Local artist revives, reinterprets rotunda mural at Cass courthouse
FARGO — The mural in the domed ceiling of the Cass County Courthouse rotunda was first painted in 1906, yet the figure representing chemistry and astronomy holds a dark blue globe with swirling white clouds, a view that could only have been seen from space.
It's one of many updates local artist Karen Bakke made to the mural when she was tasked earlier this year with enhancing the drab paintings that hadn't been retouched for some three decades.
For visitors to the courthouse, the most noticeable thing about the enhanced mural is the vibrant colors. The cheeks of the 10 allegorical women are rosier and their robes billow more dramatically. A closer look shows Bakke has fixed some anatomical inaccuracies, made faces and hairdos more distinct and added more details such as the globe, which had been just a plain blue ball with dark outlines of the continents.
"I reinterpreted it," Bakke said Wednesday, Aug. 30. "(The buildings and grounds supervisor) just said do what you think and it's like 'OK.' I just thought that it needed to be seen. Nobody noticed them before."
County Administrator Robert Wilson said it's a definite improvement. "What you had was something that really wasn't garnering much attention at all. It didn't pop, it wasn't alive, it wasn't something that made you notice it. Now you have a story that's told through our building and telling that story much more powerfully."
The original mural was painted by Herman Boerth, owner of the North Dakota Decorating Co., and a Milwaukee artist named G. Peter. The cost of all decorations in the courthouse, including the murals was $3,800, according to the county. That's $103,300 in today's dollars, according to inflation indicators from the Minneapolis Federal Reserve. Boerth's company also decorated the interior of the courthouse.
Their work includes 10 allegorical women in the rotunda ceiling, representing the four seasons and various sciences, arts and industries; an eagle posing with American flags along with the great seals of the state and county on the ceiling of the top floor; and decorative medallions on the floor below.
The cost of Bakke's work, the specialized scaffolding needed to get her 40 feet in the air and new LED lighting cost the county $35,000, Wilson said.
The work started in early July and finished in mid-August.
Asked if the county considered whether the 111-year-old mural had historic value, Wilson explained that Bakke had fixed things that weren't quite right about the paintings.
The courthouse, built between 1904 and 1906 in a style inspired by Renaissance buildings, is on the National Register of Historic Places. The nomination form from 1983 described the rotunda's Corinthian columns and Italian mosaic on the floor but made no mention of the mural.
The allegory that required the most reworking was Art and Architecture, according to Bakke.
A painter known for murals at the Fargo Air Museum and the Minnesota State University Moorhead planetarium, Bakke has had a fine-arts studio since 1995. She has a keen sense of anatomy, making frequent use of reference photos and even asking her daughter to pose for her so she could get the hands and feet just right.
The problem with Art and Architecture was she "had just a wrist and a shoulder — she had no elbow," Bakke said. Like a few other allegories, this one had a somewhat deformed head as well, she said.
In other cases, the original painting lacked key details that Bakke filled in.
Agriculture and Horticulture had a blob that looked like it should be a sheaf of wheat, which she painted over with individual stalks and ears.
Autumn's harvest barely filled a basket, so she added more fruits and vegetables.
The bald eagle was stiff like the eagle statue at the top of a flagpole, so she repainted it so it looked more like a living eagle.
The former colors were also subdued and rather repetitive, so she made them more vibrant.
"There were so many things that I thought were incorrect with the lighting and the shape and the color composition," Bakke said. "There was just no punch, no nothing. And so I tried to really bring them up to speed so that you could see them."
Bakke said she kept special things, such as the signatures of the original artists and the Renaissance feel of the paintings, which included colorful billowing robes and more voluptuous body shapes.
She said she felt something of the original should remain.