Frescoes bring extraordinary change to St. John’s Lutheran

Artist Mark Balma finishes first panel in Stacy


Something extraordinary is happening in Stacy. In this small town of less than 1500 residents, a new art form is taking shape.

Internationally renowned fresco and portrait artist Mark Balma is donating his time, talent and materials to St. John’s Lutheran Church and the city of Stacy to create a piece of artwork unlike anything the world has seen, said Pastor Ed Wheatley.

The Moses fresco is complete. One of Elijah will soon follow, and one of Jesus is expected to be complete around August. (Photo submitted)

Using the ancient technique of fresco, a process whereby ground-up earth pigments are applied to wet plaster that eventually hardens to stone, Balma will be creating the world’s first free-standing exterior frescoes. An image of the Transfiguration of Christ will be painted on three gothic arches that will be the centerpiece of a contemplative glade overlooking the Carlos Avery Wilderness Area.

Balma has already finished the 15-foot fresco of Moses and is now completing the image of Elijah.  He anticipates having the image of Jesus done around August 1.

“To the best of my knowledge, nothing like this has ever been done before,” Balma said. “The art of fresco has been around for thousands of years, but historically it has been used as decoration for a pre-existing structure.

“What we are doing here is using this ancient technique to actually define the space, rather than the space defining the work.”


This will be the world’s first free-standing fresco, one that will take the art form beyond its traditional application.

Artist Mark Balma has been at work in Stacy with the fresco project at St. John’s Lutheran Church. (Photo submitted)

It will be the first outside fresco in the United States, and while frescoes were occasionally used to decorate the exterior of structures in ancient times, an application of that type has not been done in hundreds of years.

Despite Minnesota’s extreme climate, Balma said he has no doubt the frescoes can withstand the elements.

Even the moist air is working in his favor, he said.  “The rains and the humidity are slowing down the curing process, and in the long run that will make these frescoes much stronger,” he said.

Most important will be the images themselves.  The first three panels of the frescoes will be of the Transfiguration of Christ, a subject that has not been attempted in any major work since the Renaissance.

Mark Balma has been working closely with artist Ray Downing of Studio Macbeth. In March of 2010, the History Channel released a two-hour documentary on the Shroud of Turin, a 14-foot length of cloth believed by some to be the actual burial cloth of Jesus. Using the imprint on the fabric, Downing produced a three-dimensional image of the face and body of Jesus.

Together, Balma and Downing are hoping to create the most historically accurate artistic rendering of Christ ever produced, and Balma will be the first artist to utilize Downing’s ground-breaking work.

“What is happening here is nothing short of a miracle,” said Wheatley. “This project represents literally hundreds of volunteer hours from members of our congregation and community.”

Mason Joe Fisk works on the construction of the frescoes that will overlook the Carlos Avery Wildlife Management Area. (Photo submitted)

St. John’s has also received support from Cemstone. The concrete manufacturer donated all of the block needed to construct the arches and provided the cement at a reduced cost.

The antique brick veneer was donated by St. Paul resident Karen Koeppe.  PEI Construction, a local company handling the arch construction, donated time to keep costs down.

“If not for these donations,” said Wheatley, “we would never have gotten this far.”

Once the block work was completed, the arches were surfaced with the antique red brick. Balma explained the significance of the brick.

“This is the way frescoes were traditionally created. The antique bricks will absorb and retain moisture.  That will slow down the curing process and allow the frescoes to become much harder and stronger.  I figure these bricks will add two to three hundred years to the life of the frescoes.”

As Mason Joe Fisk worked on the construction of the arches, every day cars passed through the parking lot of St. John’s to view the progress.

“This is so much bigger than we ever dreamed,” said Church Council President Linda Miller.

“This has become a public statement of faith for our entire community, and I think it’s because these images will be outside. This isn’t intended for one church or one denomination; this is intended for every person of faith, regardless of where they come from.  Here is a place where anyone, at any time, can come to seek out God’s presence.”

The cost of the landscaping, parking, handicap access, lighting and power is beyond the financial resources of the congregation. “We’ve finally come to the conclusion,” Miller said, “that we just can’t do this alone. We need help.”

A Facebook page for  “St. John’s Frescoes” has been established to allow the public to follow the daily progress on the frescoes and to raise donations.

Donations can be mailed to St. John’s Lutheran Church, P.O. Box 308, Stacy, MN  55079, or via Pay Pal at