St. Paul artist follows through on dream with mural depicting history of WestRock paper mill

Richard Reeve
Updated: October 29, 2020 10:42 PM
Created: October 29, 2020 10:37 PM

If beauty is in the eyes of the beholder, St. Paul artist Erik Pearson has taken that phrase to heart with his latest work.

"I've done over two dozen murals, paintings, sculptures, a little bit of everything,” he says. “And then I would see that wall, and I would just think, ‘I need to paint that.’”

That wall is a 200-foot-long concrete slab outside the WestRock paper mill along Vandalia Avenue. For as long as anyone can remember, it’s been a blank canvas. Until now.

“(He) said, I’ve got a vision,” WestRock Plant General Manager Mike Gunderson said. “I’ve been driving past this wall every day for years, and I am compelled to paint a story on this wall.”

Finally, after 13 years of dreaming, Pearson, with the help of a Knight Foundation grant and a $10,000 contribution from WestRock’s former owner, was able to raise the $50,000 cost of the project.

"You just find different areas to just kind of use your vision, and they're all connected,” Pearson said. “To be able to not just put some artwork on the wall, but also to be able to tell a story that’s accurate to what happens in this plant.”

Pearson started last spring, scouring almost every inch of the plant.

“I took a lot of photos,” he said. “I wanted the mural to represent what was happening inside the plant. The recycling process, and to show what some of the machinery was, because everybody wants to know what's here."

Then, on Aug. 27, he went to work.

“Started with intense heat and humidity, and ended with snow,” Pearson said.

The job took 60 gallons of paint, elbow grease and determination.

"He has been out there like a soldier, really,” Gunderson said. “Fifty-three days in a row, working on this project." 

Pearson embarked on a pictorial journey to tell the story of this plant, from its beginnings in the early 1900s.

“The first part of that mural shows sort of the 1920s history of the paper drives, with the neighborhoods, and the Boy Scouts." he said.

While the mural is a showcase of history, it also, in that 1920s style, evokes pride in a hard day’s work.

But there’s also a bittersweet chapter here involving some of St. Paul’s bravest.

“I think it’s a beautiful tribute to those members that died back in June of ’49,” retired St. Paul firefighter Paul Barrett said.

One section of the mural honors three St. Paul firefighters who lost their lives here, on June 9th, 1949. 

"Paper bales, it was in a warehouse, and it had been burning itself,” said Barrett, who’s tracked the history of the fire department.  

He says with that blaze under control, then-Fire Chief Edward Novak, Assistant Chief Frank McMahon and District Chief Harold Barck were killed after they went inside.

"The three chiefs came inside just to kind of inspect, make sure everything was good and stuff,” Barrett said. “And there was just a collapse of the wall and stuff because of the paper and that."

All of this — the tragedies and triumphs of 115 years. A record made with paint and brush that, perhaps, future generations can learn from.

“The St. Paul mill absolutely has a rich history, going back a hundred years,” Gunderson says. “This is one of the most unique areas in the Twin Cities, certainly in St. Paul, where you got the mixture of art as well as industry.”

Pearson finished painting the mural in just the last few weeks. He and WestRock officials are deciding whether to add sealant to the piece to protect it from road salt and other materials kicked up from the street.

Gunderson says he’s planning a special celebration to honor Pearson’s work sometime in the near future.

"I have to give them a little glimpse into what's going on behind these walls,” Pearson says. “I just want the bright colors to add a contrast to sort of the industrial neighborhood. Just give a little warmth and a little joy."

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