Mural artist brightens look of Rapid City church

In this Aug. 27 photo, Derek Smith looks at the mural that he painted on the back of Woyatan Lutheran Church on Anamosa Street in Rapid City. (Adam Fondren/Rapid City Journal via AP)

RAPID CITY (AP) – Wearing his typical uniform of paint-splattered clothing, Derek "Focus" Smith stood in front of a new, colorful mural full of Lakota imagery painted on a north side Rapid City church.

"Given the north side of Rapid is known as predominantly Native, I think it's very fitting and empowering," the 31-year-old said of the mural on the Woyatan Lutheran Church, located near the intersection of Haines Avenue and Anamosa Street.

"This was important to us because we are in the heart of north side and the Native community," said Johnathan Old Horse, a pastor at the church that blends Christianity with Lakota spirituality and helps poor and incarcerated people. "This is just a way to show that everyone's welcome here, everyone's beliefs are important, and the things that our ancestors had, it's still who we are."

Smith doesn't belong to the church but sang with its drum group outside the Pennington County Jail on Father's Day. Church members asked if he's a painter after he arrived in one of his many paint-covered outfits. He explained that he's a longtime graffiti and mural artist, and they asked if he could paint a giant white wall for them, the Rapid City Journal reported.

Smith recently finished the mural after working on it for about a week and a half after his day job as the community engagement coordinator of the Rapid City Arts Council/Dahl Arts Center.

"You have to make a choice to walk away" from the painting and decide it's done, or you will never finish it, Smith said.

The bottom of the mural has a large bald eagle and altar with a bison skull; images of the Black Hills, prairie and Bear Butte; and a red, yellow, black and white eight-pointed star. Clouds, including some shaped like bison, and a human figure holding a pipe overlook the orange-red sunset and scene bellow.

The human figure is supposed to represent the Christian God as well as the White Buffalo Calf Woman bringing the Chanunpa, or sacred pipe, to the Lakota people.

"I wanted to try to pay homage to both" cultures, Smith said.

He said the bison skull altar is placed in front of sweat lodges, where Lakota people undergo a spiritual experience that involves mental and physical concentration.

"In my mind, all of life is just like that ceremony. It's creating yourself, it's building yourself, and building those around you through your struggles and the things that you move through," Smith said.

The mural has all colors of the rainbow, even the shadowing is painted in dark blues or purples instead of pure black.

Color "makes the world a better place," Smith said.

Smith was born in Orem, Utah, and is from the Standing Rock and Navajo nations. When he was 14, he began making graffiti in Salt Lake City. He taught himself to paint and relied on mentors but has no formal training. He later moved to Pine Ridge Reservation and now lives in Rapid City with his daughters.

He's painted murals in Art Alley and inside the mall for I.Am.Legacy, and is now excited to have a massive mural off a major road in North Rapid.

Smith said he hopes the mural encourages Native people to connect with their culture and gives "the youth something to look at that would help them to get through a dark day."

"Walls with murals and painted imagery on them do a lot more for the soul to help somebody feel happy about something or give them a little brief moment of distraction other than just something they see every day, routine advertisements," he said. "Everybody can take away from it what they want."

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