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Women of faith brought to life in stunning 20-foot murals

A local artist is painting portraits that will go from Minneapolis to Italy.

MINNEAPOLIS — There's a special kind of church in Uptown right now that has a congregation of just one. 

"It's become a church space for me, yes it has," Mark Balma said. "It definitely feels like that now."

Balma has created a church-like space for himself in Uptown, where he has rented a studio to work on his paintings. He spends hours there each day, bringing to life three women of faith.

Except, his portraits aren't simple portraits. They are 20 feet tall.

"I was working in Assisi, where I have my studio, and the parish priest from the city of Terni, where the church is located, sought me out because of the work I had done in Assisi, Italy years prior," Balma said. "And their church was completing their restoration process, and they had these huge empty spaces."

The Church of Immaculate Conception asked Balma to fill its walls. So Balma pitched frescoes, or murals featuring female characters from the Bible, the Koran and the Torah. Thus was born the Women of Faith Frescoes project. 

Hung in the Uptown multi-use building, portraits of Eve, Abraham's second wife Hagar, and his first wife Sarah were being worked on. 

"Portraiture is my first love," Balma explained. "As a young artist, I was interested in portraits. I was doing portraits of my elementary school teachers when I was little."

Balma said the subject matter for the frescoes was important to him. He said it's the first to his knowledge to feature women as the primary character, as many religious artworks feature women as an afterthought or a supporting role.

"This was a first series of frescoes that I know of that address women as the primary figures and subject of the frescoes," Balma explained. "For the first time, I wanted to bring these portraits of women to the foreground and let them show the story that was really operating around these cultures-- at the time, women were extremely influential in the way the culture was set up."

After years of research and consultation with religious experts, like Rabbi Marcia Zimmerman of Temple Israel and Nadia Mohamed, a global religions professor at Minneapolis Community and Technical college, Balma has been painting these murals since January.

He said each brush stroke is just as important as the one before and the one to come.

"It all makes a difference, it really does," Balma said. "Every brush stroke-- I don't use big brushes. Most of my fresco brushes are quite small, it all matters."

And the bigger picture of starting these here, in Minneapolis, with the goal of having them adorn the walls of a sacred space of worship in Italy, is not lost on him.

It's moving from one sacred space to another.

"This area at this time, is charged with a certain energy," Balma said. "That the world's eyes were on Minneapolis in the last few weeks here especially. These works are being created under that kind of intensity. I think that has a great deal to do with these rising out of that kind of feeling, and that kind of energy. That's nothing that anybody could have foreseen or organized. Somehow I think there is something really beautiful about this statement going forward."

Once the frescoes are completed, they will be rolled up, put into long tubes and shipped over to Italy where they will be installed. The muslin cloth material that serves as the canvas is strong, and Balma said he is confident they will hold up well in transit.

He said he will travel, then go back to Italy as well to finish the remaining  seven frescoes - as the collection is supposed to feature 10 women of faith.

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