The Art of Transformation

Visionary $750,000 Project Set to Re-Invent Saginaw's Riverfront

    icon Sep 21, 2023
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With a rich and fertile history that has given birth to Pulitzer Prize-winning poets, Captains of Innovation, and Grammy-award winning artists while also surviving the Boom & Bust years of the Lumbering Era and post-NAFTA decimation of the Automobile industry back in 1994, a pair of regional movers-and-shakers have drawn inspiration from the world of Art to articulate a vision for bringing new life and a fresh bridge into the future for Saginaw County.

Conceived by former Michigan Sugar Company president Mark Flegenheimer, who enlisted the aide of his good friend and current TempleArts Board Chairman, Larry Preston, this dynamic duo quickly assembled a committee together including local artist Jim Perkins, Saginaw Art Museum Director, Mike Kolleth, media legend Art Lewis, and several other knowledgeable advisors and are currently in the midst of transforming a series of towering and long-abandoned old riverfront grain silos into a unique world-class installation of innovative Public Art, which they anticipate will draw people from all over the world to the banks of the Saginaw River in Old Town Saginaw.

Earlier this summer the pair unveiled a $750,000 plan to hire an internationally-renowned artist known simply as Okuda to transform seven 150-foot tall concrete & steel 70-year old grain silos into what they anticipate will be the second largest mural in the United States.

Having secured early investments from 10 organizations including the Harvey Randall Wickes Foundation, Dow Chemical Co. Foundation and Huntington Bank, the collective mural artwork will cover 360 degrees of each towering cylindrical silo at the site, with a total surface area that adds up to 70,000 square feet.

According to research the team conducted, the only larger Public Mural in the United States will be the Toledo-based, 170,000 square-foot Glass City River Wall Mural, which also repurposed old grain silos as a canvas.  With a completion date set for May, 2024, just in time for the 2024 Canadian Hockey League Memorial Cup Tournament, which is anticipated to draw spectators from all over the country and generate $25 million of commerce, both Flegenheimer & Preston envision this project as using the world of art as a bridge to Saginaw County’s past and an important avenue to prosperity for its future.

The silos represent one of Saginaw’s once-flourishing industries. The long-defunct Frutchey Bean Co. built most of the existing structures on the property in the 1950s to store grains and beans, yet one-hundred years earlier the property was owned by a milling company; but once this renovation is completed, it could easily become a statewide & national draw for tourism.

To transform these silos into canvases the developers secured an easement agreement with SkyWeb Networks, the Saginaw-based Internet provider that uses the silos because of their 150-foot height, installing antennas at the zenith to boost cell phone signal coverage. The structures can continue to serve that function while doubling as an artistic monument.  “They’ve been great to work with and certainly are pleased with our endeavors to clean up and improve the exterior of the facility,” notes Flegenheimer.

“This is a great opportunity to change the whole look and welcoming feel for people entering Saginaw,” he continues. “I can see that Riverfront people drive when coming off the highway where you go from the Dow Event Center, to The Temple Theatre, over to the Children’s Museum, down to the Zoo on Hoyt Park, over the bridge to Old Town, and then at the end of Old Town they come upon this beautiful visual anchor that brings everything together.”

“Moreover, even though it’s beyond the scope of our current renovation project, once these murals are completed I see this opening many future possibilities for Saginaw,” adds Preston. “Our fundraising includes basic landscaping like clearing brush & debris away that runs along the river, and there is an existing concrete foundation that could be converted to an outdoor stage area for summer concerts or other productions, so this project also opens up a whole new arena of possibility.”

“It’s going to be spectacular.”

The Alchemy of Transforming Dreams Into Reality

The unfolding of this massive project truly does offer a textbook lesson in how to transform an idea into a reality and began five years ago when Flegenheimer went back to visit his old college Alma Mater.

“I went to college in Indiana at DePauw University back in the ‘80s,” he explains. “As I drove into town I was greeted by these silos on the edge of campus that were not the prettiest to behold. Four or five year ago I went back to campus and was driving down this country road waiting to get around the hill and over the corner to be greeted by the silos, and there they were with this beautiful mural adorning each and every one of them.”

