About the Artists
Mark Balma distinctly remembers wanting to be an artist from the age of 5 and loved to draw full scale figures of the saints for the religious study course in his Catholic grade school. At 16, Balma enrolled as the youngest student at the specialized art school, Atelier Lack. After several years of studio training with Twin Cities painter Richard Lack, he received two Elizabeth Greensheild grants to support himself and pay tuition.
Balma moved to Italy to study the works of Pietro Annigoni, then considered the world's master fresco painter. At 24, in 1981, Mark Balma had enough work assembled to have a one man exhibition in Milan. The show was a success, but the next two years were difficult ones.
By day he fulfilled portrait commissions by day and studied Italian by night.
In 1983 he moved to London and stayed for two years exhibiting again and fulfilling more portrait commissions. He returned in 1984 to fulfill a commission for St. Mary's College in Winona, MN to embarked on his first major fresco project of three murals for the Performing Arts Center there.
In 1988 he painted a fresco for Huber Funeral Chapel in Excelsior, Minnesota.
In the fall of 1995 he began two fresco paintings in the historic Cathedral of St. Paul in St. Paul, Minnesota.
Balma also paints oil portraits. He has recently completed portraits of Gen. Colin Powell, Dick Cheney, James Baker, Gen. Brent Scowcraft and former President George Bush.
The St. Thomas fresco project profoundly affected Balma's apprentices and their goals. The artist founded a genuine workshop, where all learned together and participated equally in the daily tasks that are the foundation of a successful fresco.
They were also primarily responsible for the water birds, where each assistant took ownership over a particular bird, did more research; drew sketches and "cartoons," and painted one or more birds.
Mastering the fresco medium is a lifelong pursuit, but the assistants took the first step on that exhilarating and often frustrating journey. To understand the temperamental nature of the pigments and plaster was to comprehend and become a part of centuries of artistic endeavor.
Kay Blassingame has lived in several regions throughout the United States, and chose to move to Minneapolis in 1985 because of its reputation as a strong arts community. She earned her B.F.A. at Western State College in Guinnison, Colo., and completed two years of postgraduate study at the Art Students League and the New York Academy of Art in New York City.
A scenic artist, Blassingame has worked at KTCA-TV, Children's Theatre Company, Dayton's, and on various film projects. Trained as a chiaroscurist, Blassingame admires the art of Rembrandt, Val'zquez and John Singer Sargent, who all share her interest in the interplay of light and shadow. This quality infuses her paintings and drawings.
Blassingame heard about Mark Balma's project and sent him slides of her work in anticipation of becoming an assistant. She aspires to learn more about fresco and eventually to teach, disseminating and preserving knowledge of this complex medium. Blassingame feels fresco is a challenging mode of artistic expression, particularly because nature can influence the daily working conditions so greatly. She also is enthusiastic about the connection between public art and fresco.
Jessie Fisher received a B.F.A. degree from the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis.
Fisher met Mark Balma in the early stages of the St. Thomas fresco project. Her interest in learning the art of fresco painting was so strong that she asked if she could work with him, if only as a "go-fer." Instead, Balma offered her an apprenticeship and she learned the demands of fresco firsthand. The fresco process appeals to Fisher because of its methodical, almost mathematical organization of technique.
Jessie has completed a fresco panel for Studio Balma at the Huber Mortuary in Eden Prairie, Minn., as well as several private commissions in the Twin Cities, including a watercolor series for the Division of Business at the University of St. Thomas. She is currently working on a commission for the Graduate School of Business at St. Thomas, and is pursuing an M.F.A degree at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in Philadelphia.
Jan Struck received his B.S. degree in graphic design and illustration from Bemidji State University. Formerly an art director, Struck currently is exploring a career change to a fine art discipline. To that end, he recently attended Atelier LeSueur in Minnetonka to further develop his drawing and painting skills, working in watercolor, charcoal and silverpoint.
