Reflections on Joel Jonientz

It’s been four years since Joel Jonientz died. This is a long time under any circumstances, but these days four years ago feels like a completely different world to me. Maybe some of this has to do with the “sold” sign on the Jonientz house down the street. Maybe some of this has to do with just getting older. Maybe some of this reflects the relentless pace of change that even encroaches on my little corner of North Dakotaland.

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Recently, I’ve been thinking about collaboration and work at the University of North Dakota, and these are things that Joel and I talked about regularly. I was particularly interested in understand what a university could do (and should do) to cultivate a spirit of collaboration among its faculty. Joel was a veteran collaborator across UND’s campus who was part of the Working Group in Digital and New Media, co-organized the UND Arts and Culture Conference, worked with the UND Writers Conference to design their posters and to moderate panels, applied (and won) collaborative grants to animate Maya poetry, and who helped me co-found The Digital Press at the University of North Dakota. 

There were particular circumstances that allowed for the emergence of collaborative culture on UND’s campus in those days. First, there was relative stability on campus which gave faculty the confidence that collaborative initiatives would have the time and space to develop. Second, there were resources earmarked for grassroots collaborative ventures that authorized faculty led initiatives. Finally, there was a spirit of collegiality among faculty that softened our competitive instincts. In other words, there were institutional, financial, and social conditions that encouraged the development of collaboration.  

Despite the opportunities to collaborate, I remained a bit more tentative in my approach to on-campus partnerships. I had long-justified my reluctance to embrace collaboration fully as having a rather specialized set of research interests and also being relatively slow to pivot from one area of interest to the next. Joel in contrast, always demonstrated a kind of dynamism that allowed up to cultivate multiple niches from video game designer to poster maker, painter, time-based media artist, and publisher. These skills, which derive – as he used to put it – from being a “Master of FINE Arts” gave him a tool set that was both in demand and well-suited for collaboration.

(In hindsight, I probably didn’t quite understand how to collaborate on campus and how to listen as much as I spoke. I probably don’t quite have the balance for that down yet, but I’m working on it.)

One of the key things that got me thinking about Joel’s attitudes toward collaboration and the conditions that allowed collaboration to flourish among my group of colleagues is a recent post from a colleague that said, in effect, “no one should be allowed to work for free.” It echoed a quip I once heard from a faculty member in engineering. He said that over the summer, “I don’t work because I don’t get paid.” 

This struck me as a bit odd. After all, most academics work for free over the course of their careers. In fact, the entire pay structure of academia, in which some faculty make more than others for doing essentially the same job, dictates that one persons work is worth more (and worse less) than another’s. So as long as I do the same job as my better compensated colleagues, I am, in effect, doing work for free in the hope that my efforts will be recognized and, at some future time, compensated.

Joel tended to insist that he be compensated for his work, except when he didn’t. For example, he did most of the design and layout work for my Punk Archaeology project for free. I never really understood how he determined what he expected to be paid for and what he’d do because it was fun, and what he considered contract work and what he considered collaboration. I’m sure the line was blurry, but I also suspect – in hindsight – that it had something to do with how he valued the work.

Collaboration, it seems to me, involves both parties valuing the work more or less equally. It is possible, then, to “work for free” because the work itself has value outside of or beyond compensation. For this kind of system to function, there needs to be a tremendous amount of trust between collaborators as well as the practical recognition that the project will benefit all parties. This kind of trust develops most fully in stable environments, where access to resources softens the edge of competition that so much of academia cultivates. 

I’m still working on collaborative projects. Eric Burin and I work together to publish timely works at The Digital Press. Paul Worley and I have been working with a group of editors to keep North Dakota Quarterly thriving. I work with David Pettegrew, Scott Moore, Amy PapalexandrouDimitri Nakassis, Sarah James, and others every summer on archaeological projects. I’m enjoying tremendously the collaboration with students and colleagues on the Wesley College Documentation Project. My work with Richard Rothaus and Bret Weber on the North Dakota Man Camp Project is a source of constant excitement.

I like to think that these collaboration share Joel’s spirit in some ways, but I also can’t help but wonder whether there would be more or different opportunities if Joel was still around. 

