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Making a Scene: Hotel Donaldson’s ‘resident chalkmaster’ creates colorful displays

Nate Stensgard works on signage for the Hotel Donaldson on July 2 in downtown Fargo. Nick Wagner / The Forum1 / 3
Nate Stensgard adds details to a microphone for signage to be used outside of the Hotel Donaldson. Nick Wagner / The Forum2 / 3
Nate Stensgard stands with a sign he designed outside of the Hotel Donaldson on July 2 in downtown Fargo. Nick Wagner / The Forum3 / 3

FARGO – Nate Stensgard is used to wearing many hats at The Hotel Donaldson.

His official title is head server and art curator, though customers might find him managing one day and bartending the next.

Now, he’d be justified in adding another HoDo title to that list: resident chalkmaster.

For the past few months, the Fargo native has created colorful temporary displays on three-sided chalkboards near the entrances to the downtown Fargo establishment to advertise upcoming performances, special events and dinners.

When the HoDo upgraded this spring to larger boards with more room to promote events, Stensgard figured he could put his art degree from Minnesota State University Moorhead to use.

It might look like simple chalk to the average visitor, but he actually uses professional artist pastels to create the vibrant pictures and portraits.

“It’s a lot of fun,” he said.

When he’s not busy working at the HoDo, Stensgard is a freelance artist who usually works with oil paint.

Do you sketch out an idea first, or draw it right on the board?

I think about what the event is, and try to think of related images that I could in a playful, creative way make an interesting, pretty or aesthetically pleasing or fun, humorous image and just play with ideas for a couple days.

I look up some images. I don’t look at other art, but I will print out a stock image of a physical object, and then draw it in my own way.

What is it about chalkboard art that gets our attention?

I think it’s that it’s not just some words. It’s pictures, and it’s art, and it catches your eye. … I’m at least attempting to make things look fairly realistic when I do pictures of them.

A lot of people think, ‘Oh, those are wine glasses.’ I think that’s what you learn in art as far as depicting real objects is that you have to disassociate yourself with your conception of the object. It’s not a wine glass; it’s colors, shapes, lines, areas of light and dark. Once you do that, then you kind of forget.

A painting is made to last for a long time, while your chalkboard art is only around for a week or two before you wipe it off and draw something new. What’s that like?

I like that about it.

For one, they don’t disappear forever because we take pictures of them, and we have an album entitled “Event Chalk Art by Nate” on Facebook ( So, there’s a permanent record of it, and I can always bring up a picture of what I did.

But I like the transient nature of it. I only put about an hour and a half to two hours in on each one. If I put in six hours, I’d feel really bad erasing it.

Your art is on full display on the sidewalk in this busy part of downtown Fargo – everyone passing by gets to see it, not just customers. What do you think of that?

I love it, absolutely. As an artist, the more exposure you can get and have the public see your work, the better.

What kind of feedback do you get?

A lot of really good feedback. Most people are just kind of amazed that chalk can do that. They look like they never thought that a picture like this could be made with chalk.

Technically, it’s pastels, but to most people walking by, it’s chalk and chalk art. That’s what we call it, and that’s what kind of makes it special.

Have you installed a blackboard at your house so you can practice at home?

You know, I get enough practice here to be honest. I’m doing at least one a week, if not two.

Do you ever go home with pastel smudged on your face?

It took some time, but I’ve learned to not touch my face after working.

But it washes off with water, and everything is cleanable, so I can wear nice clothes, get pastel on them and then just wash them and they’re fine.

Ryan Johnson

Ryan Johnson has been a Forum reporter since 2012 and previously wrote for the Grand Forks Herald.

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