People of all ages hunched in the middle of an intersection, adding blues, greens and yellows to the pavement. Slowly, an image of waves, houses and wheat formed. A sewer cap turned into a sun.
Moira Villiard told a story about an escape room she did with friends, as she glided a brush into a circle, a sequence of blueberries. She moved through the mini crowd, chatting with passersby on the sidelines. She checked her map to ensure the colors of her design matched up.
With the help of Zeitgeist and a grant, the Duluth multimedia artist spearheaded this series of creative crosswalks community paints in an effort to add beauty and promote safety at dangerous residential intersections in Duluth’s Hillside neighborhoods.
And bringing community and creativity together is her M.O.
A long-standing painter, writer, graphic designer herself, Moira Villiard (pronounced Miri) is also the cultural program coordinator at the American Indian Community Housing Organization. She’s on the executive board of the Arrowhead Regional Arts Council. She’s also partnering with the Indigenous Commission and Zeitgeist on a mural of Chief Buffalo at Gichi-ode' Akiing, starting later this month.
“It might seem casual, but she’s put a lot of thought into everything she does and how it affects not only her community, but the community as a whole,” said Duluth artist Carla Hamilton.
Villiard is relentless and generous. “She’s not just an artist, she’s an art advocate.”
Creative crosswalks started with footwork. Villiard and Zeitgeist reps went door to door, gathering input from residents about what represents their neighborhood.
Near Myers-Wilkins Elementary, there’s a street mural of a rabbit school bus and flowers; another of butterflies twisting up near native flowers along 15th Ave. E. and 6th St.
For the most recent near Portland Square Park, Villiard heard about the closeness of the homes, being nestled between the hills and seeing the lake.
The area used to be notorious for blueberries, she said, and someone mentioned a history of breadmaking and wheat in the neighborhood, so she added that, along with native plants and a wild rose in an Ojibwe motif.
Villiard simplified her design to make it work for the road. They worked with the city to get a permit, they blocked off the streets, pressure-washed and swept before starting.
“We wouldn’t do this on I-35 obviously, but residential streets absolutely,” said James Gittemeier. He lives near the latest crosswalk, and on Tuesday, he helped paint his street.
Some roads are devoted to cars and moving traffic, he said. Others are more about the people who live along them. It seems we’ve lost that balance, and this project is trying to restore that.
These creative crosswalks “will send out a message to motorists that this is a human space, too,” he said.
To get people involved, Villiard employed a paint by numbers process, and they use “legit road paint,” so it should hold, but residents may have to do their part to maintain it.
New to the neighborhood and Duluth, Caleb D’Amico moved within walking distance of the creative crosswalk days before it was painted. “There’s not a whole lot of community stuff that goes down in the (Chicago) suburbs,” he said.
He jumped right in, painting green for the wild rose leaves and some white outlines. He called the project “useful in getting people out.”
Another painter Robert Guthrie, 13, was visiting his mentor when he spotted the paint session, and he jumped in, too. His hands were covered in white paint when he approached his mother, Renee Bergeron, concerned he’d stain his gym shorts. Bergeron lifted them high, and Guthrie returned to painting.
“He mostly plays basketball, so this is a whole different activity for him,” she said.
Villiard and Zeitgeist also collaborated in 2018 on a temporary street mural in Canal Park, enlisting passersby to participate. We need to look at how we’re structuring our environments, and we need to make them more welcoming, Villiard said.
And that starts by including everyone.
“Duluth has this reputation now as an artsy city, but there’s so much lacking in our arts scene as far as perspectives that involve the community,” she said.
Part of the goal of the creative crosswalks is to address the issue of invisibility of native stories and native history. “I can’t fix the whole neighborhood with public art, but I can at least give opportunity for it to do less harm.”
Villiard grew up in the middle of the woods on the Fond du Lac Reservation. At the end of the school year, she went dumpster diving and found new art supplies, notebooks and hundreds of copies of National Geographic. She taught herself to draw using those images as a guide.
“I’ve only ever learned technique by making mistakes, and I have a natural eye for seeing how things should look,” she said.
A friend and fellow artist Rocky Makes Room For Them asked her to join him in an art show at AICHO when she was 17. She recalled bringing unframed pieces in, and the gallery paying to have them framed.
At AICHO, they started to see that a lot of artists didn’t have the supplies or money to prepare their work for shows, she said. From that grew the arts program, which Villiard would later return to run.
Villiard said she’s always loved being around people and telling stories, and art provided that. People show up when there’s art, food and community, she said.
In college, she moved from black and white drawings to crisp, lifelike and vividly colorful portraitures of Bob Marley, Tupac Shakur, and local faces Adam Sippola and Sandra Oyinloye.
“Portraiture in color is what made me fall in love with painting,” Villiard said.
She was painting and exhibiting a lot around town until she physically couldn’t.
Her wrist became so numb she couldn’t move it, and she eventually had surgery for carpal tunnel, tendinitis and ongoing inflammation around the nerves in 2015.
It was a rough time of change, heartbreak and new beginnings, she said, so she used what she could — her left hand and feet. (Asked if she’s ambidextrous, she said if she needs to be.)
Villiard felt like she lost her voice, and it was frustrating and infuriating starting out. “A lot of tears and kicking and screaming,” she said.
“There’s a partial dissociation working with your nondominant hand, where it doesn’t feel like you. Some parts aren’t as satisfying. It’s like learning a different language.”
Still, Villiard sculpted a portrait of Lauryn Hill with her feet at Chalk.a.Lot in Two Harbors. With her left hand, she painted a stunning, lifelike image of Erykah Badu looking up the canvas.
Villiard has since moved on and has regained the use of her right arm through time and physical therapy.
Her body of work runs the gamut today in posters for Bring Her Home: Stolen Daughters of Turtle Island exhibit, the Duluth Superior Film Festival. ‘
And she’s moved into surrealism.
Her paintings include striking imagery of a fiery red horizon and water pooling around land and sky locked in blue hues with red-outlined bodies, ships nearing in the distance.
A black snake, jagged as if made of lightning, spits out fish from the waters with oil pump jacks in the background.
A self-portrait of Villiard's chin is held high, her hands in a relaxed hold, with designs of a city blocked off on her dress in the vein of Gustav Klimt.
Villiard likes to read about communication, commodity fetishism, the history of objects, and it all goes into her works. She’s now making six paintings that explore human rights with a grant from the Minnesota State Arts Board.
While she works in it, Villiard reflected on the way we talk about art.
English is one of the few languages that has a word for it, she said, and it feels “contaminated” by perception. When you look at most indigenous cultures, there’s no word for it. It’s more about creativity, it’s how we do things, she said.
“It’s embedded in your math, it’s embedded in your science, it’s embedded in all those areas of life.”
If you go
What: Last creative crosswalks community paint
When: 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.
Where: 8th Ave. E. and 7th St.
View other creative crosswalks public art
8th Ave. E. and 10th St.
15th Ave. E. and 6th St.
11th Ave. E. and 5th St.