Alley 5.5: Discovering Public Art in North Dakota’s Capital City

I’m kinda obsessed with public art. I like the democratic nature of it, how it’s accessible to anyone who passes by. It’s always bothered me that some people think art isn’t for “people like them,” as if you need an art degree or the right connections or a certain dollar amount in your bank account to properly evaluate if you like something or not.

I’m also big into color, texture and re-imagining urban landscapes, so I love that my home state of North Dakota is taking some of its not so camera ready spaces and transforming them into public art. I really do think it makes people think about their city differently — and hopefully think about visual art differently, too. This art alley in the state’s capital city is just the latest example.

Alley 5.5 is a community project that brings artists, non-profits and businesses together to transform an unassuming alley in downtown Bismarck into a showcase for local artists and their work. Located between 5th and 6th Street (running parallel to Main Avenue to the south and Broadway to the north) this spot is a colorful ode to North Dakota history and culture.

Several different murals showcase North Dakota symbols and imagery, from the overt (the great Chief Sitting Bull, the mighty bison and old fashioned wind mills) to more quirky tributes like a oversized mason jars like Grandma used to use and a hip-hop pheasant sporting some serious bling.

My friend Naomi has been marveling over bison since we spotted one on a trip we took to Theodore Roosevelt National park last summer — “Alicia, they’re majestic beasts!” — so of course we had to take her photo in front of every single bison image we spotted. (That’s what friends do, right?)

Some pieces are delightfully random. This mural whimsically combines rubber duckies in eye catching outfits with a portrait of Era Bell Thompson (Bismarck High grad, University of North Dakota student and longtime editor of Ebony Magazine), a trailblazer at a time when women — especially African-American women — were not widely accepted in journalism. (Liz prefers the cowboy ducky, clearly.)

I can’t remember if this photo is by me or Naomi. My phone crashed halfway through our trip and these two ladies got prompted from my second and third shooters to my only shooters very quickly. (Like, immediately. Losing your phone on a press trip is no bueno. Thanks ladies!)

A word on this last photo. Ms. Naomi is the only person I know who has ever asked me how many counties in North Dakota I’ve visited. She tick most of them off, despite the fact that she now lives in Minnesota again. She also insists that it’s important know all of the county seats in the state you live in. (A particular brand of passionate and very specific nerdiness is a trait I recognize and prize in myself and my closest friends.)

So I was dying to show her this county map. It even has a bison! It’s tailor made for Naomi! But what was the first thing she saw when she looked at it?

Lawrence Welk. Seriously. This photo shows her genuine reaction.

I’m pretty sure she is the only person under the age of 80 who still squeals for Lawrence Welk. This is one of the many things I adore about her. Life is short, right? Love what you love.

For those of you who are not from North Dakota and/or a senior citizen, Mr. Welk was a variety show host, big band leader and accordion player born near Strasburg, North Dakota in 1903. You can visit his homestead today.

To be clear, I have nothing against Mr. Welk or his music. I just found her reaction refreshing. And it’s not often that my obscure knowledge of North Dakota historical trivia is actually enlightening in everyday conversation.

Art usually gets people talking and I figured our jaunt down Alley 5.5 would start an interesting conversation or two. But I never imagined we’d walk into Laughing Sun Brewing Company, just down the street, still discussing a long deceased band leader…and rubber duckies.

It’s good to know that art — and your friends — can still surprise you.

Photo by Elizabeth Mieke

What about you?
What do you think of Alley 5.5?
Do you have a favorite piece in this alley?
What would you like to see added? (There’s an expansion planned for this summer.)
What’s your favorite place to see public art?

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