Last week, we cut the ribbon on a preschool mural in my hometown.

There was music, face painting, dancing, cotton candy, sno-cones and a chance to meet the artist, who has traveled everywhere from Dubai to Wahpeton, N.D., where he’s originally from, creating art.

And it’s not just murals on buildings — for him it’s about the people he meets and brings together along the way. For him, it’s in the process, to engage with the public while they transform regular old sidewalks or buildings into oceans where you can ride a whale, dangle off a tipsy building popping out of the cement or stand on the edge of a giant gopher hole that looks so real you think you might fall in.

Shawn McCann spent two weeks in Watford City, N.D., painting a 3D-style mural that reflects the work the teachers and students are doing inside, which is reading, math, colors and shapes — but it’s also learning to be good friends and what it means to be part of a community. For a few days, Shawn was able to get into the classroom and work directly with the preschool students, asking them, “What makes the world a better place?”

And when those students saw him around town, at the grocery store or restaurant, they yelled out, “Shawn! That’s Shawn the artist!” and then, if they’re that kind of kid, they went in for a hug.

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A recent visit by Shawn McCann inspired a handful of preschoolers in Watford City, N.D., to think about becoming artists when they grow up. Jessie Veeder / The Forum
A recent visit by Shawn McCann inspired a handful of preschoolers in Watford City, N.D., to think about becoming artists when they grow up. Jessie Veeder / The Forum

And this was all made possible thanks in part to a grant given by the North Dakota Council on the Arts, and numerous other grants and community members giving generously to the project. These things don’t just happen with a few dollars and a paintbrush. This project was nearly a year in the making, in the planning and fundraising and collaborations and donations, to get this artist here on his way from Disney World to Watford City to show us what that paintbrush can really do.

Establish a sense of community, a point of pride; generate a gathering spot, a place to pose and smile; reflect a community; tell a story; get people engaged; and inspire a handful of preschoolers to say they want to be artists when they grow up.

And public art can do all of that without being everyone’s favorite piece or cup of tea. Because even if you wouldn’t hang it on your wall or put it in your yard, you have the right to say that. That you don’t get it, and here’s why. And that’s OK. That’s good. It exists to be discussed.

A mural on the outside of a preschool building, of course, isn’t breaking the mold on public art projects. It’s been done before. But it was a big deal for those kids and families and hopefully brings a smile to those who drive by each day, making them proud to be here in a place that invests in their youth.

A ribbon-cutting ceremony recently celebrated the addition of Shawn McCann's new mural to Watford City, N.D. Special to The Forum
A ribbon-cutting ceremony recently celebrated the addition of Shawn McCann's new mural to Watford City, N.D. Special to The Forum

Art in rural America. It’s alive in the music, on canvases, in the poetry and sculptures at the hands of amateurs and professionals and professionals in the making, living and being inspired by the Plains, the small towns and the rivers that run through them. It’s our artists who articulate our stories, who hear them and desire to tell them back in some way.

That’s why we need to nurture them here, in the space that raises them. I’ve always thought that. That our instinct is to send them away from our small towns and rural areas so that we can say they’ve become something. And maybe they should. Maybe they will. But if they don’t, or if they come back to us, they should be able to become something here, too.

And that’s why I do the work that I do. And that’s why I’m happy to be a part of Arts Across the Prairie, an effort by the North Dakota Council on the Arts to put a public art piece in a rural space in every region of our state. We’re in the process here, as Region 1, having the conversation about our story, the people, the land and what it means to be from here, to visit, to call it home, to leave. And what piece of art might reflect all of that and inspire people to take a drive and learn about us.

Learn more about Arts Across the Prairie at arts.nd.gov/arts-across-prairie.

Jessie Veeder is a musician and writer living with her husband and daughters on a ranch near Watford City, N.D. She blogs at https://veederranch.com. Readers can reach her at jessieveeder@gmail.com.