The man behind the murals

Artist Shawn McCann is a Wahpeton native, but currently lives in Crystal, Minn., near the Twin Cities. McCann is the leader of Wahpeton’s annual Borderline Chalkfest.

It was a partly cloudy and very hot day when I met muralist and street artist Shawn McCann. We met for the interview next to his mural at the intersection of Second Avenue North and Sixth Street North. The mural is short and long, featuring otters, turtles, catfish and a pineapple (a reference to “Spongebob,” just for fun). 

Leader of Wahpeton’s annual Borderline Chalkfest, McCann has painted hundreds of murals during his time as an artist. Four of them can be found in Wahpeton and Breckenridge.

McCann told me about his process in creating a mural and what goes into designing and painting one.

A graduate of the Minneapolis School of Art and Design, McCann did illustration and fine art before he started doing street art in 2004. He now creates street art and murals as his full-time job. 

 McCann told me that his career as a street artist and muralist began by accident.

“I kinda started off as an illustrator and fine artist. So, I was doing gallery shows, illustrating children’s books, things like that,” McCann said. “And somebody back in, I think it was 2004, had seen a painting of mine and asked if I could recreate it in chalk on a sidewalk for an opening of a mall. So I’m like, ‘I don’t know, I can try.’ And they’re like, ‘we just need somebody out there, it doesn’t have to turn out.’ And I just absolutely loved the process of it.”

As he did more street art, McCann was asked to make it a permanent part of the landscape. To do so, he ended up creating murals. 

These artworks cover walls that are 130-feet long and 10-feet high. He explained that the big difference between art on a canvas and art on a wall is the scale of the painting and the time he has to complete it.

“Artists will spend a week or so on a painting that is two-by-two, and I got 10 days to do 130 feet,” McCann said. 

Because many of the murals are outdoors, the weather brings an added layer of unpredictability. 

“Mother Nature likes to mess with you a lot because four or five days of rain can mess up your schedule in a hurry,” he said. “And there are some days that it’s too hot to paint, because the paint dries too quickly.”

McCann does 10-20 murals per year, depending on the size of them. The inspiration for these huge paintings often comes with some ideas from the person who commissioned the mural. For example, McCann told me that the one on Fourth Street North was supposed to feature the history of Wahpeton. 

McCann’s process for creating a mural begins with figuring out if there is something which needs to be represented in the mural. 

It starts with an email, sketching, submitting the concept and figuring out when the mural can be done weatherwise.

“Sometimes they can be organic. You just get a phone call and within a couple of months you’re working on it. And sometimes mural projects are years in the works depending on if they’re grant funded or public funded,” he said.

Murals are easier for McCann than street art because, “the walls tend to speak for themselves.”

The shape of the wall helps him figure out the design, while street art is more difficult because it is often tied to a theme. He organizes six street art events and attends seven to eight others each year. He will also do 15-30 pieces each year which are commissioned by corporate clients. 

McCann is a Wahpeton native, but currently lives in Crystal, Minnesota, near the Twin Cities. North Dakota and Minnesota winters are too cold for outdoor painting, so McCann will go to warmer climates to find work.

I was fascinated to learn that McCann had not done art in the Midwest until four or five years ago. He got his start doing work overseas and wherever else he could find it. His favorite experience of doing street art was being one of 20 artists chosen as part of the Dubai Canvas, in Dubai, United Arab Emirates. 

“I don’t know if there’s anything that can top that,” McCann said. 

When I asked McCann what he would recommend for someone who wants to try street art or murals, not to be afraid of failure, he said.

“So many people are afraid to make a mistake, and it’s something that as an artist you are constantly learning, you’re constantly trying new things,” he said. “And if you are willing to do that and just keep producing, and keep working on things, and not worry about the end result right away, then you start to learn those elements that you need to be productive and make a career out of it.” 

I had the opportunity to visit each of McCann’s murals across Wahpeton and Breckenridge, appreciating them for how much color and vibrancy they bring to ordinary walls around town. 

McCann can be found on Instagram @shawn.arts, and on TikTok and Facebook at Shawn McCann Art.

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