Painter brings life to Menno with murals, other work
MENNO -- Flowers in Menno's city garden blend seamlessly into a colorful mural of a pioneer farmer breaking the prairie with horse and plow.
Menno's main thoroughfare on Fifth Street is like many rural communities' downtowns -- "in need of some new life," said Karen Dolan, member of Menno Community Club.
Dolan and her sister-in-law, Sharon Guthmiller, volunteered about three years ago to use a vacant lot downtown for a community flower garden.
"We brought it up one night, wondering if anyone would appreciate an empty lot turned into a flower garden," Dolan said. "Everyone kind of liked the idea and said, 'Yeah, that'd be nice.' "
The garden flourished with lilies, roses and black-eyed susans, among other plants, and the community loved it.
Dolan said passersby would compliment how the garden enhanced downtown and started sending donations to the community club. Eventually, the club was able to purchase and install a black, wrought iron fence to enclose the garden, which is located between Smidt Appliance & Furniture and Zeeb Insurance.
Enter Mickey Harris, a professional airbrush painter who has works of art displayed around the country. Harris moved to Menno about three years ago after having fallen in love with South Dakota, particularly its residents.
Harris rents a studio space in the south end of the Smidt Appliance building, which abuts the community garden.
"I saw a '60 Minutes' program about a little town in Texas that was dying, like small towns slowly are," he said. "An artist moved in and retired from New York, and started an art gallery. A couple of his buddies came to town too. It became successful."
Harris thought about how he could, as an artist, attract people to Menno. If a small town in Texas could become an art destination and spawn ice cream parlors, coffee shops and other new business, why couldn't Menno?
The flower garden next to his studio became an inspiration and incorporation. Murals popped to his mind.
Harris got permission to paint a mural on the south end of the Smidt building. It depicts a pioneer farmer breaking the prairie with a plow and horse. The farmer's wife holds a lunch pail with the farmhouse and buildings in the background.
"It's definitely enhancing downtown," Dolan said. "He designed the mural so it looks like part of the garden scene. So, he enhanced our garden, too."
Soon after Harris finished the mural this spring, Rocky Zeeb, owner of Zeeb Insurance, commissioned Harris to create a mural on the north side of his building, which also adjacent to the garden.
Harris recently completed a cattle drive scene, in which is a modified cowboy with a mixture of vintage and modern attire, and cattle with an RZ brand.
"With the city garden in the middle of the buildings, the mural kind of bookends the garden," Zeeb said. "It brings color to main street in Menno."
The hope of many is the murals will make Menno a mini-tourist destination.
Harris started airbrush painting on T-shirts when he was 19 on the beaches of Florida.
"And I never looked back. I've been airbrushing for all that time," he said. "Since 1977."
In the winter, he would also paint on vans or Harley motorcycles. About 10 years into his profession, Harris decided to ditch the T-shirts and focus on vehicles.
Harris was born in Oklahoma, but moved around during childhood as he was "an Air Force brat," he said. The military etched an impression on Harris, and it shows in his artwork. As his profession evolved, Harris became a part of the Pentagon Art Program. Seven of his paintings hang in the Pentagon, the nation's military headquarters.
"Mostly, they're of aircraft for the Air Force program," he said.
The paintings include one of the Memphis Belle, two of the last convoy coming out of Iraq and air cover above it, an air raid on the sand missile site in Lybia, and some of World War I.
"The Pentagon is the largest art gallery in the nation," he said. "Just in the Air Force section it has well over 2,000 paintings. There are 3,000 miles of hallways in the Pentagon."
Many of the paintings are loaned out on tour around the U.S., however. He said there's a constant turnover, which is an interesting part of the program.
Many in and around town have asked Harris why he chose Menno. He moved to South Dakota from Tennessee because South Dakota is quieter and has a low crime rate, among many other reasons. But residents don't quite seem to believe him.
"I think sometimes people don't realize how good they actually have it here. It's like stepping back into the 1950s. It's like Mayberry," he said with a chuckle. "They won't believe me, so I tell people I'm in the witness protection program."
Brett Haberman, co-owner of Classic Collision body shop in Menno, hired Harris several years ago to specially paint a design on car for an auction. Harris came back three to four times a year for projects and that's how he fell in love with South Dakota, Haberman said.
Most recently, Harris painted a scene depicting the story of Marcus Luttrell, the only survivor of a four-man Navy SEAL team assigned to kill or capture a known terrorist. The story has most recently been told in the movie "Lone Survivor," which starred Mark Wahlberg.
The car he painted was contracted through Classic Collision and will be auctioned off to raise money for Luttrell's Lone Survivor Foundation, which helps wounded service members and their families, according to the foundation's website.
Haberman said Harris' murals have already drawn people to town. Harris has also painted many business signs, the town's two welcome signs and other art in town like saw blades, mail boxes and old barn doors.
"This is just one of the avenues we are fortunate to have Mickey living in town," said Darrell Mehlhaf, Menno's mayor. "He's taken it upon himself to help the city out as far as drawing the name of Menno to people interested in art. Any commerce in town is always welcome."
Harris said he is working with Menno Co-op Lumber, which sits along abandoned train tracks, to paint a mural on its building of a late 19-century train pulling into town.
Harris' goal in painting murals around town is to help the community.
"I want to create a unique place to come to. Just trying to tell the history is great. It makes the people proud of their history," he said. "It's something to see that's need and cool."
Harris' contributions to the community and surrounding area won't stop at the murals. He is currently working with Chad Guthmiller, of Scotland, an artist who works with concrete.
Eventually, Harris plans to open an art gallery.
He is hopeful the combined efforts of artists and the community will continue to bring people to Menno, whether it's for a day trip or a group of tourists stopping through. And it all started with a few flowers planted in an empty lot in downtown Menno.
"We had four people come through, a team up from Nebraska. They just came up to see the murals," Harris said. "Then they went to the diner to eat, so there's our first tourist dollars."