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Duluth muralist brings movement to her work in recent show

Moira Villiard's “Madweyaashkaa: Waves Can Be Heard” showed the artist's animation on the lock wall at St. Anthony Falls in Minneapolis.

Ahead of her recent show, Moira Villiard sketched what her show "Madweyaashkaa" would look like, an animated mural on the wall at the St. Anthony Falls Lock and Dam, set against the skyline. (Image courtesy of Villiard)

It’s been nearly two weeks since Moira Villiard, a relative newbie to the world of animation, had her first public showcase in the medium — and on the grandest of scales.

“It was so insane,” said the Duluth artist known for her paintings and community murals. “I’ve been working on such a small scale, drawing on an iPad and editing on the computer. Seeing it in the full, 50-foot-high projection — it was wild.”

“Madweyaashkaa: Waves Can Be Heard,” which was available for viewing Feb. 18-20 in Minneapolis, was part of the Illuminate the Lock series that turns the St. Anthony Falls’ lock's wall into a 400-by-49 foot blank slate for visual artists.


The 11-minute piece, which played on a loop during the exhibition, combines Villiard’s colorful visuals, moving variations on the murals she has created in Duluth’s parks and crosswalks, music by Lyz Jaakola and sound design by JayGee. The story — a search for resilience and connection in a “concrete jungle” during a pandemic, and returning to one’s roots — created and spoken by Dakota/Ojibway First Nation elder Millie Richard.

It is part of All My Relations Arts’ ongoing “Bring Her Home: Sacred Womxn of Resistance” series of exhibitions — and was a partnership that included Northern, Mississippi National River and Recreation Area and Mississippi Park Connection with a grant from the St. Anthony Falls Heritage Board.

Villiard said she began working on her animation skills this past fall.

“It’s magical,” she said. “You see the stuff come to life, and it makes it extra worthwhile.”

While working on the project, she was paired with Duluth artist Jonathon Thunder, who has a background in digital work in addition to being a fine art-surrealist painter, and who she already considers a mentor.

"Madweyaashkaa: Waves Can Be Heard" by Duluth artist Moira Villiard was shown on the lock at St. Anthony Falls in Minneapolis in mid-February. The project was produced by Northern, All My Relations Arts, Mississippi Park Connection and National Park Service with support from the St. Anthony Falls Heritage Board. (Photo by Nedahness Greene)

Lock stories

An aside about Villiard’s friendship with Thunder: Years ago when she decided she wanted to explore the Twin Cities, he took her to the lock and dam area that ended up being her canvas for this show.


She recalled wondering about the fish at the time — where they go when the wall goes up and down. She would later incorporate those mystery fish into her piece — alongside a rare loon she saw swimming in the lock area on a return visit.

“It was fishing, so that answers my fish question,” Villiard said.

This area has been the backdrop for a few Minnesota artists in recent years, starting with Aaron Dysart’s “Surface.”

According to a 2017 story from Minnesota Public Radio, Dysart wanted to celebrate the space within the space, so he filed a Freedom of Information Request to get a look at the log books kept by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers — 10,000 pages of data. He graphed water levels and then used the information to create a light show. Andrea Carlson followed with “The Uncompromising Hand,” which considered the history demolition of Spirit Island, that was removed by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

Among Carlson’s projections: the words “Spirit Island was a sacred place for the Dakota people.”

Moira Villiard's first major animation show had a large-scale backdrop. "Madweyaashkaa: Waves Can Be Heard" was shown on the lock at St. Anthony Falls in Minneapolis in mid-February. (Photo by Nedahness Greene)

Creating ‘Madweyaashkaa”

Villiard said she offered Richard a prompt — disconnect during the pandemic — and received from the storyteller 40 minutes of unscripted narration. She did the same with Jaakola, a well-known local musician, and then JayGee put the soundscape together.


Villiard’s images were in response to Richard’s words, frame by frame, a style she described as old-school Disney animation. She brought in the fish and the loon, a grandmotherly moon, waves and fire.

Sarah Peters, of Northern, described the site as formidable, a giant concrete chamber, an elevator for boats over the falls. There is fencing to keep people out, and it’s not easily navigable.

“(It has) a very industrial feel,” Peters said. “The story that was being told, through the imagery and the sound, was the opposite, sensually, of the space that is hard and concrete and kind of dangerous.

“It’s the kind of narrative that isn’t told in that place. It’s the kind of narrative that was ignored through colonial attitudes that allowed that place to be made. There’s a different story going on here that has always existed and will forever.”

The finished project was ever-changing, Villiard said, with the way the falls are set against the city’s skyline. The shows started at sunset on three nights, which offered a fluid backdrop.

“The sky is changing with the art, and the waterfall behind it is making water sounds that get added to the sound effects that JayGee added,” she said. “Everything was changing all around it. “Even though it’s only a 10-minute loop, you can experience it in a different way because the environment was changing all the time.”

Peters said that about 2,500 people visited the exhibition — which included guidelines on where to walk and when — and for many, it was a first event since the pandemic shut down much of the arts.

Villiard was surprised by the turnout during what she described as “miserable (weather) conditions.”

While some Duluth friends made a weekend of it, Villiard wants to bring “Madweyaashkaa” back home. She’s in search of a blank wall to fill with it.

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