Bison have long been a North Dakota trademark, whether it’s the animal itself or two-time defending FCS national champion NDSU Bison football team.
During the summer of 2006, the Lake Agassiz Arts Council and the city of Fargo created even more bison buzz by debuting “Herd on the Prairie: A Virtual Stampede.”
Inspired by similar projects staged throughout the country, Doug Burgum, founder of the Great Plains Software and the Kilbourne Group, brought the idea of painted bison, a community arts project, to the table in 2005, said Martha Keeler Olsen, executive director of Lake Agassiz Arts Council at the time of the project.
The Lake Agassiz Arts Council, now known as The Arts Partnership, selected more than 75 artists to participate in “Herd on the Prairie” and gave the artists a small stipend for supplies and roughly 90 days to complete a unique design covering a full-size bison calf “statue” or bison table-top “statuette.”
After the seed had been planted, members of the arts council searched for a design suitable for their desired plan. A bison sculpture design was decided upon after discovering bison sculptures decorated for a similar project in a Montana town. They were designed by artist Joe Halko. A company in Buffalo, Minn., (ironically) called Fiberstock manufactured the bison. Each animal was about 5 feet long and 3 feet wide and weighed slightly more than 100 pounds.
Fiberglass bison herd debuts during marathon
“Herd on the Prairie” was introduced to the public during the 2006 Fargo Marathon. All of the bison were placed in locations along the marathon route. The bison remained along the route for the summer for people to stop and look at. As the summer faded into fall, the “Herd” was moved to the Fargo Dome, for “Roam of the Dome” where more than 4,000 people came to see all of the manufactured bison displayed together.
“When we opened the doors, people were waiting in line for ‘Roam of the Dome’ after these pieces had been out all summer long,” Olsen said. “People still wanted to come out, they wanted to see them all together and look at them again. It was just fabulous.”
To close out the project, the unsponsored bison were auctioned off to members of the public. All of the funds raised at the auction went to the Lake Agassiz Arts Council to be put back into public art initiatives, Olsen said.
Artists put their talents on bison ‘hide’
Artists from the area, and from all over the region, participated in “Herd on the Prairie,” including Karen Bakke and Elizabeth Schwankl, both of Fargo.
Bakke worked on a bison named “Fire and Wind,” which was sponsored by Xcel Energy and Bobcat. Although Bakke didn’t initially jump on the project, she was approached by the two businesses and asked to paint the bison in way that portrayed North Dakota’s pride in manufacturing and energy ventures.
“I focused on North Dakota and the idea that the world needs North Dakota.,” Bakke said. “We’re very predominant in energy and manufacturing. Those are also our strong areas along with all our people.”
Bakke’s piece captured the history of both manufacturing and natural resources in a sea of bright colors on either side of the bison. The piece was tied together at the front, where a world can be found on the animal’s forehead.
Although she specializes in classic realism, Bakke considers one of her signatures to be bright colors, and “Fire and Wind” features just that. Many of the other bison in the “Herd” followed suit, boasting bright colors and one-of-a-kind designs, which Bakke considers a highlight of the project.
During the summer of 2006 when the “Herd” was on display throughout downtown, “Fire and Wind” sat in front of the Fargo Civic Center but later found its permanent home on NDSU’s campus.
Artists’ personalities tattooed on bison
“I thought it was a great idea, and some of the other bison were so fun,” Bakke said. “It was really nice to see how each artist would interpret their bison.”
Elizabeth Schwankl painted a bison titled “Bi-Sun.” She got the bison herself, and was eager to get it in her studio and start working because she thought it was an exciting project.
Her title was derived from the two suns painted on either side and cloudy blue skies painted near the front and rear of the animal. Schwankl used a technique similar to her style when creating aluminart. Glow-in-the-dark stripes of paint run through the sun on both sides as well, another reason for the name “Bi-Sun.”
“I missed the bison after they took it away,” she said.
“Bi-Sun” took the top bid at the auction and was purchased by Doug Burgum. Bi-Sun resides in one of his pastures with two other bison from the “Herd.”
Schwankl enjoyed working on the large, three-dimensional piece and would participate again if the community comes up with a similar project.
“People were genuinely enthusiastic about the bison,” Schwankl said. “I heard of people tracking them down to take photos with all of them. It was a great idea.”
School kids get in on the fun
Also included in the project were four full-size bison, seven calves and 12 tabletops designed by schools or educational programs.
Participating schools and educational programs:
- Clara Barton Elementary School
- Dakota Montessori
- Fargo North High School
- Fargo South High School
- Lewis and Clark Elementary School
- Lincoln Elementary School
- Horizon Middle School, Moorhead
- Shanley High School
- West Fargo High School
- Cheney Middle School, West Fargo
- Youth Education Services
Minnesota State University Moorhead art professor Brad Bachmeier, an art teacher at Fargo North High School in 2006, worked with 40-plus students in the Fargo North art club to create a design for the full-sized bison. Instead of taking on the project personally as an artist, Bachmeier thought it was a great chance for students to gain experience working on public art.
“It was a way to get more kids involved in what became a community project,” Bachmeier said. “It allowed (the students) to see how public art can impact the community, and I give them the chance to be involved in it rather than it just being me.”
The bison the students at Fargo North created highlights perceptions society has about youth. It was titled “Don’t Judge A Bison By Its Cover.” It featured a nose ring, dark blue mohawk, pertinent quotes, graffiti and a brick wall toward the rear to resemble the school.
The students who were involved signed their names on the brick wall section of the sculpture, part of their stamp on a memorable and edifying community arts project.
“I think somehow through the process it allowed our students to interact with some of the other artists that were working on other bison,” Bachmeier said. “I recall a couple students that went to visit a couple artists that were working on (a bison), so it really did give them an understanding on the type of projects that artists could do as well as the role of public art in the community.”
“Don’t Judge A Bison By Its Cover” can be found at its permanent home on the steps of the Rourke Art Gallery on Main Street in Moorhead.
Herd ranges F-M and ties the towns together
“Herd on the Prairie” motivated the Fargo-Moorhead art community by uniting artists and the public through the love of creation. It brought families together to search for the members of “The Herd,” and exposed young artists to the thriving concept of public art. For years to come, the bison will be seen throughout both cities, reminding people that art is a cornerstone of this place so many call home.
“Public art like that gives a visual to the life and vitality of a community,” Bachmeier said. “It shows a healthy community.”
Olsen concurs with Bachmeier. “It was about as good of an art project that you could have in a community,” Olsen said. “It captured people’s imagination.”
Check out the “Herd About The Prairie: A Virtual Stampede” documentary by Prairie Public Broadcasting.
Click on the photo below to see a slideshow of some of the “Herd” around the area and viewers posing with the bison.