 

 

 

 

 

Snichimal Vayuchil

It is pretty exciting to announce the paper publication of the first volume of the new North Dakota Quarterly Supplement Series. This series is a collaboration with The Digital Press at the University of North Dakota designed to provide a bit more space for poetry, fiction, or other creative projects that embrace the same values as the Quarterly, but can also stand on their own. The books will be available as open access digital downloads and print-on-demand paperback.

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The first in this series is Paul Worley’s edited and translated collection of Tsotsil Mayan poetry, Snichimal Vayuchil, which has a new introduction by Gloria E. Chacón. 

You can download or purchase the book from the NDQ site here or from The Digital Press at the University of North Dakota site here

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This project has had a special place in my heart because it involves a collaboration with Paul Worley. Five years ago, UND had this gaggle of ambitious and creative junior scholars: Paul Worley, Kyle Conway, Brett Ommen, Crystal Alberts, Mike Wittgraf, and Joel Jonientz. I was lucky enough to hang out with them and, from time to time, scheme and dream up projects.

In fact, The Digital Press at the University of North Dakota was a project that Joel Jonientz and Kyle Conway and I dreamt up together, and from its earliest days we had envisioned that Paul Worley would have some part in it. (Actually, I still want to publish a series of old baseball manuals with some historical introductions… I wonder if there exist manuals in Spanish, from Mexico or the Dominican Republic or Cuba that Paul could translate and edit?).

As readers of this blog know, Joel Jonientz died four years ago, Paul Worley, Kyle Conway, and Bret Ommen left UND, Crystal Alberts and Mike Wittgraf are still around and when I get a chance, we catch up and still scheme a little. Kyle Conway and I still work closely together on The Digital Press. But none of our collaboration has the same kind of frenetic energy. Maybe it’s because we lack the critical mass of people here in Grand Forks, maybe because we’ve settled into our mid-career malaise, or maybe just because we don’t see each other every weekend, but we haven’t really collaborated like we used to.

This book with Paul Worley, reminded me of those days when we used to scheme up big plans over beers and bitch about things we couldn’t change. I think you’ll see that Paul and I find some ways to collaborate more over the next few years. And who knows, maybe a enough of the old energy is still around to bring the gang back together. (I’m thinking the first Maya Language Space Opera… ) 

 

 

Joel Jonientz and the Digital Press at the University of North Dakota

I’ve been thinking a good bit about by late friend Joel Jonientz this week. He died three years ago yesterday. One of the projects we were working on when he died was Punk Archaeology and it was to be the first book from The Digital Press at the University of North Dakota.

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It was fitting then that I spent part of the evening at a book release event promoting and celebrating the appearance of the seventh book from The Digital Press: Haunted by Waters: the Future of Memory and the Red River Flood of 1997 edited by David Haeselin and students from his writing, editing, and publishing class in the Department of English. The event featured a filmed roundtable hosted by the City of Grand Forks including a little Facebook Live segment which received over 1000 views since last night! We also received some nice local media coverage on the event.

This stuff got me thinking of Joel’s work with the Working Group in Digital and New Media, and, in particular, his efforts to develop a video game called Rhythm Planet in collaboration with students. He eventually launched a (unsuccessful) Kickstarter campaign for the project, and in an effort to promote that, we discussed the game and his method in a two part interview in 2013. Read it here and here (and even if you don’t feel like reading it, do go and check out the art or, better still, check out the video here). I paid pretty close attention to what he was doing in this class and how he motivated students to go beyond a contractual understanding of education and to put their heart and mind into the project. Some of it was probably his infectious enthusiasm and his own willingness to put in time and energy into a project. Some of it was probably his willingness to give students access to the tools to succeed or fail and then the space to allow them to do it. Some of it was probably that he attracted motivated and ambitious students. I muse about his collaborative spirit in a post here and was pretty proud to help keep some of it alive last night.

The biggest thing with Joel is that he embraced an expansive vision of what was possible. In fact, his encouragement and conversations helped me realize that The Digital Press was possible. So last night, I tried to communicate that spirit to the students who worked hard to make Haunted by Waters happen. I pointed out that Joel and I didn’t really have any experience as publishers, but we figured out how the make The Digital Press happen. And if we could do it, they could, and they should embrace the potential of digital media and do their own thing!

Collaboration, Community, Memory, and Joel Jonientz

Two years ago today, my buddy Joel Jonientz died. I’ve posted about him on this blog before, but I urge anyone who cares about creativity, collaboration, and collegiality to surf around my archive of posts on Joel and his impact on my little community of friends and colleagues.