Inspired by a lecture given by Mark Balma at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, Struck contacted Balma regarding an apprenticeship. Struck became very involved with the fresco project, often undertaking the early morning preparation tasks so crucial to a successful day section of plaster, a necessary step for a productive day of painting.
Suzanne Howe received a B.A. in art from Winona State University and an M.A. from Morehead State University in Morehead, Ky. In addition, Howe attended Atelier LeSueur in Minnetonka, Minn., for five years to further hone her skills.
A practicing graphic artist, Howe also creates landscapes, portraits, still lifes and florals in oils and pastels. Her work has been featured in several juried competitions and small-group shows in Minnesota and Kentucky, including the juried exhibition at the Minnesota State Fair, where she received an honorable mention.
While at Atelier LeSueur, Howe became acquainted with Mark Balma and later met with him in Assisi, Italy, during a European journey.
Kristin Amanda worked as decorative artist for more than 16 years, creating murals, paintings, furniture, fabric and jewelry.
Although Amanda works primarily on private commissions, she has done commercial work for Andersen Windows, Steiner and Koppleman Homes and the Dayton-Hudson Corp. Her fine art has been featured in several juried exhibitions, including the Minnetonka Center for the Arts, the Artists Association of Minnesota, and Northern Lights, a five-state regional show. She also has been a participant in the annual auction fundraiser at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts and presented a solo exhibition at Cosecha Design.
Doug DeSanto lived in the Minneapolis area most of his life, and attended St. John's University in Collegeville, Minn., where he obtained a B.A. in studio arts and Spanish. Focusing on figure drawing and intaglio printmaking as well as stone and wood sculpture, DeSanto received the Claus Meinberg Award, given annually to an outstanding fine-art student. He furthered his professional endeavors through mentorships with two sculptors.
Several years ago DeSanto read an article in the Minneapolis Star Tribune detailing Mark Balma's work. He did some detective work, locating Balma's relatives in the Twin Cities and eventually visiting Balma in Assisi.
Paul Hietpas is a graduate of Cretin-Derham Hall high school, where he pursued advanced art courses. Featured in Macalester College's "Best 100" exhibition, which highlighted 100 outstanding local high school artists, Hietpas went on to the University of St. Thomas to obtain a B.A. in studio art. He currently specializes in ceramic sculpture and pastels.
Lucia Tosti, a native of Bastia, Umbra, Italy, is a self-taught artist who works in a variety of media. An apprentice to Mark Balma in Assisi, Tosti traveled to the United States for the first time to assist in the preliminary stages of the St. Thomas project. She previously worked with Balma on the preparatory cartoons for the St. Thomas frescoes, as well as his commission for the Church of St. John the Baptist in Pierre San Nicol, Italy.
Maren Nelson is a summa cum laude graduate in art history at the University of Minnesota, where she was a recipient of the Selmer Birkelo Scholarship and the Waller Scholarship, both awards given to outstanding students in the College of Liberal Arts. She studied fresco conservation in Italy on the Student Project for Amity Among Nations (SPAN) program.
Nelson has worked in various areas of the arts field, including gallery management and registration at the University of Minnesota's Katherine E. Nash Gallery; student services at the Minnetonka Center for the Arts; and curatorial assistance at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts. One of her projects at the institute was the coordination of the exhibition Visions of the People: A Pictorial History of Plains Indian Life.
Rollin Alm studied studio arts at North Dakota State University. Concentrating on silk screen printmaking and watercolors, he has been a professional artist since 1984, winning several best-of-show awards.
Alm has exhibited his work at the Witmer Art Center in Grand Forks, North Dakota.
Rusty Hendrickson came out of retirement to lay the plaster for the frescoes. Laying plaster mixed with lime is an almost forgotten art that only a handful of skilled craftsmen still know how to do. Between 7 and 9 in the morning every day, Rusty came in and laid the plaster on the area to be painted that day, called a "day section."
Special thanks go to Maren Nelson for her text in Fresco, the Assistants' Exhibition.