South Dakota is no stranger to public art on a monumental scale. From the four presidential faces on Mt Rushmore to the Dignity statue overlooking the Missouri River, these pieces become part of a state’s broader identity.
But the same can happen on a smaller scale. SDPB’s Jackie Hendry shares the story behind a mural and the Vermillion and the people who made it happen.
In the alley in downtown Vermillion, a wall now holds color and meaning where there once was only brick. A Native woman with a determined expression is breastfeeding two infants. Waves crash behind her on either side. A star quilt design is behind her head like a halo. An eagle spreads its wings to rise above the water.
The mural also includes two young Native women tugging two ends of a rope. They reflect cultural realities: one is dressed in traditional regalia, the other in contemporary dress.
The mural is vibrant with yellows, reds and blues. Just ask Shannon Cole, executive director of the Vermillion Cultural Association.
“It doesn’t matter what time it is, whether it’s sunset and the light is coming through the alley or it’s midday right now with shadow on it. The paint is always bright, it’s always sort of glowing off the back of the building. And I think that’s just really remarkable.”
The Vermillion Cultural Association is a nonprofit that promotes the arts and cultural exchange in the area. It supports a local mural project with fundraising and grant applications.
Cole says public art adds both economic and social value to a town. She says it lifts people’s spirits and can make them want to stay.
“And that’s an important part of why we developed the mural project, because we felt that was something our organization could add to Vermillion.”
This isn’t Vermillion’s first community mural--another, finished in 2017, sits just around the corner. USD painting professor Amber Hansen has guided both projects. She says when community art is based on shared stories and ideas, it helps connect residents to their public spaces.
“So, traditionally this is a trained artist who’s working with a group of people to guide that process, so that the work of art and the thing that’s created can be monumental in scale. And can be as complex and hopefully as relevant to the people who are part of that process.”
The artists behind this project are Reyna Hernandez, Inkpa Mani, and Liz Skye--all young Native artists from South Dakota. They brainstormed ideas and researched ways to create a safe creative space for members of the community who wanted to participate. Amber Hansen explains the design meetings were open to anyone and included a variety of group activities.
“We created poems together, we drew pictures together, we told stories together, and all of these ideas were collected and compiled and then Reyna, Inkpa, and Liz created a composition inspired by those conversations, and the themes that emerged from those workshops.”
The conversations looked at personal identity. When April Matzen learned the new mural would portray Native women, she knew she wanted to be involved. April is Lakota and Alaska Native. She lives in Vermillion with her two young daughters.
“As they are going to school and saying things like, ‘My skin color isn’t the same as theirs. I’m brown.’ And I’m just being like, ‘Yes, you are!’”
During workshops for the mural project, Matzen says some conversations helped her consider her own struggles dealing with identity. She says she often tried to fit in with majority culture instead of embracing her own traditions.
“Just saw a lot of harm that came from that and becoming more disconnected. And so I really wanted to become more connected to my own traditions, and being an Indigenous person and what that means so I can teach my daughters.”
After the workshops, the artists merged the images. Inkpa Mani found a picture of a breastfeeding Native woman. Reyna Hernandez found a Japanese print of a wave of water. She also brought in one of her mother’s start quilt designs. As they began combining the images, Inkpa Mani realized it was a representation of the Dakota creation story: a flood that destroys the world with only one survivor: a woman, saved by an eagle, who gives birth to twins.
Lead artist Reyna Hernandez says it was an emotional moment.
“Everything felt very connected and universal and right. And at the moment I really felt like this is the story we’re supposed to be telling and we’re doing what we’re supposed to be doing.”
Then came the next challenge: presenting the design to the entire community. Amber Hansen says in a public art project, this can be a vulnerable point for an artist.
“There’s uncertainty in how people are going to receive that image and the information contained within it.”
But the rest of the design team loved it. Over several days this summer, Hansen says there were people all over the wall with paint brushes creating the image of a mother with her back to the waves.
April Matzen and her daughters were there. She loved seeing the colors going on the wall.
“You know, the colors that we’re painting are very Indigenous colors. And you know, the brown skin. Yeah. It was really overwhelming and emotional and beautiful.”
The city held a dedication ceremony for the finished mural late last week. Jenae Porter is a senior painting major at U-S-D and worked on the mural. She says the community collaboration is meaningful to her as a student.
“Because in a university setting you’re not always connected with the community that you live in outside of campus, and so I think that’s a really good merge. To have students help the community and see where they’re living and kinda get to know the area that they are in for four-plus years they’re here.”
And for artist and USD student Liz Skye, this mural was a way to claim her space in the community. As a Native woman who didn’t grow up on a reservation, Skye identifies with two characters in the mural: one woman dressed traditionally, and the other in contemporary clothing. Skye wants this mural to make space for Indigenous women who express themselves differently.
“Creating an academic space where I can be contemporary, do the things I do, listen to the music I want and create the art I want, and still be Indigenous and still be powerful and honorable and respectful and respected! Just because I wear a belly shirt or don’t go to sun dance doesn’t mean I can’t learn my language or be a part of it.”
And she is learning her language, which helped her find the perfect term in Lakota to title the mural.
“It means to become alright again, to be restored. And the final interpretation is to come back to life.”
It’s a metaphor for reviving traditions. But artist Inkpa Mani says the mural is also a reminder to the rest of the community.
“Especially being next to the town hall, it was a prominent place where they could come in and see that even though you don’t see Dakota people surrounding these landscapes, our bones are buried within this land.”
Inkpa Mani says the mural stands for generations of Native women who first walked this continent. Liz Skye hopes when visitors see the image of a Native mother breastfeeding her babies with the waves crashing against her, they’re astonished by her strength.
“And I want people to know Native American women--no matter how misrepresented, no matter how much violence is imposed on us just for being who we are, no matter all of that--we are still going to survive.”
The mural has a message that is already speaking to the next generation. April Matzen says her daughters are a good reminder.
"I mean there’s a 20 foot tall woman with two babies! So that’s definitely the part that resonates with me the most. And my daughters are like, ‘Is that you?’”
And while this mural is finished, there’s still more to come. The Vermillion Cultural Association is now working to raise $13,000 for a continuation of the mural. They hope to start painting next May.
Lead artist Reyna Hernandez usually works alone in a studio, but she says this process has helped her understand the value in public art.
“To be at this point where I’m at now, to understand that these stories...the ones that are unheard are important for everyone. It’s something I don’t think I fully realized when we started this project and so I’m really excited about finishing the other half and telling the rest of the story.”
In an alleyway next to Vermillion City Hall, a mural tells the story of women forming the past, claiming space in the present, and looking to the future.