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John Lamb, Published October 03 2010

After more than 30 years of waiting, mural takes shape

For the Plains Art Museum, the acquisition and display of James Rosenquist’s “The Dakota Mural” means a number of different things.

Colleen Sheehy, director and CEO of the museum, says in addition to being an immediate attention-getter, installed just over the main floor, it’s a centerpiece for arts education and an attraction for people across North Dakota and Minnesota and beyond.

It also elevates the Plains’ status nationally and internationally and shows what the facility is capable of doing.

“It’s so gratifying that all the pieces are together to fulfill this dream,” she says, adding that the dream started 30 years ago.

Actually, 31 years ago to the date on Thursday.

On Oct. 7, 1979, the Plains, then located in Moorhead, opened up Rosenquist’s only one-man show of paintings in his home state.

“It was one of the most important exhibitions ever held in Fargo-Moorhead,” says James O’Rourke, citing the artist’s international stature at the time.

At the time, O’Rourke was the director of the Plains, which was located at 521 Main Ave., Moorhead, where the Rourke Art Museum is now. O’Rourke is the director of the Rourke Art Museum.

The Rosenquist show in 1979 was so big that new walls had to be constructed to hang the 23-foot-long “Flamingo Capsule,” with Mylar and panels jutting out at 90-degree angles to reflect the four canvases. The colorful oil painting shows crumpled pieces of metal covering an American flag as the background shifts from a fiery sun to a black, starry night.

The piece, then valued at $200,000, is now in the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain.

“Those paintings are all in museums around the world now. I wish I had them. One of those paintings I sold for $17,000, and it was recently re-sold for $2.4 million. This happens all the time,” Rosenquist says with a laugh.

A bigger loss for the artist was the complete destruction of his studio and home in Aripeka, Fla., in early 2009. Along with personal belongings, the fire consumed an estimated $18 million worth of his own work.

One of the pieces lost in the fire was the original “North Dakota Mural.” After setting up a makeshift studio, he re-created the painting and says it’s “exactly the same” as the one that burned up.

Sheehy says after all the planning and discussions to arrange for the mural only to have the first one go up in smoke, it’s “a miracle” the painting is done and ready to be shown.

“It’s so gratifying that all the pieces are together to fulfill this dream,” she says.