How mentorship and art are creating beautiful spaces in Port Huron

Art can be found all across the City of Port Huron on buildings, storm drains, and everything in between. From the sculptures along the waterfront to the vibrant murals and intricate mosaic works scattered across downtown, there has been a continuous rise in public art in Port Huron.

One eye-catching project passersby may have noticed is the new mural adorning The Active Lounge located on the corner of 7th Street and Lapeer Avenue. A work in progress that is slated to resume again soon, the mural features vibrantly colored fish and the Pere Marquette Railroad Bridge, a former regional landmark that is now demolished.

Keith Gurnsey, a resident of Port Huron and the owner, purchased the building in 2021. He says one of the motivations for his decision was his mother's desire to operate the restaurant.

Steve Nordgren's mural at The Active Lounge in Port Huron.“Maybe a month before I purchased the building my mom passed away,” he says. “Before she passed she said that I should paint something on the side of the building to make it classy.”

Gurnsey says he and the artist went back and forth for a few years on what the design should be with an initial concept that is vastly different from what the mural depicts today.

“Although I’m pleased with the design we have, my initial idea was to have cartoon characters like Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck, Scooby-Doo, and the like,” he says. “Due to copyright concerns, we decided against that and that's when Steve came up with the idea of the fish and the bridge. I think this theme fits the feel and vibe of the area better as well.”

Steve Nordgren poses for a photo in front of his artwork.

Gurnsey chose local artist Steve Nordgren to create the mural. Nordgren has been an environmental graphic design artist since around the age of 19 and the men have known each other for several years.

“When completed it will be a collage of local fish and fauna,” Nordgren says. “Lots of people want freighters and boats, but you can see those all day long.”

Once an eyesore and frequent target of graffiti, in 2021 local artists came together to transform the Military Street tunnel through the Making Muralists Project. This year will see a similar project, also with a mentorship component, at the 7th Street bridge near St. Clair County Community College.

The project was announced in August 2023 but was delayed due to weather conditions. It was supported by a $4,000 grant from the Community Foundation of St. Clair County.

Local artist and business owner, Jody Parmann, is the event organizer for the Making Muralists project. Parmann is also a member of the Port Huron Downtown Development Authority and sits on the Blue Water Arts Council.“We thought the area would be perfect for a mural when we cleaned the tunnel in preparation for welcoming the Antique Boat Show,” says Natacha Hayden, Director of the City of Port Huron’s Downtown Development Authority (DDA). “We then secured funds and partnered with artist Jody Parmann to identify a muralist interested in the idea.”

Parmann, who worked as the event organizer on the Making Muralists Project, was responsible for selecting an artist for this project.

“Investing in public art is essential for our community, emphasizing the need for large impactful pieces,” Parmann says. “We should aim for art that stands out rather than blending in, creating works that command attention and make a bold statement.”

April Cutler showcases the space in the tunnel underneath 7th St. in Port Huron nearby St. Clair County Community College.

Applegate resident April Cutler was the mentor chosen for the project and had worked with Parmann on the Making Muralists Project. She says Parmann suggested she work with Rhiannon Galloway, a Port Huron resident and senior at Port Huron High School.

“My role will be helping her to get everything she needs as far as paints and supplies,” Cutler says. “I will be helping her paint the larger areas, but I will leave the fine details to her because that's where artists make the art their own.”

Galloway says the theme and style of the mural are inspired by the works of Studio Ghibli, a Japanese film company known for its unique art style. One of the studio’s most popular creations “Spirited Away” is the highest-grossing film in Japan.

Rhiannon Galloway poses for a photo.“One side is going to be a half above, half underwater piece with lily pads that will bleed into a field. The other side will be something Ghibli inspired,” she says. “Their films have inspired my art a lot, possibly because I began watching them at a young age.”

Galloway says she heard about the 7th Street bridge project through her mother who suggested that she participate.

“My dad was an artist so he taught me a lot,” Galloway says. “He would paint D&D figures and draw maps for his campaigns and stuff. He showed me that you can do anything you want with your mind.”

Galloway says she is excited to have her artwork showcased publicly and is looking forward to participating in the project.

“You can paint as much as you want, but the opportunity to paint a mural isn’t as frequent,” she says. “I’m looking forward to working with my mentor on this project, and I feel it will help me build community in the artistic space here.”
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Read more articles by Harold Powell.

Harold Powell is the Community Correspondent for The Keel and owner of Phantom Pen Media offering multimedia services to individuals and organizations across the Blue Water Area. He is a current board member for the Blue Water Area Chamber of Commerce and the most recent Chamber Choice recipient at the Eddy Awards. Harold is an avid volunteer for the YMCA of the Blue Water Area as well as Bridge Builders Counseling & Mentoring and in his spare time, enjoys spending time with his son, writing and listening to music, playing video games, and not folding laundry.