Animal collective


Prolific muralists Broken Crow add wild scenes to urban landscapes.

It's three weeks before the opening of Broken Crow's next exhibition, and the basement floor of Mike Fitzsimmons' St. Paul home is covered in paint, stencils and completed and nearly completed paintings that will make up half of the show. The other half is stockpiled at the home of John Grider, four blocks down the street.

Slightly grizzled in hoodies and baggy pants, and sitting on lawn chairs in the art-strewn basement, Fitzsimmons and Grider -- the ubiquitous street-art duo known as Broken Crow -- look like overgrown teenagers. But over the course of nine years, the 32-year-olds have turned collaborative art-making into a thriving grown-up business. The two have a knack for finishing each other's thoughts, evidence of their decade-long partnership.

"A lot of the time that we spend on a project," says Grider, "we end up having conversations about other paintings we want to make."

"We still make work by ourselves ... " Fitzsimmons begins.

"[ ... but] we just trust each other," says Grider. "I think it's more fun to have someone to bounce ideas off of."

While both were drawn to street art in different ways -- Fitzsimmons has a fine-art background, while Grider is decidedly more DIY -- the artists found in each other a kindred spirit, and have been painting around the country and the world as a team ever since. Their latest homecoming exhibition, "We Did What We Could," opens Friday at XYandZ Gallery in Minneapolis, their second show at the gallery in as many years.

Even if you don't know the name Broken Crow, you have more than likely seen their work: large-scale, colorful murals of wild animals stencil-painted on sides of Twin Cities buildings in an unmistakable gritty-yet-refined style.

"Animals interacting with human environments has always been a huge theme," Grider says.

Fitzsimmons: "When we're painting a mural, just painting the animal on the human environment is part of the interaction."

By utilizing the weathered, ready-made canvases of city buildings and walls, the prolific pair subtly make a statement about the effect of urban development on nature. While some of Broken Crow's animals are reintroduced into their natural habitats -- wolves, owls and bears, oh my! -- others intrude into unexpected places, like a shark exploding out of the side of the Nomad World Pub. Still other murals show a more literal take on human-animal interaction, as in depictions of a man with the head of a lion (at 2nd St. and 1st Av. N. in Minneapolis' North Loop) and an owl resting atop a pile of skulls on a building in Duluth.

Despite the obvious thrill of working on large-scale and sometimes high-profile murals, the two are excited to be scaling down for their new exhibit. The work in "We Did What We Could" represents a lesser-seen side of Broken Crow, who took the seasonal slowdown in the mural business last fall as an opportunity to explore some decidedly smaller-scale ideas. The largest pieces in the show are 3-by-5 feet, a far cry from a typical 70-foot Broken Crow mural.

"It was like a blank slate you can go anywhere with," Grider says of the gallery format. "You have room to do a lot more." One new painting shows a growling bear atop a tricycle with a jet-pack strapped to its back; another depicts a herd of zebras that appear to be stampeding through a murky city fog.