -- others intrude into unexpected places, like a shark exploding out of the side of the Nomad World Pub. Still other murals show a more literal take on human-animal interaction, as in depictions of a man with the head of a lion (at 2nd St. and 1st Av. N. in Minneapolis' North Loop) and an owl resting atop a pile of skulls on a building in Duluth.
Despite the obvious thrill of working on large-scale and sometimes high-profile murals, the two are excited to be scaling down for their new exhibit. The work in "We Did What We Could" represents a lesser-seen side of Broken Crow, who took the seasonal slowdown in the mural business last fall as an opportunity to explore some decidedly smaller-scale ideas. The largest pieces in the show are 3-by-5 feet, a far cry from a typical 70-foot Broken Crow mural.
"It was like a blank slate you can go anywhere with," Grider says of the gallery format. "You have room to do a lot more." One new painting shows a growling bear atop a tricycle with a jet-pack strapped to its back; another depicts a herd of zebras that appear to be stampeding through a murky city fog.
The show's curator, Tricia Khutoretsky, has watched them evolve over the years. "They've pushed themselves past being simply street artists, to take on public and professional responsibility as muralists," she says. "With their work in this show, they've condensed their thoughtfulness, skill and storytelling, and it feels like a fresh new phase for Broken Crow."
"We were really excited to be making small paintings and spending more time with them," Grider says of the new body of work. "That was our biggest frustration with the last show" -- which famously included a site-specific mural covering one wall of XYandZ. "We didn't have enough time with the pieces to love them more. We were making that work [and] the installations up until the morning of the show -- I think we were there til 7 in the morning."
"It was 9," Fitzsimmons corrects.
Grider: "We were really burnt out and really tired."
It's all part of the job for Broken Crow. They have spent the past year traveling everywhere from Austin, Texas, for South by Southwest, where they painted 10 walls in eight days with minimal planning ("We figured we'd show up and someone would let us paint," Fitzsimmons says), to Gambia in West Africa -- an experience that presented itself through the magic of Twitter. "I never thought that I would be in a position where I'd be receiving a direct message inviting us to Africa," Grider says. "The whole thing is just crazy."
Despite a busy travel schedule, Broken Crow has remained active on the home front, recently completing a massive undertaking known as the Bigger Picture Project. The four-part series of murals runs along the Central Corridor light-rail route and was funded by a grant from the city of St. Paul along with Irrigate, an artist-led creative initiative spanning the corridor.
The project also has an interactive component. A time-lapse video documenting the process and connecting the four-part mural will be available to view via QR codes.
"There's Broken Crow on the Internet, there's Broken Crow in the basement, there's Broken Crow big on walls, there's Broken Crow on Instagram," Grider says. "So with the light-rail piece, we were thinking about how to have all these moving parts work together. We were interested in how people would think about the city in terms of it being a living, breathing organism."
"It's another way for the viewer to connect with the piece," Fitzsimmons adds. "We're really interested in putting art and technology together."
The idea of street art and graffiti becoming a style of city-funded public art would have been unthinkable during its advent in the 1970s and '80s. Grider tells a story about buying paint at a hardware store for the Central Corridor project: "The kid at the cash register was like, 'What are you guys going to use this for?' And I was like, 'Actually, we got commissioned by the city.' He was like, 'Times are a-changin'!' There's something really gratifying about having the city commission you. It was a huge honor."
With a trip to New York planned for fall and loose plans to go to Los Angeles this winter and the U.K. next year, the pair show no signs of slowing. They also hope to reignite their "Rural Mural" project, which involves painting a series of barns in outstate Minnesota.
The two also have busy family lives: Fitzsimmons has a 2 1/2-year-old daughter, Annabelle, and Grider has a 4 1/2-year-old daughter, Weather. They say parenthood has affected their art, as they've been "wanting to make pieces that our kids get excited about, as they learn the words for different animals," Grider says.
"We take a lot of trips to the zoo," says Fitzsimmons.
"And we watch a lot of National Geographic."
But they couldn't be happier with their ever-busy schedule. "Right now we have a platform where people pay attention to what we're doing, and it feels like there's a lot of stuff we could do within the state, promoting more local things, like trying to get people to go and be in the wild," Grider says.
"We want to go camping this summer. Broken Crow camping!"