"It's really a phoenix rising from the ashes," said Plains director Colleen Sheehy, referring to the 13- by 24-foot melange of North Dakota motifs that will hang in the museum's atrium.
The painting is the second version of a mural by Pop star James Rosenquist, a North Dakota native and University of Minnesota graduate. Known internationally for his immense images combining advertising icons with flowers, galaxies and cultural flotsam, Rosenquist is a former billboard painter whose work hangs in major museums, from the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., to the Tate Gallery in London.
His "North Dakota Mural" was already finished when, last April, a brush fire raced through more than half of the 100 acres of dry marsh grasses and underbrush surrounding Rosenquist's home and studio near Aripeka, Fla., on the Gulf Coast. Besides the mural and 15 new paintings, the flames consumed his house, office, studios and a fleet of automobiles. No one was injured.
"Behind the main studio was a huge garage with 20 vintage cars," said Sheehy. "When those started blowing up, the firemen said they wouldn't go near because it was too dangerous. He got out with just the clothes on his back and his sandals. All of his records, his prints and his family scrapbooks burned. It was devastating."
Rosenquist was 75 years old then. Said Sheehy: "At that age, how do you pick yourself up and say you're still going to paint? But his North Dakota Scandinavian gumption just got him going again."
The museum was in a tough spot, too, because it had not yet raised the $600,000 to pay for the original mural. And Sheehy, who had recently arrived at the Plains from the University of Minnesota's Weisman Art Museum, faced the challenge of spring floods in Fargo that forced the museum to move its 3,000-piece collection from basement storage areas to third-floor galleries. Then came Rosenquist's fire.
But there was a happy ending: An anonymous Fargo art patron was so moved by Rosenquist's story that he put up the entire $600,000 to have the mural repainted. Rosenquist set up a new studio in a guest house that had survived the blaze and set to work. For inspiration, the museum sent him a photo of the original mural, a typical Rosenquist mash-up of images including a meadowlark, a 10-foot-tall northern pike, a gushing oil rig and an Indian tepee under a vast expanse of stars, galaxies and nebulae.
"He called a few weeks ago to say he's finished the painting and thinks it's even better than the first one," Sheehy said. The mural will be unveiled in October.
Besides the mural, the indefatigable Rosenquist has turned out a whole series of new paintings since the fire. Called "The Hole in the Middle of Time and the Hole in the Wallpaper," they are on view through March 19 at Acquavella Galleries in New York City.
Sheehy has been busy, too. Her current show at the Plains, "Individual to Icon: Portraits of the Famous and Almost Famous From Folk Art to Facebook," features a lot of Minnesota talent, including Christopher Baker, the late seed artist Lillian Colton, Shana Kaplow, Scott Seekins and Alec Soth. It's up through Aug. 15.
Get more info at www.plainsart.org.
Mary Abbe • 612-673-4431