Sioux Falls’ Zach DeBoer loves to paint street lines

When Zach DeBoer graduated from the University of South Dakota with a degree in art education and an emphasis in print making, he just assumed he would be a teacher. Even when he worked at the college’s art gallery and became interested in gallery work, or would put on art shows in local venues around Sioux Falls with his art club, he still assumed he would be a teacher.

And he did become a teacher, but his story doesn’t end there. After graduating he got a job teaching art at a middle school, and he sincerely enjoyed the work and the students. But after two years he started to feel restless.

“I wasn’t really excited about what I was doing,” he says. “I didn’t feel connected to the community.” He had graduated with a group of friends who were in bands and still made art to keep themselves engaged and making work because, he continued, “a lot of people just stop making art after art school, or in Sioux Falls they just leave and go somewhere else. Our community was trying to build ourselves as an art community, but there were not that many opportunities to showcase artwork.”

He says that Sioux Falls has a lot of “…and gallery” spaces, like, “coffee house and gallery;” “bookstore and gallery.” But there weren’t a whole lot of just straight galleries. And while Sioux Falls has a lot of great museums, if an artist’s exhibit is accepted at a museum it’s a two-year wait before it’s shown. “It’s really hard to build momentum and make a living as an artist that way,” he said.

After teaching, DeBoer got a job with the community development nonprofit organization Downtown Sioux Falls (DTSF) helping with administrative work and events like the monthly arts-and-culture-focused First Fridays. He also decided to open an art gallery called Exposure Gallery & Studios.

Exposure was a contemporary art space that hosted exclusively local artists from South Dakota, mostly in Sioux Falls, working in any medium. Each month he would come up with a challenge or an idea for theme for the next exhibit, and then artists would have a month to make something and submit it to the show. Exposure also had seven affordable art studios to address the lack of such available spaces in the city.

Exposure participated in First Fridays and also held workshops, artist talks, and community meetings where people could use the space for things like yoga classes. The gallery also produced a lot of murals and other public art pieces.

“I wanted to bring art into the community more,” DeBoer says. “Sioux Falls has an amazing sculpture walk, but it was kind of lacking in terms of murals and other public art compared to other urban cities our size.”

He said that, for the most part, Sioux Falls is still in its cultural infancy. While the local arts and culture scene has been growing, a lack of funding combined with a lack of venues has created a gap; though, he added, he has been seeing more forward momentum in this area recently.

Exposure also produced special events, but one that he was most proud of was called Art Maze. This event overtook a four-story 1980s office building downtown that had been sitting empty for years (three of the floors were identical, which made it disorienting—hence, “maze”). DeBoer had read an article that said the new owners were about to gut it, so he reached out to them through Facebook one night and asked if he could do an art show there before they started the construction. They agreed, and he was able to get about 60 local artists into the show, overtaking about 40,000 square feet of space with installations, murals, live performances, music, and art. The show opened for two days, and after that the building was gutted.

“It felt like an event that changed things for a lot of people,” he says. “It introduced a lot of artists to each other. Anybody could come do something. I made a Facebook group and invited all the artists I knew, gave them tours of the space, and they signed up for the show. After that I became interested in public events like that; events that lead to change.”

Zach DeBoer at work.

Around that same time, DeBoer became familiar with the Better Block Foundation and their work around tactical urbanism projects—placemaking work like pop-up coffeehouses to calm busy streets and the like.

“I was interested in working outdoors in public spaces and doing things with events that were more than, ‘Hey, that’s cool,’ or, ‘Hey, art for sale,'” he says. “I started becoming more interested in urban design, things like how just some paint on a road can influence speeding and can influence the amount of customers a store on Main Street gets.”

DeBoer became more engaged with art as a tool for change, realizing that art was the thing he could use to make change happen.

By working at Downtown Sioux Falls he had become interested in the operations of the city, so he started showing up to public engagement sessions discussing subjects like downtown walkability plans and other development objectives. He realized quickly that the arts were severely underrepresented at these meetings, and it wasn’t long before he became “the art guy” by default in all of these city conversations.

He loved it.

“I love city politics and that kind of civic project,” he says. “I also became interested in how art can play a role in that. Art was my ticket to start doing these things and engaging in these conversations because art was my platform and expertise.”

With that in mind, he ran for city council and won the first election…but then lost in the runoff by 149 votes, “but who’s counting.” He continued working at the gallery during that time, and still works as a substitute art teacher because he still enjoys being involved in education. He also works as an artist for the South Dakota Arts Council’s Artists in Schools and Communities program doing week-long residencies at various places throughout the state—mostly schools, but also places like retirement communities and veterans homes.

The City of Sioux Falls official flag.

One of these residencies was at an elementary school in his hometown of Brandon, about 20 minutes outside of Sioux Falls, in which he led the students in creating designs for a city flag for Sioux Falls. There were 90 different designs submitted and 3,000 votes to select the winner, and then he and a group of passionate citizens spent four years trying to get the Sioux Falls City Council to officially adopt the flag. Finally, in July 2018, under the new administration, they did, and the community was quick to embrace it. Just a couple of months after the flag became official, Metallica came through Sioux Falls on tour and used the city flag in two of their tour shirt designs for the show. DeBoer is still awestruck by this.

“I mean, it’s Metallica,” he laughs. “We oddly influenced Metallica merch!”

