New St. Paul mural represents hope, rebirth for supportive housing community

John Autey/Pioneer Press/TNS

On a once nondescript building in St. Paul’s Frogtown, a blue sky with brightly colored flowers, polka dots and smiling people hugging one another are now what catch one’s eye on the corner of Dale Street and Sherburne Avenue.

The new mural, named “Family ties,” was spray painted on two sides of the supportive housing building owned by the nonprofit Model Cities, and was completed last Wednesday. While intended to prevent vandalism on two large white walls, the effort quickly became about more as the artists sought residents’ voices in the mural’s design process.

Model Cities hosted a barbecue near the building to hear community ideas for elements to include in the mural and sent out a survey on Facebook for more input. Last week, they held an event to recruit everyone from residents to people walking down the street to spray paint parts of the wall themselves.

“We’re stepping into other people’s spaces that they work in everyday, they live in every day,” said Thomasina Topbear, one of the two lead muralists on the project. “So we want to create something that makes them smile.”

Topbear has been creating art since she was 14 years old, and helped found City Mischief Murals, a collective of people of color who paint murals around the Twin Cities, in 2014. Originally from a Dakota reservation in Nebraska, she said including Indigenous language and imagery are crucial to her art.

“I always feel like it’s really important to have the Dakota language kind of out in the forefront,” Topbear said. “I think that there’s a disconnect between the people and the land they were stewards of originally. When we start using those words in that language again, it really creates that connection.”

The mural in Frogtown showcases words that community members indicated they wanted represented in four languages, which Topbear said were chosen to represent the diversity of the neighborhood. “Thiwáhe,” which is “family” in Dakota, is placed front and center on the side of the mural facing Dale Street. The other languages were Spanish, Hmong and English.

To Melanie Williams, a mother of five who has lived at the Model Cities building for 11 years, the mural makes the neighborhood feel more welcoming and warm.

“It brings a lot of light to the community,” Williams said. “It’s something positive to look at. Going down University Avenue, there ain’t much to look at beyond that, so this is beautiful.”

Williams has a view of the mural from her apartment and said specific images speak to her, such as the butterflies, which she believes signal “new beginnings” for the neighborhood and its residents. In addition, she said the depiction of a girl sitting on her dad’s shoulders, embracing him from behind, feels empowering to her.

“A lot of us Black females don’t have the fathers in the home for their child, so that’s a good symbol to see that on a mural, that our black fathers can be dads,” Williams said. “You just gotta take the time to stand there and look at it, see what it means to you.”

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