By Esme Murphy

MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) — In 2020, Minneapolis native and artist Mark Balma received a commission to paint frescoes on the walls of a Catholic church just north of Rome. But COVID-19 found him locked out of the country.

So instead, Balma has been painting his frescoes in a studio in uptown Minneapolis. Soon he will be shipping them to Italy.

In a cavernous empty floor of a new office building in Uptown, Balma is dwarfed by his three, 15-by-20-foot frescoes celebrating women of faith.

“It will be the first place in the world that I know of that women become the primary focus of the story of the works,” he said.

The plan prior to the pandemic was for the Minneapolis native to paint all the frescoes at this church in the town of Terni just north of Rome.

“They had the travel blockade. We started to shut down here and no flights were going out,” he said.

That’s when Minneapolis developer Stuart Ackerberg stepped in, donating the use of an entire building floor as a studio. And so the frescoes have gone from sketches to towering figures.

“This was like a miracle come true. It had high ceilings, it had beautiful light to paint under, and in the midst of the COVID it was totally secure,” he said.

Among his frescoes is Hagar — a wife of Abraham in the desert, the creation of Adam and Eve — and Abraham and his wives, the older Sara and the youthful Hagar. All fresh views of ancient stories.

He hopes to soon ship these panels to Italy and finish the other seven panels there. He says it will take two years to complete the collection that will highlight links between the world’s great religions.

“From Sara and Isaac come the Judeo-Christian line, from Hagar and Ishmael come the Islam nation,” he said. “We need to understand more of each other’s faiths. It will help us live together more peacefully that way.”

If you’re wondering how the frescos can be shipped to Italy without being damaged, Balma is using a little known but ancient technique of painting on sailcloth, which can be rolled up and shipped in a tube. All three panels weigh less than 50 pounds.

Esme Murphy