Go and look at this.
Listen to this song while you look at it.
I dare you not to cry.

Then to feel better, check out his podcasts with Bret Ommen, check out some of his insane videos, or head over to his website.

I didn’t quite grasp it at the time, but Joel’s passing marked a significant changing of the guard here in Grand Forks and at the University of North Dakota. There was this crazy moment from about 2010-2014 where it felt like a group of us had genuine synergies on campus across the arts and the humanities. I was lucky enough to hang out at the periphery of this group and watch them create podcasts, animated films in Mayan, video games, public art, some sweet posters, and other collaborative endeavors. Joel was instrumental in so many of these collaborations and was the co-founder of the The Digital Press at the University of North Dakota with me and Kyle Conway. He designed Punk Archaeology, which remains the most widely distributed and cited book from the press. We dedicated the book to his memory. Download a copy. Then, go write a review on Amazon, then buy a copy to support our little press, and give it to a local library!

As I looked back on those years, I feel intense nostalgia, especially today, but I also worry. I worry that we’ll forget the impact of Joel on our lives and on our community. After all, we’re busy, some of us have moved away, there is (always) a crisis on campus, most of us are overcommitted. I worry that is emblematic of a more alienated, individualistic, and atomized campus culture that recognizes community as only a manifestation of administrative structures, shared financial priorities, and ranks as faculty, staff, administrators, or whatever. Maybe we cling together when there’s a crisis and it seems mutually beneficial, but disperse to our private priorities and responsibilities when the crisis has passed. I know I’m as guilty of this as anyone. When I remember Joel, I become aware of how much less generosity there is in my world since he’s left. There is less collaboration, there is less mutual understanding, and there is less collegiality. More importantly, there are fewer bad plans. 

A few weeks ago, I was out for drinks with Mike Wittgraf, who was a close friend of Joel’s and a longtime and inspiring buddy of mine. Toward the end of the night, he said, “When I’m done my current crop of projects, I want to do something collaborative with you.” I was sort of stunned by this. I didn’t have any ideas of what that could be. The next day, I felt bad. This is the kind of thing Joel would have embraced in the most creative way possible. I need to get my act together. I need to understand that remembering isn’t just feeling bad, marking the date, or making sure I check in with old friends, but actually keeping alive some of the lessons that he taught me. Fuck.

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Christmas Eve

Start a new Christmas tradition by listening to Professor Footnote’s (Brett Ommen and Joel Jonientz) podcast: “Santa Clause, Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer, and the American Christmas.”

Slow Archaeology, Publishing, and Collaboration

Yesterday, Brett Ommen released, as a kind of epilogue, a podcast made up of recordings of Joel Jonientz, him, me, and Mike Wittgraf. In my little section of the podcast, I talk about what collaboration meant to a guy like Joel as an artist who was willing to work with folks in the humanities.

At the same time, I’ve been working on revising an updated version of “Slow Archaeology” article before I head to the Mediterranean this summer. In my revisions to that paper, I try to put a bit more emphasis on the social organization of archaeological work and how modern archaeological practices, including the growing use of digital tools, has tended to reinforce longstanding social divisions. For example, digital tools have tended to exaggerate the role of  field teams – excavator and field walkers – as data collectors capable of (and obligated to) producing detailed, “pure data” that project directors analyze later. In fact, the view of the archaeological process as fundamentally destructive has pushed archaeologists to place ever more emphasis on the efficient extraction of information from the field. In fact, at the Mobilizing the Past Conference, a comment I made about whether we were perhaps focusing too much on efficient data collection was met with a stern reminder that as archaeologists we need to collect as much information from the field as possible to compensate for our destruction of archaeological contexts. As Gavin Lucas (and others) have rightly critiqued the idea that a site can be reconstructed from the documents that archaeologists produce during excavation and that this reconstruction will somehow reveal the processes that produced the site. Lucas offers the useful observation that this view of excavation frames it as the opposite of construction. Construction begins with plans and ends with a finished building. Excavation starts with a completed context and finishes with a plan view. The archaeological builders of these backward buildings tend to occupy the same role in archaeology as manual labor does in construction. Excavators engage in the dirty, physical phase of the (de)construction process (at least in the traditional view of archaeological practice and knowledge production) and, as a result, occupy a subordinate social position to the trench supervisor (the contractor) and the project director (perhaps the architect). To be clear, I’m not saying that I agree with this or even the idea that excavation is destructive (which implies a finality to this event rather than a stage in a continuum of formation process), but our interpretative assumptions contribute the social organization of archaeological practice. 