“ I said to myself we’ve got to do this same thing in Saginaw. We’ve got the same kind of setting. So many people get routed into Saginaw through M-46 and once they get over the bridge and turn they see these dilapidated silos. I retired in May of this year and Larry is a good friend of mine, so I mentioned this idea to him and he said, ‘We’re gonna do that.’  “Once we started things fell into place and I knew this was meant to be.”

After deliberating over the resumes of approximately a dozen world class muralists, the committee decided upon retaining Okuda San Miguel, who is based out of Madrid, Spain. His resume includes the Kaos Temple in Spain, along with several notably striking and highly valued works on structures in Brazil, Canada, France, India, and Peru, to name but a few.

The selection process was a laborious and challenging one.

According to Preston, their committee went online looking for non-representational artists. “We came down to five finalists and didn’t want to get involved putting something out there that would offend someone else, so we wanted the renderings to be joyful and positive - something that once peoples’ eyes fall upon it they feel a sense of joy,” he explains.

“We also were looking for artists with experience working on big murals,” he adds, “along with curved surfaces. “Okuda will use some of his team of international artists and then also work with a few of our own local artists. Because we’re dealing with a cluster of silos, with each having a different mural rendering around each of them, it’s a really fascinating process.”

“Right now the silos are being cleaned and primed with a special paint called tnemec, which is the word ‘cement’ spelled backwards,” notes Preston. “It’s a white base used on metal surfaces and the silos already have two coats. Each of them will also have two coats of color and each silo will consist of vibrant colors. Okuda will come to Saginaw in April and paint the whole project in four to six weeks. He works with a crew of six people and his work is spectacular. I will argue this will be the finest mural in the country when we are done.”

“A good friend of mind at this company called H20 did a lot of work on our silos when I was with Michigan Sugar,” explains Mark, “so they’ve been very cooperative assisting us with applying the tnemec. It comes with a 20-year guarantee, but it could last forever because problems with peeling usually don’t involve the paint, it’s the underlining that will deteriorate such as bricks peeling back. With the hard metal surfaces of these silos, we’re not going to have that deterioration, so this could last for 50 years. Plus, any excess money we raise will go into a foundation so we can maintain these structures.”

 “We did talk with other artists who have done big murals,” notes Flegenheimer, “but as Larry noted, there aren’t a lot of artists out there who fell in line with our goals of the work being bright, abstract, and non-representational while also possessing the experience to tackle something of this scale and magnitude. As we kept digging, Okudu kept bouncing back to the top in terms of checking off all the boxes of what we were looking for.  I also talked to one guy who was way out of our price range - so yeah, monetary issues were a concern as well. Not that Okudu is cheap, but we had to take all factors into consideration.”

“We were able to strike a balance with Okudu,” states Preston. “We’ll be able to review his drafts but he needs  creative liberties to do what he wants, while at the same time recognizing that we need to have some input. We’ve looked at all of his art and have given him some ideas for preliminary designs, but the ultimate design will be within his artistic scope of decision making.”

Moving Forward • One Step Beyond

Amazingly, according to Flegenheimer approximately $650,000 has been raised to date for the Silo project and shortly they will be launching a ‘GoFundMe’ type campaign with Patronicity, which is an online site dedicated to building vibrant communities.

 “We’re in the process of setting it up and they match up to $50,000 of the amount you raise,” he explains. “Bay City used them for the Globe public art piece they did in Uptown, so we hope to have that up and going in the next few weeks.  Everybody in the community can participate, whether it’s a donation of ten dollars or a thousand dollars, and we’re going to need a lot of people sharing the website to achieve our goal.”

.“Think of it in these terms: What is it that Saginaw has on a national basis — if not a worldly basis — that is considered the very best,” reflects Preston.  “We believe this project will accomplish that,” concludes Flegenheimer.

 “This will give us an iconic and transformative treasure that can truly restructure the shape of our future.”

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