When his daughter was born 18 months ago he decided it was time to close Exposure and focus on growing the things he wanted to do more, distinctly in the realm of creative placemaking and walkability. Since then, he says, he’s done a lot of “random” projects, including a lot of murals. “Now I’m in danger of becoming the mural guy, which is okay for paychecks but not the only thing I want to do,” he chuckles.

He would like to do more placemaking and wayfinding projects and consulting work on such projects in different communities. He has also been working with his own neighborhood association on placemaking and wayfinding projects, the All Saints neighborhood in Central Sioux Falls. That has included “some stuff that’s more boring” like parking lines and crosswalks painted on the streets, but, he says, “To me some of my favorite pieces of art are the white horizontal lines on 18th Street. Now traffic goes under the speed limit as a result.” He also creates crosswalk and street murals and other street beautification and public art projects.

Most recently DeBoer completed work on a video project that was eight months in the making. The video is about a road, 14th Street, which separates the All Saints neighborhood from downtown Sioux Falls. This is one of his least favorite places in the city—a five-lane road with 11-foot-wide lanes that drivers often speed down and is wholly unsafe for cyclists and pedestrians. He has attended numerous meetings about safety and walkability issues on this road, but so far, nothing has been done to address it. So he took matters into his own hands, getting together with a couple of filmmaker friends to produce this five-minute video outlining the safety issues the road presents as well as strategies that can be implemented to promote walkability and increase connectivity between the All Saints neighborhood, downtown, and other neighborhoods.

This video has been viewed over 10,000 times since he posted it just a couple of weeks ago, prompting a call from the Mayor’s office to schedule a meeting with DeBoer and the Mayor’s Chief of Staff.

“The invite felt like getting called to the principal’s office,” he jokes, “but if something actually came of it I would be interested in doing more videos like this.”

The new parking lines on 18th Street.

So now he can add “filmmaker” to his ever-growing list of resume experience bullet points. As this list continues to grow, he has reflected on the fact that, in South Dakota where he practices his creative community engagement and placemaking work, the work he does is “more wide than deep.” Other artists he meets from outside of South Dakota and all around the world have opportunities to go very, very deep on very specific subjects, but in Sioux Falls there isn’t really a whole “scene” of anything—there might be one person working in this or that particular genre of art or music, not hundreds and certainly not thousands of them.

“We have a sampling of one,” he laughs. “So I teach, I do gallery work, installations, murals… You do everything because you have to do everything. Your practice has to be wide because there isn’t an opportunity to be deep. And that’s what creativity is: It’s trying different things to address those sets of challenges.”

Sioux Falls has a population a little under 200,000 people, and most people who live in the city are either from there or from surrounding tiny towns and rural communities of 2,000, even just 300, people.

“For me to go deep into a subject is difficult because of a lack of other people,” he explains. “Working in Sioux Falls gives me that taste of both rural and urban experiences and challenges. It’s a hard shift from one to the other: the problems of Sioux Falls are a world away from the problems of Box Elder.”

Zach DeBoer is a Salzburg Global Fellow, part of the 2019 cohort of the Salzburg Global Forum for Young Cultural Innovators. Springboard for the Arts Associate Director Carl Atiya Swanson is also a Fellow, read his reflections on the Young Cultural Innovators Forum.

All murals pictured are by Zach DeBoer. Photos were provided by the artist.

(1) How do you like to collaborate?
The work I do is always collaborative. I like to go into a space with an understanding. If I’m doing a residency or painting a mural, I like to go in and first understand what the collaborators are interested in and what they want, then try to form my idea with those ingredients. I love to collaborate. Because of the work I do I’m kind of forced to collaborate, and honestly that’s probably best for me. I like having a relationship with my co-collaborators. In a lot of these projects, the people who are paying for them are my collaborators, so I like to go in with that kind of mindset where it feels like there’s investments from both people and we can come to something we’re both happy with and excited about.

(2) How do you start a project?
A lot of different ways. Some projects are brought to me: maybe somebody saw a mural I did and says, “We have a big blank wall, what can we do?” It might even be more vague than that like, “Can you do something here in our town?” I like to start with a lot of research, doing a lot of prep work beforehand, visiting and understanding the place. I like coming to a project with a vague idea of what I want to do and then I like it to evolve as it goes along. I like it to be flexible and evolve as it needs to.

(3) How do you talk about your value?
I think in all the things I do I like to show my work and prove my point. I always like to go into a project and try to really think how this project can be of greater value than maybe something that’s just pretty. And maybe something that’s just pretty is okay because that needs to happen too.

(4) How do you define success?
I don’t know if I have a hard way to say that. Sometimes there’s a defined end goal. In the All Saints neighborhood project I knew I wanted to slow down cars, so we measured traffic before and after we painted the lines and I slowed down cars: success. Some of the projects are more of an attitude change or shift in perspective; more or less I just have to feel it while I’m there, and that’s hard to gauge. Obviously the other answer is money.

(5) How do you fund your work?
In a variety of ways. One is substitute teaching. The other is grants. Honestly, it’s every source. I get grants, funding from private businesses, and scholarships. I start projects that have no value too, so those are usually self-funded. Like this video I spent forever making—there’s no monetary value to it so I’m still trying to determine if that one’s a success. It got a lot of views and a lot of shares, though!