Slow Archaeology emphasizes field practices as the proper space for archaeological interpretation. Collecting data is not distinct from analysis and interpretation and any practice that segregates data collection from analysis in the name of efficient and exhaustive recording is guilty of the neglecting the primary context for archaeological knowledge production: the trowel’s edge or the survey unit. 

Now, back to Joel. Joel was willing to collaborate with anyone who could pique his imagination, but he was totally unwilling to subordinate his role in the creative process. So, if he created a poster for your event, he became part of the event. He viewed collaboration as an intensely democratic process and while he was willing to accept critique, he demanded that his views carry weight and that everyone around the table have a voice. 

In many ways, I’ve tried to carry on his perspectives in the development of our Digital Press at the University of North Dakota. I’ve taken to calling it a cooperative publisher which breaks down the barriers between the author, the editor, and publisher. Rather than the author standing apart as content creator and the rest of the publishing process being regarded as subordinate (and maybe even a bit subservient) to the process of authoring content. This not only reinforces a social division between the intellectual work of writing and the (traditionally) manual work of layout and typesetting, but also supports a system that uses this increasingly outmoded division to limit the circulation of intellectual work and to extract value from its production. This is not to say that traditional publishers and editors do not add value to scholarly work, but rather to ask whether this division of academic labor is worth the cost.

Joel saw collaboration as a continuum of practices rather than a division. As a result, the value of collaboration was not generated by those who engaged in one part of the process negotiating their cut of the final results from the those who engaged in another part. Collaboration obligates and entitles every participant (and certainly someone as skilled and assertive as Joel) to both their share and to the final product. This, of course, requires a tremendous amount of trust and a willingness compromise. I hope that I can continue to develop the willingness to trust my collaborators and to find ways to compromise for the greater good. 

Always Touch the Art

IMG_0010A year ago tonight my friend Joel Jonientz suddenly died. Over the past year, I’ve had plenty of opportunities to think about the mark that he made on our community, friends, and my life.

At his memorial service, his colleague Lucy Ganje made a stack of letter press cards that read: “He Loved a Bad Plan.” This is absolutely true, and was a common, endearing, and supportive (in a backhanded kind of way) remark that he made often enough during the 5 years or so that I knew him.

But one story he told has stuck with me even more than his love for a bad plan. A few times, Joel told me about his habit of touching works of art. Apparently, he would go into museums and wait for an opportune moment to go up to paintings and touch them. At first, he argued that as an artist, he was interested in encountering the artist’s technique in a firsthand, tactile, haptic way. But in a few conversations, he told me that he just enjoyed that immediate encounter with art.

As you might imagine, I was equal parts horrified and jealous of his willingness to make physical contact with objects in a museum. As an archaeologist, I’ve been schooled to understand that even prolonged looking at certain works of art will lead to their rapid demise. Photographs are almost always forbidden (and photographs of people posing with objects threaten the very soul of the artifact).

Jonientz Mural Unveiling 50This is a photo by my buddy Tim Pasch which I have ruthlessly cropped. The hand is Joel’s daughter who is being held up by his son, Oskar, to touch his mural in downtown Grand Forks. Tim recorded a great version of The Grateful Dead’s “Ripple” to memorialize Joel.

The more I thought about his habit, however, the more I think I understood what it meant. Joel was willing to try his hand at nearly anything. He was first-and-foremost an artist, but he also developed a video game, he co-produced a podcast, he was planning to score a “space opera,” he rebuilt my porch, he co-founded an academic press, he worked with Mayan children to produce animation, he co-founded an “arts and culture conference,” directed the Working Group in Digital and New Media, he wrote academic papers on the history of animation, he actively sought out collaboration, and he still had time to be a good friend, a good father, and supportive member of the community. In short, Joel made sure that he touched as much art as possible in his life. In a world where we regularly encounter people who are too busy or “really working on saying ‘no’”, Joel was actively touching the art.

