They painted the 60-foot-long mural at the new Nye’s Piano Bar over four nights in December. It was dark when they arrived with paint and a projector. Punk rock in their headphones, they traced and blocked, sketching with spray cans and brushes.
Then, by 6 a.m., they cleared out for the next shift — the construction crew.
Weeks later, sitting in a gold booth in the East Hennepin reboot, Wes Winship looked up at his work. Layered over a pattern of vintage cocktail glasses and booze bottles, he’d painted the three characters who made Nye’s legendary. With her gaptoothed grin, the late Ruth Adams, leader of the World’s Most Dangerous Polka Band, looked back down at him.
“There’s a certain point where I can feel it clicking together,” Winship said of making portraits, “where it starts to have a life and spirit in it.”
Massive murals are a new focus for the creative studio Burlesque of North America, which Winship and Mike Davis founded in 2003. That crew-turned-business became famous for their concert posters, art prints and playful logos — screenprints for Arcade Fire, designs for Milkjam Creamery, cans for Modist Brewing.
But for Winship, 40, a former graffiti writer, large-scale works are a return to his roots. And a welcome one. After screenprinting hundreds of posters hundreds of times, he craved the tactile work of putting a brush on a brick wall.
Since forming Burlesque Public Works Division in 2016, Winship and fellow artist Nick Mamayek have created graphic murals for 3M and T3, an office building in the North Loop. They’ve built vibrant, large-scale collages for Wisconsin’s Eaux Claires music fest and stunning, painterly portraits for hip-hop extravaganza Soundset. They nabbed a grant and in 2017 funded a Kickstarter campaign to create a series of murals spanning nine garage doors that will tell the story of St. Paul’s Hamline-Midway neighborhood.
At Can Can Wonderland, the mini-golf labyrinth in St. Paul, Winship and Mamayek covered the old canning factory’s walls with whimsical murals inspired by graffiti, comics and history.
“They get a lot of love,” said Jennifer Pennington, Can Can’s co-founder and CEO. “People can’t believe they’re in this building in St. Paul. ‘It’s like something you’d find in Los Angeles or New York.’ ”
As someone who’s lived in L.A., Pennington appreciates that murals are taking over Twin Cities walls.
“They brighten up cities,” she said. “They add so much character. They help to define a neighborhood.”
Spray paint and brush strokes
The first time Winship experienced Nye’s, he was trying to track down Jack Black.
Winship used to publish the graffiti magazine “Life Sucks Die,” and wanted to interview Black, the comedian and actor, for its pages. It wasn’t the kind of magazine that worked with publicists, so they ambushed their targets. (In the end, a friend spotted Black at the Triple Rock. “We got a mediocre interview,” Winship said. “He was just trying to party.”)
Winship cut his teeth at that magazine, picking up design skills and meeting other graffiti writers across the country. Over time, Winship and Davis drew together other designers and decided to call their crew Burlesque. This was before burlesque got trendy; they didn’t foresee the late-night phone calls. That loose group turned into an ever-evolving, award-winning design studio.
But a few years back Winship found himself getting “more and more resentful of my own thing,” he said of Burlesque. Not the creative part, of course. But the fact that he wasn’t getting to the creative part more often. “What we’ve done at Burlesque I’m incredibly proud of. But over time, my place in it shifted where I was doing a lot of trouble-shooting ... a lot of pre-press work.
“I was working on other people’s artwork ... more than I was working on my own artwork,” Winship said. “I just had this thought in my mind: I’ve got to take a shot at figuring out what my own art is before I get any older.”
Winship began drawing more, like he used to as a comic-book-loving kid. Sketching was part of his design work at Burlesque, but only “here and there,” he said, and only in a way that could be translated to screen-printing. He began taking figure drawing classes, posting his pastel sketches of women on Instagram.
Murals make use of his long-honed spray-paint skills (“It’s somewhat like riding a bike,” he said) and stretch his brushwork abilities. His large-scale works play with typography, empty space, bright colors. But portraits have become a signature, too.
‘More surfaces and places to play’
The owners of the new, narrow Nye’s wanted to nod to the history of the original, with its century-old corner bar and 1950s polka lounge. They gave Winship and Mamayek just a few rules. The most important: Include the faces of three legends: Albin Nye, the Polish immigrant after whom the place is named; “Sweet Lou” Snider, who helmed the piano for five decades, and Adams, who led the polka band.
They figured out where each face would fit. (“It just makes sense to put Lou by the piano bar,” Winship said.) They played around with pattern and the place’s classic color palette of maroon, gold and red. They left some brick exposed.
“I get inspired a lot by the job,” Winship said, sipping on an “Al Nye,” the bar’s take on an Old Fashioned. After visiting a space or sitting with the rules of a project, ideas come after getting some sleep, he said. Or taking a shower. Each commission has led to another.
“Just give us more surfaces and places to play,” he said, “and we’ll make amazing stuff.”
Months before Can Can Wonderland opened in 2016, Winship came to look at the space, Pennington said. “He got really excited about the empty walls,” Pennington said, “about being able to take their time with murals and have full creative control.”
Inside the mini-golf space, they stuck to the theme. After chatting with Pennington about Mary Pickford, a silent film star famous for her love of mini-golf, Winship decided to create a mural in her honor. The soft, photorealistic painting of her face and curls — in soft pinks and blues — contrasts with the sharp, black-and-white pattern to the right. He also created one of the golf course’s holes: a trippy optical illusion titled “No, that’s not my trick, Michael. It’s my illusion!” in honor of the TV show “Arrested Development.”
In the old factory’s basement, Winship and Mamayek have kept all the spray paint cans they’ve emptied on Can Can’s walls. “There’s got to be at least 1,000,” Pennington said. They plan to use the colorful caps to build a sculpture or make a mosaic.
That tells you something about the Burlesque guys, she said. “We’ve only seen the tip of the iceberg. Some artists really have unlimited potential in what they can do.”