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'Full-blown community effort' key to bringing two-story downtown Kimball mural to life

Artist, high school students, residents, businesses come together on art project

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Kenzee Schafer works on a building mural in downtown Kimball. The Wessington Springs native was recruited for the project by community leaders.
Adam Thury / Mitchell Republic
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KIMBALL, S.D. — Kenzee Schafer works perched atop a scaffolding in downtown Kimball. She applies paint to the south side of a two-story building, bringing the beginning of a rural, pastoral scene to life as a few admirers gather on the ground below.

It’s not the first time people have stopped to watch her work.

“I’ve had a few people stop by,” Schafer told the Mitchell Republic during a break in her painting. “They all seem pretty excited. I think it’s being received well. I get a few people driving by awfully slow.”

Schafer is in town at the behest of the Kimball Chamber of Commerce, who arranged for her to paint the mural on the Main Street building that houses NorthWestern Energy and Crazy 8’s Creations after considering the community beautification project for some time. When the chance came up to recruit Schafer and her talents to the effort, it came closer to becoming reality.

“It was something that I had wanted to do and when I got on the chamber I brought it up, and the whole board was 100% on board,” said Amy Gough, who handles marketing for the Kimball Chamber of Commerce.

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Recruiting an artist

The organization had a goal, but they needed an artist.

Fortunately, Gough happened to run into Schafer at Mitchell Technical College, where Schafer, a 2021 graduate of Wessington Springs High School, is studies business management and Gough works as an instructional media specialist.

The two happened to work together on a Christmas decorating committee at the school, and that’s when Gough first laid eyes on Schafer’s artwork. Gough remembered her when she became a member of the Kimball Chamber of Commerce and recommended her for the job.

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Kenzee Schafer, a Wessington Springs native, is painting a mural in downtown Kimball.
Adam Thury / Mitchell Republic

Schafer has been painting since she was young. Growing up in Wessington Springs, she gained inspiration from her mother, who fostered her art skills, and her high school art teacher, who helped refine her talents. She works in many mediums, including paint, pencil drawings and ink.

In 2020, as a junior, she took first place in the Congressional Art Competition for South Dakota. Her winning painting, titled “Pride,” was completed with oil and acrylic paints and depicts a stoic-looking young woman with long dark hair and skin with patterned face paint around the left side of her face. The painting hung in the Cannon Tunnel in the U.S. Capitol building.

Schafer said Gough reached out to her about the project and she decided to jump on board.

“She emailed me and was just kind of wondering if I’d be interested in the job,” Schafer said.

Finding inspiration

Gough approached the local high school art class about coming up with potential ideas for the mural. The class, taught by Kamden Miller and consisting of 22 freshman and sophomore students, was asked to come up with concepts Gough could present to Kimball city leaders for review.

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“As a class, we walked to the location to visualize the size and take a picture. I added it as an assignment for everyone, instructing them to incorporate at least three illustrations that represent Kimball,” Miller said in an email.

The students took their inspiration from common sights around the small community, including pheasants, crops and local sports.

“It is interesting to note that all 22 designs included a crop. The vast majority also included a pheasant or a hunting dog. Favorite sports were also frequently highlighted,” Miller said.

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Kenzee Schafer took the design ideas of the local high school art class to create the scene that will appear on the building.
Adam Thury / Mitchell Republic

They scanned the artwork and used Photoshop to overlay the designs onto the photo they had taken on location and then passed the final products on to Gough and city officials.

The Kimball Chamber of Commerce and Miller’s art students were a part of the project. Then, it was time to get the entire community involved, Gough said. After receiving the students’ work and reviewing each, they posted the images online for community members to see and select their favorites.

“We had deer, we had all kinds of stuff,” Gough said of the submissions. “So what we did is put it up on the town Facebook page and the town as a whole got to vote."

The top three choices were then presented to Schafer, who used her creative talent to create an amalgam of the most popular images, which she is now applying in colorful paint to the Main Street building.

“We took the top three and she combined that together,” Gough said.

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The final work will feature imagery that would definitely be common in rural Kimball: a sunset, a farm scene with a combine, tractor and grain wagon and pheasants in a wheat field, Schafer said.

She has been working on the mural in the early morning and evening hours to avoid the intense heat wave and the prairie winds. She has been camping in Kimball instead of driving back and forth to Mitchell every day, making her a temporary resident in the community that has embraced her and her artwork.

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Kenzee Schafer works on a mural that will depict rural images of Kimball Wednesday, July 20.
Adam Thury / Mitchell Republic

Schafer estimates that she has done eight or nine similar murals for various organizations, and this one is expected to feature her trademark detail and color.

“I like to use more bold colors. Not always vibrant, just bold colors that are pretty cohesive. Not every color of the rainbow, but enough to make an impact,” Schafer said.

Community support

The community has continued to step up to help with the project, Gough said. Local businesses have sponsored Schafer to offer payment for her services and her camping accommodations. Businesses that have jumped on board include CaseIH, Christiansen Land & Cattle, Titan Machinery as well as the city of Kimball and the Kimball Chamber of Commerce. Paint for the project came from Michelle’s Market.

What started out as a relatively simple downtown beautification project has turned into a full-blown community effort, Gough said, with local dignitaries stopping by and residents bringing her food.

“It’s been amazing and I can’t believe the support. I drove by yesterday and we had a crowd of people looking at it. I told her she would probably get a lot of questions,” Gough said. “The mayor introduced himself. She got a ham sandwich out of it.”

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Kenzee Schafer applies paint to a mural Wednesday, July 20 in downtown Kimball.
Adam Thury / Mitchell Republic

Once the mural is completed, the vacant lot on the south side of the building will be turned into a picnic spot, which is also being sponsored by Michelle’s Market, Gough said. It will turn a nondescript part of downtown into a little gathering spot for community members and visitors alike.

Future plans

Plans have come together so well that Gough said there could be more painting projects in the future.

“We’ve talked about it. We wouldn’t do it every year, but we talked about maybe something at our pool as well. It’s something we would look at again in a few years,” Gough said.

Montage will depict notable scenes from Bon Homme County community.

Schafer estimates she should finish up the mural in a few weeks, and then she plans to return to Mitchell to continue her studies at Mitchell Technical College. Despite her popularity as a mural artist, she is not entirely sure what her future is in the art world, though she knows it will continue to be a part of her life in some form.

“The goal at the moment is to get through school. But beyond that, I’m not quite sure. I know I want to do something art-related. Probably not full-time painting, but it’s still an option,” Schafer said.

Schafer is a talented artist who comes off as humble about her talents, and Gough suspects there is a big future ahead for her. Her work has already adorned many other buildings as well as the halls of the United States Capitol, and now a piece of her work will adorn a downtown building in Kimball.

Gough says that will be another point of pride for Kimball, the residents of which rallied to make the project a reality.

“Someday we’re going to be even prouder of the fact that we have a piece of her art, because she’s going places. She’s amazing,” Gough said.

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Kenzee Schafer, a Wessington Springs native and student at Mitchell Technical College, works on a building mural Wednesday, July 20 in downtown Kimball.
Adam Thury / Mitchell Republic

Erik Kaufman joined the Mitchell Republic in July of 2019 as an education and features reporter. He grew up in Freeman, S.D., graduating from Freeman High School. He graduated from the University of South Dakota in 1999 with a major in English and a minor in computer science. He can be reached at ekaufman@mitchellrepublic.com.
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