Inspiration for Fargo Marathon poster designer often stems while running

Fargo Marathon executive director Mark Knutson, right, unveils the 2014 Fargo Marathon poster designed by Paul Johnson, left, who describes his work during a meeting with sponsors and committee members. Dave Wallis / The Forum

FARGO — To listen to Paul Johnson tell a story of how he came up with a poster idea is like listening to a writer read from a famous novel. It’s a process of building from the early chapters of his concept to the finished product of the artwork.

On Saturday, the 15th running of the Sanford Fargo Marathon, many runners will complete the quest of 26.2 miles and have a finisher medal hanging from their neck. And many, when they get home, will have a poster to put on the wall to constantly remind them of their feat.

That would be the work of Johnson. And not much else makes an artist happier.

“For sure,” Johnson said. “You walk into a building, somebody’s got it in their office and it’s a great honor. The best part of an illustrator or designer is to create something on a wall or on a shirt.”

Often, he’ll routinely say, ideas are spurned while he’s out for a run. It's when he does his best thinking, he said. He’ll see something like an eagle and the American icon ends up being a major part of a painting. That was the case in 2007.


He was running on Highway 59 north of Pelican Rapids, Minn., where in his peripheral vision he sensed a shadow from perhaps a bird or an airplane. It turned out to be an eagle flying above him.

The Fargo Marathon happened to be on Veteran’s Day that year and to mark it, marathon executive director Mark Knutson requested that Johnson portray some sort of American pride with his poster design. And then the eagle appeared.

“That was pretty inspirational,” Johnson said. “I thought, gosh, that’s kind of a sign, I have to use that with the Veteran’s Day and the symbolism. Sometimes, when you’re running, you have your good days and your bad days and some days you feel like you can run forever. It was as close as I could get to flying and I felt really great out there. I remember having that element in that.”

He crafted an eagle with determined eyes, with runners characterized as part of the feathers. Often, subtle images are part of his work, like untied shoelaces in the shape of runners.

Johnson just finished his 17th year as a communication art and design instructor at Alexandria (Minn.) Technical and Community College. He’s a graduate of Minnesota State Moorhead and worked in the advertising side in the private sector for several years.

This year is his 13th poster in the 15 Fargo Marathons. Almost all of the ideas start with a theme or idea from Knutson and Johnson takes it from there.

There was the year when the marathon route went through MSUM, North Dakota State and Concordia College for the first time, so Johnson’s poster reflected a college them with schools colors from all three represented.

There was the year when the marathon featured the newly-opened Veterans Memorial Bridge on Main Avenue, so Johnson’s version casted runners in the shadow of the monuments on the bridge. There was the year two years ago when “Fargo rocks” was the theme, a tribute to all the bands along the route.


So Johnson came up with a guitar image with the Fargo Theatre and Fargodome as part of the instrument’s design.

His favorite, perhaps, was last year when he used the craft of cardboard as the design. It was probably the only time Knutson didn’t give him some sort of direction, so Johnson just went with it.

“He said, I trust you, we’ve worked long enough together, just do it,” Johnson said. “I showed him a couple of samples of cardboard and so forth. He questioned it, you could tell he didn’t quite understand it, but at the end of the day he said I know what you do will work. That was special for me; that he showed me that trust with something that massive.”

It also was perhaps the most pressure Johnson felt in coming up with a design, since it took longer than the others to do.

“I had no idea how it would turn out,” he said. “That was the scariest. Every day I worked on it, I thought if this doesn’t work I’m toast. It just came together.”

Just like the race has come together for 15 years. For many runners, they know it because it’s hanging on their wall.

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