In early October, the large curtain draped over the stationary train car at the Northern Pacific Depot downtown caused anyone walking or driving past it to wonder, “What’s going on under there?”
Was it maintenance? Was it a brand new coat of dark green paint? For a train car that’s nearly 120 years old, those explanations seemed plausible. The longer the car was covered, the more people wondered.
But on the morning of Oct. 18, a group of excited community members stood in the depot parking lot, shivering but smiling, as the Fargo Park District and the Fargo-Moorhead Convention and Visitors Bureau revealed that under the curtain was Fargo’s newest outdoor art installation.
“Our hope is to display a piece that showcases the spirit of our community, the Fargo people and the downtown area in a setting that is truly ‘North of Normal,'” said Carolyn Boutain, director of cultural activities at the Fargo Park District.
When the curtain fell, the crowd cheered as a mural with a bright yellow and orange bison and the words “Greetings from Fargo” made their big debut.
Among the excited crowd members was Fargo artist Steve Knutson, who stood in awe as he saw his artwork on the 80-foot-long train car for the first time.
“I was amazed, but not by my own work,” Knutson shared over a cup of coffee. “I was amazed at what a great job Office Sign Company did (with the physical installation). I knew it would be great, but it exceeded my expectations. I could see all of the textures, all of my brush strokes. It’s very humbling.”
The Fargo Park District and the F-M CVB sent out a call for artists in June seeking to commission a design that would represent Fargo and encourage visitors to take selfies with the hashtag #GreetingsFromFargo.
A committee with representation from the Fargo Park District, the F-M CVB and The Arts Partnership selected Knutson’s work from a pool of three other applicants.
Knutson’s design is purposely vibrant yet simple so it can be digested quickly but maintain a welcoming presence, he says.
To create the mock-up, Knutson says he had to move his entire studio around to ensure the “super long” painting was produced to scale.
The mock-up was then scanned, printed in a series of panels at Knight Printing and installed by Office Sign Company last month.
“It wasn’t just one guy with a paint brush,” Knutson says. “It was really collaborative. I appreciated that everyone treated the piece with respect and gave it a voice.”
The “Greetings from Fargo” installation isn’t the first piece inspired by Knutson’s home state.
In fact, all of the art the Minot native creates encompasses North Dakota in some way — whether it’s landscapes (both rural and urban) or state icons like meadowlarks, bison or even Teddy Roosevelt.
“My mission has always been to give North Dakota an iconic vision that makes people excited about where they are,” Knutson says.
But the bison that appear in his work, like the one on the train car, are particularly special to him — and it’s not because of the NDSU Bison.
As a child, Knutson remembers visiting a family friend’s bison farm in Max, North Dakota, and coming across bison while camping in the Badlands.
As an artist, he now pays homage to the bison and its intense history of becoming nearly extinct in the late 19th century due to commercial hunting.
“(My painted bison) may look vibrant, but there’s more to it,” he says. “The more that I study our state’s history and paint our icons, the more appreciative I become of it.”
Knutson’s artwork will be exhibited on the train car for at least three years. After that time, the Fargo Park District and the F-M CVB will evaluate the program and determine the next use of the trains.
Steve Knutson currently teaches art at Discovery Middle School. His artwork can be seen in various businesses and galleries throughout North Dakota and the United States.
To view more of his work, visit steveknutsonart.com.
This article is part of a content partnership with the Fargo Forum and originally appeared in print on Monday, November 6, 2017.