The SEWARD MONSTERS

Concordia University Seward, Nebraska

The Seward Mural — 9 March 2008

Art teacher and AIGA Nebraska board member Paul Berkbigler invited me to give a workshop to his senior graphic design class at Concordia University in Seward, Nebraska. I’m usually not big on workshops, but I’d been to Nebraska a few times and always love visiting my friends there. I suggested that I paint a mural with the students. It had worked so well in Arizona, and now I had the Monsters to offer. Paul scored us a fine old building in the heart of Seward, and I started designing.

Paul had put together a great little primer on the town for me. Our building faced into the town square, which looked remarkably like Hill Valley in “Back To The Future.” Seeing it in person, I remembered once again that I didn’t actually grow up in the United States. It was a town square straight out of central casting.

For the mural design I decided on a base of parallel stripes, so the Monsters would really pop off the background. Within each stripe was a string of words that reflected a sense of optimism and kindness that was in keeping both with what I try to do and with the mission of the school—onward, upward, skyward, cloudward, hopeward, loveward, lightward, kindward, smartward, yesward, forward, weward, outward, sunward, aweward, graceward, dreamward, and of course, burtward.

As I was finishing the design,  I asked Paul about the history of the building. Turns out it used to be a bar, which seemed like a good fit for the Monsters. “But we’re transforming it into a workshop for liturgical art.” Excuse me? “Altars. Stained glass windows. That sort of thing.” I certainly didn’t want to talk myself out of a gig, but I asked Paul if everybody was OK with putting 20 foot tall Monsters on top of a place that made sacred things. “Churches have gargoyles. We have your monsters.” And there you go. Who could argue with that?


We’d paint this mural a little bit differently than the one in Tucson. Instead of painting directly onto the building, we’d work on aluminum plates cut to size. Those would then be mounted to the building. I asked why we couldn’t just get cherry pickers and work outside? When you spent most of your life hunched over a desk, there is something really nice about working in the fresh spring air. What I didn’t take into account is that March in Nebraska is not spring. Painting inside was a very good idea. I still had to bundle up. The students were much, much tougher than me, as you can see in these shots by Concordia staff photographer Dan Oetting who documented the painting process beautifully, and put together this little slide show:

Mark Anschutz very kindly donated the front of his building for our little painting adventure, figured out all the logistics, and kept us on track with advice and action throughout the process. Thanks to the kindness of its president Max T. Wake, Jones National Bank and Trust Company sponsored the whole affair. Max checked in on us, and had a great sense of humor about the odd creatures he’d made possible.

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As in Tucson, we projected and traced my design, and then filled in the lines in a layers over the course of a few days. The students from Paul’s class did most of the actual painting: Brenda Ard, Kaylee Conrad, Jacob Cooper, Laura Knibbe, Ashley Lenz, Madelyn Lorenzen, Tannon Osten, Michelle Roeber, Lindsay Souchek, and Brittany Tomsick. They were a great group of students, and I’m glad I got to spend time making something with them.

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Throughout the process, people from the community would wander in, and check out what we were up to. I always feel a bit self-conscious when people watch me work, particularly when it’s people with “real” jobs. They’d come in, look around for a bit, they’d nod. I don’t remember any of them really talking to us. Which I immediately read as, “So this is what we’re spending money on now? Great. Damn hippies.” As I was driving to the workshop with Paul Saturday morning, he mentioned that a few of the locals had come in after we’d finished painting Friday afternoon. I broke into a sweat. For a split second I thought that they had hated the mural so much that they had covered up the words, or just whitewashed the whole thing. Which shows you that I have serious issues.

What had actually happened is that a number of volunteers from the faculty and the community at large had seen our work, and felt that we could’ve put the paint on a bit more evenly. Building owner Mark Anschutz, James Bockelman, Donald Dynneson, Tim Oliver, Philip Perschbacher, Brock Shaw, Richard Wiegmann, William Wolfram, and Jeff Voehl simply came in late on Friday to put on a whole second coat. They were there until 1 o’clock at night, continued the next morning and through the afternoon. Painting elves! Can you believe it? I was speechless!

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Of course, once I saw that the mural wasn’t locked in after all, I decided to change the color of the type to make it work better with the newly vibrant background. Everybody pitched in one more time to repaint all the letterforms at the last minute. That’s good humor and generosity right there. The mural went up on the building late in the afternoon as I was racing over to the Concordia campus to set up for my talk that evening. Cory Berkbigler took pictures of the finished thing, so I could unveil it as the highlight of my presentation. There was teamwork all over the place!

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It takes an inordinate amount of effort to pry me away from my desk, but then something lovely like this happens and I wonder why I don’t do it more often. The mural is off the building now, I’m told, but I’m glad it gets to live on here on the site. The whole process was a pleasure and a privilege.

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Did I forget to mention that the monsters glow in the dark? (Though a nearby lantern ruined the effect. Hm.)
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