Jennifer Shoemaker, an artist whose family moved from Coon Rapids to Anoka last year, has two teenage sons who are artists, too.

As such, she wanted to find a creative outlet for them all to get involved in the community.

So she proposed the idea of Young Artists of Anoka, a grass-roots group that would be made up of student artists, with a mission to spruce up the town with murals and other artwork.

The city gave her the go-ahead last October, and now the idea has become reality.

Collaborating with Anoka officials, Shoemaker came up with a pilot project dubbed “Windows of Time,” which involves painting a walking tunnel beneath Main Street and along the Rum River with artistic impressions of the city, past and present.

Last week, with Shoemaker leading the charge, a small group of young artists began painting the “windows” spanning the 80-foot tunnel, each expressing his or her take on the city. They’ll wrap things up in mid July.

That’s not all. On July 11, the Young Artists of Anoka will decorate the sidewalk near City Hall with chalk art during Riverfest.

Other projects in the works would dress up the interior of a pedestrian bridge on Fourth Avenue, plus a couple of businesses that are prone to graffiti vandalism. Shoemaker and her husband walk around town a lot, and “we thought of interesting areas that could use a project,” she said.

Artfully wrapped utility boxes in Minneapolis triggered her imagination.

Lisa LaCasse, a recreation supervisor for Anoka, said the park board was receptive to Shoemaker’s proposal from the get-go. It’s being paid for by a combination of city funding and community donations, she said.

From the city’s perspective, the tunnel seemed like an ideal starting point, as it typically has to be painted several times a year to remove graffiti, said LaCasse via e-mail. She hopes that the beautification project will turn it around and that “people will be respectful of the artists work.”

In addition, the city will install LED lights in the tunnel in July to make it safer at night and help highlight the artwork.

The tunnel will become “a place where people want to stop and spend some time appreciating art,” instead of just a pass-through from here to there, LaCasse said.

Life lessons

Shoemaker, whose family lives in a vintage house, was drawn to Anoka’s history. She also liked the idea of the students pursuing their own interpretations as opposed to one giant mural.

The artists, who range from sixth to 12th grade, came up with pictures that speak to the Civil War, Halloween in Anoka, the city’s layout or architecture.

Part of Shoemaker’s interest in forming the group was also to give students real-world experience showing that art can be a way to make a living, not just something on the side, she said.

The young artists filled out an application, like they would for a job, including sketches of their proposed mural. Students apply to participate on a project-by-project basis.

And they’re operating under a budget, with limited paint colors (often they have to mix their own) and deadlines. Shoemaker is using life lessons to “give them an overall idea of what an artist’s job entails,” she said.

They “learn how to present themselves and their artwork,” which helps for future jobs, she said.

It’s an ambitious undertaking, but the students begin with a gridded rectangle to help them scale up their original drawings. Each of the 42 “windows” is 48 inches wide and 60 inches long.

Together with volunteer mentors, “We are showing them that with such a large canvas, they need to block out the colors first, fill in large areas and then go back and start blending and adding detail and dimension,” Shoemaker said.

Their own interpretations

Shoemaker’s sons, Nic and Tristan, are both participating. Nic, who is going into ninth grade at Anoka High School, is painting a mural that depicts a bridge by the dam along with a stone house on the river. As he fleshed out the image, he thought of the idea of a “bridge through time,” reflecting on then and now, he said. The left side of the image shows modern-day Anoka while the other touches on what it used to be like, with forestry and a house or two.

For him, it’s satisfying knowing “the artwork will be on display for a long time. It’s becoming part of Anoka’s history.”

Madison Bush, who is going into 11th grade, learned about the program through her drawing teacher at Anoka High School. She’s taking a totally different approach.

Her “window” portrays a lady in old-fashioned clothing dipping her toes into the river. “I decided to take the chance to show off one of the pretty gowns that women wore back when Anoka was starting,” she said.

Bush is a comic book artist who normally uses a digital palette, and this is a whole new area for her. “I really like it,” she said.

She likes working alongside such a mix of artists, she said. “I can really see myself in the younger kids. I was doing the kind of art they’re doing at that age. It’s cool communicating with them. I’m not a mentor but I’m someone they look up to,” Bush said.

Ellie Lohse, who is entering seventh grade at Anoka Middle School for the Arts, put the final touches on her mural last week. She chose to focus on the cityscape, with its shops and old buildings reflected in the river. She often walks around the area with her family.

Lohse did plenty of shading so that “the buildings are dark with a light-colored sky … the reflection of Anoka bleeds into the river,” she said. “There were times when I messed up. I just painted over it. That helped. Then I got to do more shading.”

Seeing her handiwork on the tunnel wall, “I feel like I accomplished something,” she said, adding, “I like walking down there to see it.”


Anna Pratt is a Minneapolis freelance writer. She can be reached at