In 2005, a doctor told Don Esse he had 18 months to live. Now, 11 years after the diagnosis of terminal stage-four colon cancer, Esse is not only cancer-free, but also just completed a seven-month-long art project with the Duluth Entertainment Convention Center.

"Somehow, the chemotherapy drugs that I got managed to destroy the cancer," Esse said. "So here I am today - 11 years later. I shouldn't even be here."

In mid-July, Esse, a Duluth native who lives in Coon Rapids, Minn., completed nine original paintings of iconic celebrities who have performed at the DECC Arena over the past 50 years. These paintings will be reproduced as murals around the DECC Arena.

The DECC will unveil its new artwork at an open house celebrating its 50th anniversary on Saturday from 3-6 p.m. The murals picture Bob Dylan, Elvis Presley, Cher, Neil Diamond, James Taylor, Aerosmith, James Brown, Kiss and Johnny Cash, Esse said.

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A painting by Duluth native Don Esse depicts James Brown. Mural reproductions of Esse's paintings of iconic celebrities who have performed at the Duluth Entertainment Convention Center are being hung at the DECC Arena. (submitted photo)
A painting by Duluth native Don Esse depicts James Brown. Mural reproductions of Esse's paintings of iconic celebrities who have performed at the Duluth Entertainment Convention Center are being hung at the DECC Arena. (submitted photo)

Esse said he plans to sell the original paintings with the proceeds going to the American Cancer Society. The originals are oil on canvas and vary in size from 18 inches by 3 feet to 2 feet by 3 feet.

Dan Russell, DECC executive director, said when University of Minnesota Duluth moved its memorabilia from the oak cases at the DECC Arena to the Amsoil Arena, it left space for the murals. Those areas were renovated to accommodate the new artwork.

"It goes all the way from when Elvis was here in 1977, and the latest would be Cher in 2004," Russell said. "They're absolutely spectacular."

At 50 years old, Russell said the DECC Arena is one of a kind. Other large event arenas, such as the Metrodome in Minneapolis, have been torn down because they were deemed too old for use. Now most stadiums have a shelf life of about 20 years, Russell said.

"Stadiums just don't last that long anymore," he said. "(The DECC Arena is) still used all the time."

A painting by Duluth native Don Esse depicts James Taylor. Mural reproductions of Esse's paintings of iconic celebrities who have performed at the Duluth Entertainment Convention Center are being hung at the DECC Arena. (submitted photo)
A painting by Duluth native Don Esse depicts James Taylor. Mural reproductions of Esse's paintings of iconic celebrities who have performed at the Duluth Entertainment Convention Center are being hung at the DECC Arena. (submitted photo)

Russell said the murals honor the Arena's history.

Esse freelanced for the DECC for 25 years, doing design work for posters and advertisements. The murals in Amsoil Arena are Esse's work, Russell said. Russell approached Esse about taking on the DECC Arena mural project in January, he said.

Esse, who has been a painter for 38 years, painted the portraits by working from reference images of the icons taken around the time they performed at the DECC.

"The tricky part was finding images that really portrayed the character and spirit of people we depicted," Esse said. "I spent a lot of time putting detail into the eyes."

Once the paintings were complete, CPL Imaging scanned the paintings to create a digital, printable version.

Advanced Awning and Signs in Cloquet took those digital files and printed them on large sheets of high-quality paper, which were placed on the Arena walls earlier this week. The DECC will cover the artwork with lexan, a thick, protective plastic, Russell said.

Esse said he adjusted his painting technique, keeping in mind these images would be enlarged significantly. He used loose brush strokes, inspired by favorite artist Norman Rockwell, he said.

"My years of graphic arts and design kind of paid off here," Esse said. "In my career, I've done many, many billboards. When you do those kinds of things, you have to keep in mind what the image is going to look like blown up."

The project was not without challenges. Seven months is a short deadline for nine paintings, he said. In addition, as a result of a surgery Esse had while fighting cancer, Esse said sitting at the easel for long periods of time was like a physical endurance challenge.

Russell, who is a longtime friend of Esse, said Esse is one of his personal heroes.

"He truly is a remarkable artist," Russell said. "I think there's really going to be a demand for the originals."

Esse said he hopes to sell the paintings for a minimum of $1,000 each.

Raising money for research in new cancer-fighting technology and drugs truly helps, Esse said. During his treatment, Esse said one of the drugs he took completed a clinical trial just a year before he was diagnosed.

"That was a pretty significant factor in my survival," he said of the drug.

Esse said he lost friends and family members to cancer. Esse's mother and brother also fought stage-four cancer and survived.

Although Esse said he originally thought he would sell the paintings for profit, he changed his mind.

"I started thinking this may be my one shot to do something bigger than myself," Esse said. "In your life, if you're lucky, you get the chance to help somebody."