Frescoes for St. John's [Update]

Article originally published to this blog on May 16, 2012
Updated information can be downloaded below.

A Testimony of Faith 

Internationally renowned Portrait and Fresco Artist Mark Balma, best known throughout the Twin Cities for his frescoes at the University of St. Thomas in Minneapolis and the Cathedral of St. Paul, is donating six frescoes to St. John's Lutheran Church and the community of Stacy.
The gift, according to Balma, is his means of supporting a community that has seen some pretty tough times. “With so many people unemployed and so many families facing foreclosure, I wanted to give something to the community as a whole, something that would bring people together, that would strengthen their spirit and their faith.”
The frescoes will be painted on three gothic arches to be constructed to the east of the main entrance of St. John's Lutheran Church at 31075 Genesis Ave. This corner of land overlooks the Carlos Avery Wilderness Area along County Road 19.
A groundbreaking ceremony is scheduled for Sunday, May 20 at 11:30 AM. Artist Mark Balma, Pastors Dr. Alfred Valerius and Edward Wheatley, Brad Hildreth, owner of PEI Construction and Mason Joe Fisk will be in attendance. The entire community is welcome to attend. The painting of the frescoes will begin in early July. It will take approximately five weeks to complete the first three panels of frescoes. The remaining three panels will be painted in the summer of 2013.
According to Pastor Ed Wheatley of St. John's, "These frescoes will be the centerpiece of a memorial garden dedicated to the lives of our congregation and our community. In John 15:16 Jesus said, ‘I appointed you to go and bear fruit – fruit that will last.’ For generations to come, this living memorial will bear testament to the lives of our community, our triumphs, our trials and more importantly, our faith."
Memorials will range from major dedications of the fresco panels to benches, gardens, and engraved paving stones. "The funds raised from this project will support our ministry for years to come," said Pastor Ed, "and God willing, we might even raise enough to pave our parking lot. That's something we've dreamed of for over 20 years!"
To learn how you can support this project or to request information on memorial dedications, contact the church office at (651)462-5115.

What is a Fresco?

Fresco is the process whereby ground up earth pigment is applied directly to a wet lime plaster. As the fresco cures, the colors are absorbed deep into the plaster and eventually harden to stone. Fresco is one of the world's most lasting and permanent art forms because the images do not just rest upon the surface, but actually become part of the stone. The images that Balma creates will literally stand for centuries to come.
In the proposed project, Balma is taking the traditional application of fresco one step further to create a fresco completely unique to North America. Rather than adapting a fresco to fit within a pre-existing structure, Balma will use the frescoes to define an exterior space through the construction of three, free-standing, gothic arches. The center panel will stand 17 feet high and the side panels will stand 15 feet high. Simply put, rather than the space defining the art form, the art form will now define the space, creating a grotto setting and the centerpiece of a memorial garden. When viewed from this perspective, the application of this ancient art form becomes virtually limitless.

The Images

The first three images to be painted on the frescoes were chosen by Rev. Dr. Alfred Valerius, who has served the congregation of St. John's for over 25 years. When asked what the theme should be, he announced without hesitation, "The Transfiguration of Christ."
According to Dr. Valerius, the Transfiguration on the mountain top is the pivotal moment in the ministry of Christ when he revealed his divinity. Moses, renderer of the Law, and Elijah, representing the prophets, were also seen in this glorified vision of Jesus. "The Transfiguration shows the union between the Old and New Testaments. “Christ becomes the bridge between heaven and earth, divinity and humanity, the prophets of old and the prophets of new," according to Pastor Valerius.
Many paintings of the Transfiguration have been done over the centuries. What makes this fresco rendering unique is a combination of artistry and science. Balma is currently working with CG artist Ray Downing of Studio Macbeth. In March of 2010, the History Channel released a two-hour documentary of the Shroud of Turin. This fourteen-foot length of cloth is believed to be the actual burial shroud of Jesus. Using the information encoded in the shadowy image imprinted on the fabric, Downing produced a three-dimensional image of the face of Jesus. Together, Balma and Downing are using the information garnered from his work to create the most historically accurate artistic rendering of Christ ever produced.

The Construction Process

While Balma is donating the frescoes, the congregation of St. John’s is responsible for constructing the arches. It was through a leap of faith, a belief that God would provide the funds needed, that the Church Council voted in April to move forward with the project.
St. John’s contacted Brad Hildreth, local business owner of Professional Exteriors, Inc. and Mason Joe Fisk, a graduate of the Brick Layers and Allied Craft Workers of the International Masonry Institute, and asked them to head up construction of the project. When the concept was first presented, they were both taken aback. “It’s not often somebody comes to you and announces you have to build a structure that will stand for at least 200 years,” Mason Joe Fisk said. “At that point you begin to re-examine every aspect of the construction process.”
Brad Hildreth set about to find the most cost-effective means to achieve the best possible results. “Let’s face it,” Hildreth quipped, “we’re talking about something that my great, great grandchildren will come to see. At this point, I'm in it for the bragging rights.”
In a curious twist, or perhaps some might say "divine intervention," PEI Construction was also hired during that time frame to renovate an old St. Paul residence, removing its 100 year old brick veneer. When the owner learned of the Fresco project for St. John's, she enthusiastically agreed to donate the brick for the project. Not only will that donation significantly reduce the cost of constructing the arches, the antique brick is quite literally the ideal surface for a fresco, and according to the artist, will ensure that the frescoes last for centuries to come.


Creating a fresco is a labor intensive project. To facilitate their completion, Balma will be taking on several volunteer interns throughout the month of July. Interns will receive first hand training in this ancient technique by one of the few fresco artists alive today. Interested individuals should submit a resume, including background information and formal training as well as samples of their work to St. John's Lutheran Church, P.O. Box 308, Stacy, MN 55079. Additional information regarding internships may also be obtained by contacting Mary Welty at St. John's, 651-462-5115. Applications should be received no later than June 15, 2012.

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