People who read this blog know that making time to collaborate is is a bit of a pet cause of mine. I suspect that I got some of these ideas from hanging out with Joel for a few years. Here’s a tribute that our friend Brett Ommen produced for Joel based on their work together on Professor Footnote and some conversations that Brett, Michael Wittgraf, and I had shortly after Joel’s passing:

So, as a little tribute to my late friend, I invite everyone to touch the art. Go and check out Joel’s blog, go and watch one of his insane little videos, go and listen to one of his podcasts, or go and leave some flowers by his mural in downtown Grand Forks (but if you do that, be sure to touch it!). Or listen to his laugh.

Or, go and download a copy of Punk Archaeology, which he designed and laid out, and we dedicated to his memory. (Or go buy one here if you want to touch it.)

Or at least read his chapter from Punk Archaeology:

It’s funny, the month Joel died I had learned that Paul Worley was going to leave town to take a job elsewhere; Brett Ommen had decided to resign his position at the University and put his house on the market. I was worried that Joel would go on sabbatical and leave me stranded by myself in Grand Forks. The reality was much worse.

Some thoughts on the Bakken Boom Exhibit at the Plains Art Museum in Fargo

This weekend, I was able to hang out in the Bakken Boom exhibit down at the Plains Museum of Art in Fargo. It took up the top two galleries in the Plains and featured over 20 artists from around the U.S. I was fortunate enough to know a few of the artists whose work was on display making the show a bit more intimate than an ordinary visit to a gallery. In particular, I was excited to see one of Joel Jonientz‘s last works “Chérie, tu vois quelque chose de nouveau ici?” We also had a chance to check out contributions by Kyle Cassidy and John Holmgren who are both collaborators in the North Dakota Man Camp Project. My buddy Ryan Stander, who is now a professor of photography at Minot State, also had some fascinating contributions to the exhibition including a visually arresting print of the fire ball that emanated from the tanker train derailment outside of Casselton, ND.

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Rather than review the show, I’d rather just encourage you to go and check it out, and offer a few observations.

1. The Real and Documentary. One of my favorite things about the show is that is messed with our collective view of what was “real” and what was “documentary” in the Bakken. Several documentary photographers were represented including a series of Alec Soth’s photographs made famous by his New York Times Magazine spread in 2013. The juxtaposition of these well-framed photographs with the numerous mixed media pieces in the exhibit made them seem somehow detached, abstract in their own way, and perhaps even a bit inauthentic. While most of approach critically the tradition of literalism and even objectivity that frame the unwavering gaze of the camera, it was still quite shocking to feel so jaundiced and skeptical about the photographic images in he show. I couldn’t quite figure out whether it was the complexity of the mixed media pieces that made them feel more authentic and real, or whether I was lured into overlooking the complexity of the photographs by the stares of the subjects.

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2. Anxiety. The anxiety of the exhibit was palpable. I thought the frenetic character of many of the mixed-media pieces created a kind of vibrating filter through which made the Bakken appear constantly shaking, out of focus, and contingent. A video installation from the artist collective “Road to Williston” provides a great example of this feeling some of which comes through just by watching the video at their Vimeo site. Ryan Stander’s massive, fragmented print of the Casselton, ND explosion, titled “Missing Information” likewise provided a feeling of angst as the flames billow skyward over a series of panels leaving the viewer to search for its origins in the obscured tank cars at the lower left. The archaeologically arranged discarded objects in Jess Christy’s “Through the Window” designed to document her life as a single woman, living in Minot on the edge of the patch. Her installation left me feeling particularly anxious as it communicated some of the impact of the oil boom at a personal level.

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3. Alternate Perspectives. One thing that was missing from the exhibit were perspectives that considered the possible benefits of the oil boom in the Bakken. The images used frequently seem to overlook (or maybe occlude?) the pre-Boom residents of the Bakken and to locate the Bakken boom against the backdrop of a depersonalized pastoral landscape. (There were two pronounced exceptions to this, Joel Jonientz piece and Sarah Christiansen’s haunting “Skogens’ Bedroom Window, Cartwright, ND, May 2013”). The photographs from Wayne Gunderson’s “Road Conditions: Faces from the Patch” blurs the line between “locals” and “New North Dakotans,” without much explicit social comment. Lucinda Cobley’s “Last Tree” and Molly McLain’s “Gold Boom/Critical Habitat” strike ecological notes, that while obviously relevant, side step the trickier question what and whose environment we should preserve. 

