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On a larger stage: TrekNorth seniors to showcase art in Grand Rapids

Pictured are (from left) Ashley Blevins, Kalli Wilson and Kali Benson, all seniors at TrekNorth High School, as they work to complete a three-piece mural that will serve as the state backdrop next month at the Mississippi River Festival in Grand Rapids.

Three TrekNorth seniors are about to see their art displayed on a bigger stage.

The trio — Kali Benson, Ashley Blevins and Kalli Wilson — were selected to paint the stage backdrop that will be featured throughout the 10th Annual KAXE Mississippi River Festival to take place in July in Grand Rapids.

“It was really exciting,” said Benson on how the students felt about being asked. “We couldn’t stop smiling.”

Indeed, the process to be selected to create such backdrops at other festivals can be competitive, said Lea Friesen, a Grand Rapids-based artist and instructor at Itasca Community College who painted the stage backdrop last year and was asked to select the artists for this year’s festival.

“This is a very regular thing for artists to compete for,” Friesen said. “These pieces will be something the girls can use to apply for more projects. That kind of momentum is an amazing thing.”

As Friesen considered how to approach her assignment, she thought of Bemidji, noting that the new studio for Northern Community Radio (for KAXE and KBXE) was built in Bemidji and the project might be a good way to bridge the distance between the two communities.

“There is so much creative energy between both places,” she said.

She approached Kristin Gustafson, the art teacher at TrekNorth, who suggested the three teens.

“We’ve actually done murals together before, but this is the biggest one we’ve ever done,” Wilson said.

For three days in early June, the teens worked under Friesen’s guidance.

“It’s nothing like we thought it was going to be,” said Blevins, reflecting on the finished project. “It’s a lot different than our original ideas but it turned out so much better.”

The teens first spent time sketching what and who they saw in downtown Bemidji.

“We had sketches of trees and people and buildings but then Lea came and she turned that completely around,” Blevins said.

Friesen advised the girls to sketch self-portraits which were later incorporated into the finished piece as well.

Not only are the teen’s self-portraits in the finished work, but outlines of their own bodies are as well.

“We actually traced ourselves onto the canvas in chalk first,” Wilson said. “That was the first thing we did.”

Once finished, the outlines of the bodies became almost unidentifiable.

“They’re not necessarily generic (people) but they’re not a specific person, they have become a kind of cartoon representation. I think the work really shows the ideas of connection, interconnecting patterns,” Friesen said. “They’re so full, there’s no feeling of isolation here. I think that really reflects the way the three girls really worked together. They were absolutely in harmony.”

After the first day, the piece was all black and white. On the second day, Friesen advised the teens to select one color, paint it, and then cover it up with black.

“She guided us a lot,” Benson said, “to get the colors down and break up the white (of the canvas).”

Later, some of those colors were added back in.

Looking at their finished piece — which will be stretched and framed in advance of the festival — the girls said they are very happy with how it turned out.

“It was a lot different because I’m not an abstract painter at all, I’m more realistic,” Blevins said. “This was a huge challenge for me. But now I have better insight of what abstract can be and more ideas for future projects.”

For Benson, she said the work was in the vein of what she is used to but the overall scope of the project was new.

“Usually when I paint, I paint with a lot of texture and that’s pretty much what mine turned out to be, there’s mostly texture,” she said. “The biggest thing for me, the biggest change, was working this big, this large.”

The girls will actually create one more piece of work together for the festival, which will be held July 18-19. On that Friday, the girls together will create a piece on stage, behind the musicians, to benefit the nonprofit Advocates for Family Peace.

“They had asked that there would be an artist at the festival who would do a painting that would be auctioned off to benefit advocates,” Friesen said.

“To all of, it’s a huge honor,” Blevins said.

Likewise, their larger mural also will be auctioned off. The money raised will go toward a fund that will allow the festival to hire another artist, or artists, to create the stage backdrop next year. The first year, those funds were provided by a grant through Legacy amendment dollars and then Friesen’s work last year was auctioned off — it now is at Blandin Foundation in Grand Rapids — to provide stipends to the TrekNorth students.

“I never hoped for anything this spectacular,” Friesen said, looking at the girls’ finished work.