Mellette mural is where bison roam, brown bears play

Jonathan Imafidor works on a mural on the former American Legion building in Mellette. The building, now owned by Tom "Willie" Dvorak, depicts scenes from South Dakota and Alaska with animals that are subjects of Dvorak's guided hunting business. The building is now used for storage. (Kelda J.L. Pharris/Aberdeen American News via AP)

MELLETTE (AP) – Pastel swatches reach to the heavens as a building in Mellette gets a makeover born of a hunting guide's and traveling muralist's prideful work.

The guide is Tom "Willie" Dvorak of Mellette. The muralist is Nigerian-born Jonathan Imafidor. Together they're using Imafidor's skill to create a mural on two brick faces of the former American Legion building. The scene's north face will be set in "Dakota," Imafidor said July 29. The west side will depict a scene from Alaska – the two states in which Dvorak guides hunts.

A flag for President Donald Trump flew above, and a bison Imafidor was giving texture to peered south across the town and into the sliver of open plains beyond.

Imafidor is no stranger to the area nor to painting animals that are quintessentially South Dakotan. He's done murals in Lemmon, Faulkton and Hettinger, which is along U.S. Highway 12 to the west and just across the border into North Dakota, Aberdeen American News reported.

He's done even more in his current home base of Atlanta, where in September 2017 he moved to get his master's degree from the Savannah College of Art & Design, Atlanta.

Last summer, Imafidor worked with friend and fellow Nigerian Dotun Popoola on a Faulkton mural depicting the last wild bison hunt in Faulk County in 1883.

The latest project is a collaboration of Dvorak's livelihood and Imafidor's vision. Both men hold a comfortable confidence and respect in each other's work.

"Most time they give me an idea of what they want," Imafidor said of his clients. "But I try to work around in it to (make) an interesting subject. For a building like this I don't think anything can be more appropriate than a landscape because it needs a lot of space to breath because we have so many elements like windows, doors," Imafidor said as he painted.

He works from 8 a.m. until about 9 p.m., altering sides as the sun coaxes the shade to a new spot.

"I look at the structure I'm going to be working on and that dictates the technique that I use and the subject that would best fit. If the owner of the building had told me to do something else, I would've advised him," Imafidor said.

His works in Atlanta tend to be commissioned, but entirely of his own volition, he said. In his South Dakota murals he's given a more extensive purview, but seems to revel in it. He scrolls through dozens of photos of bison, and he's also seen them in person.

"He wanted me to tell his story as a hunter," Imafidor said of Dvorak. "I asked him a few questions – 'What have you been hunting? What kind of animals have you killed? What animal is your source of livelihood?' He has hunted a lot of bears. It's really symbolic to him. He told me about prairie dog. It's one of the largest sources of his income. I asked him what part of the U.S. does he really function in his hunting games, you know?"

A shadowy, unfinished coyote croons on the far end of the Mellette mural. Two male bison kick up dust in the foreground. Prairie dogs and a calf are to come. All against a backdrop that would only work as camouflage against South Dakota's July sunsets. On the other wall, a mother brown bear with three cubs looks ready to walk up First Avenue, fresh from wading in an Alaskan lake.

There were some eyebrows raised when Imafidor set about his work. But as his scenes went from colorful bursts to familiar forms, he's received more and more positive feedback. On July 29, three people stopped in the span of 20 minutes to praise his work. At the time he was six days in and had a finish date another six days away.

Imafidor's mural projects start with primer, then he uses mural paint, which holds up better to outdoor elements. In a few months, Imafidor believes the mural will be ready for a matte clear coat that will help the animals and scenery shrouding Dvorak's makeshift storage shop for another 50 to 70 years.

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