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I hope this critique doesn’t make me sound like an advocate of big oil or an apologist for the environmental, human, and social cost of extractive industries in the Bakken, but the potential for positive outcomes does exist. The challenge, of course, is that these positive outcomes need to be imagined. The contributors to this show demonstrate that the Bakken Boom has stimulated our collective imagination is dramatic and exciting ways, I only wish that the show had reflected more broadly on the stakeholders, possibilities, and future of the boom. 

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Public Art, Grand Forks, and Joel Jonientz

We had a beautiful day yesterday celebrating the state of North Dakota’s 125thaversary and the art (and life) of Joel Jonientz. We hung his mural on a bizarre storage unit at the intersection of Walnut St. and S. 5th Avenue in Grand Forks. It looks great there. It got a nice story in the Grand Forks Herald. About 40 people came out to the event.

The program started at Centennial Part where we all admired City Councilor Bret Weber’s public orator and the fine broken clock that celebrates the timeless traditions of the Northern Plains.

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We then crossed the street and admired Joel’s mural. Bret told the story of how Joel and he got together on the mural project. He left out a few parts and for the historical record, I’ll clarify here.

First, when Bret began talking about public art in Grand Forks, I mentioned that Joel had painted murals with Americorp in Seattle and was (cough, cough) never all THAT busy.  So Bret and Joel and met at J.L. Beers – a local beer and burger place – to hash out details. I drank beer and Joel and Bret hashed. 

The result of that was a proposed mural by Joel. It appears to have involved sheep. I never saw this draft of the mural, but I hope they were as awesome as these sheep.

Bret was not impressed with Joel’s sheep, and told me so. 

I told Joel – probably after a beer or two – that Bret wasn’t feeling his mural. Joel laughed about it in that way that artists sometimes laugh leaving you unsure whether he was hurt or had just added Bret to his list of people who would never get it.

Bret, of course, had not communicated this to Joel, but the next time the two were in the same place, the first thing Joel said to Bret was “I hear you didn’t like my mural.” He then told Bret to go and look at his stuff. Bret later admitted that this was usually something you did before commissioning a piece of public art, but it didn’t matter because Joel was able to repurpose some of his Fatty Arbuckle work into the perfect mural to hang across from a police station and next to a rail line.

In a less public venue, it will be fun to recount the adventures involved in moving the prepared, but unpainted panels into Joel’s van late one evening…

Here are the murals, which were finished by students and colleagues in the Department of Art and Design at UND.

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It was cool to see the community embrace public art and got me thinking about what more I could do to make Grand Forks a more interesting place.

Celebrating Joel Jonientz’s Mural

This weekend the city of Grand Forks will hang a mural painted by Joel Jonientz and residents of the Near Southside Neighborhood and some of Joel’s colleagues in the department of Art and Design.

You can check out Joel’s progress on the mural here.

I was involved in putting Joel in contact with my buddy Bret Weber who is on city council. I feel pretty confident in saying that the project was a pain in the ass for both Joel and Bret, but it will be nice to have the mural hung to commemorate Joel’s time as part of our community.

The event starts at 11:30 and is at the corner of Walnut and South 5th St.

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Here’s the official press release.

The City of Grand Forks, along with the Near Southside Neighborhood, will commemorate the 125th anniversary of North Dakota statehood with the unveiling of a mural.  A celebration will start at 11:30 a.m. on Saturday, October 11, at Centennial Park in downtown Grand Forks.  Located at the intersection of South 5th Street, Walnut Street, and Kittson Avenue, Centennial Park – anchored by a clock tower — was developed 25 years ago to mark the State centennial.   The event will then move across 5th Street to unveil a mural sponsored by the Near Southside Neighborhood.  Part of the Mayor’s Urban Neighborhood Initiative (MUNI), the mural project was a multi-year neighborhood effort involving brainstorming, fundraising, and hands-on community participation.  This event will also celebrate the life of local artist Joel Jonientz, creator of the mural, who passed away unexpectedly last year.   Jonientz was an art professor at UND, and his UND colleagues  helped complete the mural in his honor.   The event will wrap up at the 2nd floor of Rhombus Guys.  All are invited to attend this community event