Finding a ‘brand new canvas’: Port Huron mural projects put renewed focus on public art

Artist Steve Nordgren readies a paint roller while working on a mural along the side of the Active Lounge on Tuesday, Sept. 19, 2023.

Earlier this month, a wide band of deep and heavy blue seemed to suddenly appear on the side red brick wall of the Active Lounge at Seventh Street and Lapeer Avenue near downtown Port Huron.

Soon, drivers and passers-by would see why.

“So, my friend Keith Gurnsey bought this place, and I talked him into letting me do some public art on here,” artist Steve Nordgren said Tuesday with a laugh. He’d taken a brief break to answer questions about the mural taking shape behind him — a practice over several days that he’d gotten used to as people stopped to ask — with painted fish and splashes of white mixed into lighter shades of blue.

The 64-year-old local resident held up a rendering of his plans, including a black graphic silhouette of a Port Huron cityscape, complete with a now-dismantled Pere Marquette Railroad Bridge. By Friday, the bridge was being painted onto the wall.

He admitted he may not finish everything he has in mind before winter but hoped to continue the piece farther up the side of the building next year.

“(We could) have like a setting sun where it’s the big orange sun with the fuchsia and purple sky in the clouds, and it gets all pink and orange,” Nordgren said. “That would be really complementary with this color blue. Then, maybe have a silhouette of a boat with some bass fishing guys angling up there. It’s more or less a nod to the sports fishing here because there’s so many fanatics. They’re out there in their damn snowsuits. That’s what I should do is a guy with a snowmobile suit on there.”

And without missing a beat, Nordgren had made himself laugh again.

Experienced muralist Steve Nordgren holds up potential plans for a silhouetted Port Huron cityscape, complete with the now-dismantled Pere Marquette Railroad Bridge, on Tuesday, Sept. 19, 2023, as part of an ongoing piece on the side of the Active Lounge at Lapeer Avenue and Seventh Street.

Gurnsey, who bought the Active Lounge a couple years ago and reopened the bar earlier this year, said in a message, that he’s been trying to get Nordgren to do public art there for three years.

“It’s going to be really cool,” he said.

For Nordgren, it’s his latest effort in the area after decades of work — with multiple examples still intact, such as the muraled athletes outside of Tailgaters Sports Bar farther west on Lapeer.

For Port Huron, however, his piece is part of a new emphasis on public art and why it’s important.

Nearby, at the pedestrian tunnel beneath the Seventh Street Bridge, a bright white has been painted over the interior surface walls and ceiling, covering years of graffiti.

City Manager James Freed said the city painted the tunnel late this summer before he reached out to local artist and business owner Jody Parmann to help find a muralist to fill the “brand new canvas.”

They each said in separate interviews, they were among the individuals who stopped to talk to Nordgren about his mural. Now, Parmann said she saw an opportunity to newly highlight an array of artists — both the new and more experienced.

“Within the art community, it’s so often that the new up-and-comers get a lot of (attention). And then, you have Steve Nordgren, who is kind of a master muralist in this area. Like, ‘Oh yeah, he does this all the time,’” Parmann said. “But we really got to raise up both people, whether you’re brand new to the art game or you’ve been doing it for years and years. Our community can only benefit by encouraging both those people no matter where they’re at on their art journey, right?”

An example of what the Military Street tunnel could look like after 20 artists create 20 different murals in the space with conversational prompts between them.

Why is public art so important?

Parmann has been involved with a previous art effort at the tunnel below Military Street and just off the Blue Water River Walk.

The Seventh Street Bridge tunnel was another step toward making art more universally accessible and free to the public.

“You don’t have to dress nice to go into a nice gallery. Anybody can walk by it and appreciate it. And I think that’s important,” Parmann said Thursday. “As far as encouraging this kind of thing in this community, I personally love to go to communities with public art. When you go to Detroit, it’s like going to a museum, except you’re just driving down the street, and I love that idea. I feel like it’s a good draw to get people in our community.”

Freed agreed.

“Studies have shown that public art is part of the placemaking process, which is a key drive to economic development. So, there’s a rhyme and reason to why we want to support public art,” he said. “But in addition to that, we have so many talented and brilliant artists within our community. To offer them a platform to showcase their talent is really important to us.”

Indeed, public art has popped up in multiple ways around the area — and often as a joint venture between artists, private landowners, and public entities.

Donna Mitchell-Collins paints her mural for the Thumb Coast Storm Drain Art Project in 2022. The project aimed to raise awareness to the connection between storm drains and Michigan rivers.

The Friends of the St. Clair River’s Storm Drain Project has worked with local artists to wrap colorful imagery around the curbed entryways to sewers in city centers over the last year or two.

And occasionally, other small but noticeable works have shown up on the sides of buildings on private property.

In Port Huron, the push for public art may not end with the city’s bridge tunnels.

Although he was mum on which areas could support new public art, as the city works with property owners, Freed added, “We have a lot of conversations going on right now for future public art installations.”

On Tuesday, Nordgren speculated where public art could go — first joking he had a “kind of top secret” plan to add a sunken sailing ship with a staved-in hull to his Active Lounge mural.

“There’s lots of spots you could paint, man. I mean, look at that whole brick wall over there,” he said motioning to the back of the old Michigan Bell Telephone Co. building.

Then, pointing to another on Quay Street across the Black River, Nordgren added, “There’s a nice brown brick wall over there that’d be cool on the water and do like Whaling Walls. You know that (artist Robert) Wyland guy? He’s originally from (Michigan), but he paints whales all around the world. So, do that around Port Huron. Just paint walleyes and fishing boats. Everybody wants freighters and sailboats, but that’s overdone.”

Two sides to a mural by Rhiannon Galloway planned for the Seventh Street shows spring grassy and watery scenes.

What’s going up at the Seventh Street Bridge tunnel?

Freed said they were utlizing funds the city has access to through the Community Foundation of St. Clair County for the Seventh Street Bridge tunnel.

After taking to Facebook several weeks ago, Parmann said she received ideas from 10 or 11 interested artists.

Among them was April Cutler, who’s behind the flowered wall on another building off Lapeer.

Ultimately, the gig went to young artist Rhiannon Galloway, who contributed a piece to the past Military Street tunnel project and who Parmann called “super talented.”

With the much bigger feat at Seventh Street, though, Parmann said she was pairing Cutler with Rhiannon to help complete her vision.

“For her piece in the tunnel (under) Military Street, that was the black one with the frog outline, and that had like the pond and everything behind it. But she’s very creative. We went with hers. It’s a spring scene that she sent us.”

The mural layout itself shows two images. One is a grassy landscape with flowers and boldly outlined clouds, while the other is watery with lotus flowers floating upon lily pads.

The colors in the mockup are soft, cool tones, which 17-year-old Rhiannon said are “more pleasant” to her. She said she found a lot of inspiration in films from Japanese animator Studio Ghibli — her favorite is “Howl’s Moving Castle” — and started looking into murals more after painting a parking spot at Port Huron High School, where she’s a senior.

“It’s a childhood thing for me. I grew up with Ghibli films,” Rhiannon said. “I always loved the art style.”

The teen said she hoped the Seventh Street Bridge tunnel would become “a link in a long chain of work” for her, as well as “a really good community building sort of opportunity.”

Contact Jackie Smith at (810) 989-6270 or

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