Listen: Good Thunder grain elevator getting a mural

MPR’s John Biewen produced the very first report of Mainstreet Radio. Biewen visits the southern Minnesota town of Good Thunder, where artist Ta-coumba Aiken was commissioned to create a massive mural along the grain elevator in town. The hope is it will help in keeping Good Thunder on the map.


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[DOG BARKING] JOHN BIEWEN: Until Ta-coumba Aiken came to town, Good Thunder was an ordinary looking community of about 600 people. But Aiken, a Saint Paul artist, has spent most of the summer here making history, painting it to be precise. Riding up and down in the bucket of a hydraulic lift and using hundreds of gallons of paint, Aiken has covered Good Thunder's 80-foot grain elevator with pictures depicting the town's history.

TA-COUMBA AIKEN: It's sort of like a time machine kind of thing. You can just jump from one time period to another.

JOHN BIEWEN: First, Aiken painted a 40-foot high portrait of Good Thunder, a Dakota Indian after whom the town is named. He then added other scenes that overlap and blend into one another, a turn-of-the-century grain binder drawn by horses, and a recent tractorcade, a Winnebago Indian campsite from the 1850s, and an old hotel that burned down in the '20s, and one surrealistic painting of corn stalks shooting out from the monitor of a computer while children look on. Aiken has painted dozens of murals, mostly in the Twin Cities, but says this is by far the biggest and most challenging project of his career.

TA-COUMBA AIKEN: I wanted to do something on grain elevators because I wanted to pay some homage to the farmers of America. And I always thought that grain elevators were the Oscars of the farming community, these statues, these monoliths that stand up and say, we did it. We fought all kinds of weather to do it. And this is where we store it.

JOHN BIEWEN: Aiken was commissioned to paint the mural by the Good Thunder Development Corporation, a local body of community leaders. The group's coordinator and the driving force behind the project is Ann Christenson.

ANN CHRISTENSON: I guess I'll have to take the credit or the blame for that.

JOHN BIEWEN: Christenson entered the mural idea last spring in something called the Picture It Painted competition, sponsored jointly by the Minnesota Department of Trade and Economic Development and Valspar Paint Company. Good Thunder was awarded 11,000 gallons of paint for the project. And with some individual and business donations, Aiken went to work in August. So far, the people of Good Thunder seem to what they see. Linda Hiller and Arla Sohre work in the Main Street Cafe.

LINDA HILLER: It's neat, unique. What else? I'm proud of it.

ARLA SOHRE: I think it's beautiful for our small town. And you can see it for about two miles if you come in on 66. And the people that it's brought into town, they're just lined up here like last Sunday with their cameras and just taking pictures all over.

JOHN BIEWEN: But project coordinator Christenson says the mural painting is not only art for art's sake. She hopes it will draw attention to Good Thunder as a potential rural arts center.

ANN CHRISTENSON: We do have a name that is marketable. We feel that Good Thunder is a name that people remember when they've heard it. And in the past, we've had some artists living in town, potters. We had some fine antique stores. None of those are any longer here. But we felt that we could rebuild, revitalize that arts environment and try to expand on it.

JOHN BIEWEN: Christenson says the Good Thunder Development Corporation is now surveying state artists to gauge their interest in teaching, learning, or making art in a town like Good Thunder. Whether Good Thunder will become a thriving arts center remains to be seen. But most everyone in town seems to think it's worth a try, even Bob Walters, who owns the Good Thunder Feed and Grain Company and allowed the mural to be painted on his elevator.

BOB WALTERS: You know as well as I know, small towns, there's not too much left of them. And maybe this is the route that we do have to go, even though art and I don't see eye to eye. But maybe this is the route we have to go to keep Good Thunder on the map.

JOHN BIEWEN: Painter Ta-coumba Aiken will have to come back next spring to finish his mural. But the project may already have brought one new taxpaying artist to Good Thunder. Aiken himself says he's thinking of buying a house in the area. In Good Thunder, I'm John Biewen.

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