Subscribe for 33¢ / day

A Bismarck artist has an impeccable ability to make walls talk through her use of paintbrushes dipped in acrylic house paint — her latest mural is a one-of-a-kind tribute to Mandan. Focusing primarily on the railroad industry, it took 80 hours to complete.

Melissa Gordon's mural was created at the behest of John Risch as a way to spruce up an interior wall of his shop at 2100 Memorial Highway, Mandan.

“I looked up at my white shop wall one day, and thought, ‘What a nice canvas,’” said Risch, a Mandan native.

A fan of Gordon’s previous work, which includes the “goddess mural” on Fourth Street in Bismarck, he said he knew she’d be the right person for the job.

The “narrative mural,” which is 60 feet long and 8 feet high, tells a story by intertwining snippets of Mandan’s history with snippets of the Risch family’s history.

Many hours of research went into designing the perfect mural, Gordon said.

“Research is a big part of the process. You learn a lot piecing it all together. It’s awesome,” she said.

Once a railroad engineer and the current national legislative director of the International Association of Sheet Metal, Air, Rail and Transportation Workers, Risch served as the head of the statewide rail worker union from 1986 to 2009 and lobbied the state Legislature. Needless to say, he is a railroad guy, through and through.

The railroad is also very much a part of Mandan’s history, so it was a no-brainer to focus on the industry when designing the mural, which features three trains and two railroad bridges.

Gordon made sure to include Mandan's historic railroad bridge in the design, and a 1970s BNSF locomotive features a realistic-looking Risch as the engineer.

The center of the mural depicts 1930s Mandan, complete with historic buildings, such as the opera house and courthouse. “Where the west begins” appears in the bottom right corner.

Digging into Risch’s family history, the mural includes a tractor similar to one used on the farm, as well as an old Lutheran church located on the family’s property. A nesting pair of eagles was often spotted near the church, so Risch requested the majestic bird be featured in the mural.

Gordon had one little surprise for Risch. When she unveiled the finished product, there was an extra building painted near the center of the mural, with a sign that read “Ohm’s Café.”

Risch’s parents, as well as his in-laws, met at Ohm’s Café — something Gordon discovered when conducting a little research of her own.

“I thought it would be a nice surprise for him,” she said, noting the mural was fun to do.

Risch said his first reaction to the finished mural was, “Wow!”

“Mel did such a nice job. It really brightens up the place,” he said. “It’s a tribute to Mandan and a tribute to our great arts community. I’m really grateful.”

Gordon said she’s not afraid to work on large-scale projects. One of the first jobs she held was painting billboards. She's also the artist behind the brightly colored portrait of Sitting Bull in downtown Bismarck’s Art Alley.

“There are a lot of blank canvases out there … a lot of places that could use a little paint,” she said. “I hope more people will invest in stuff like this. It adds to the community. I think there should be more (art) for everybody to enjoy.”

The mural is featured in unit three of Risch’s shop, which he had built in 2003. He rents the other units to people with a shared interest of “hanging out and fixing things.”

Those wishing to see the mural should contact him, and Risch said he would be more than happy to show it off.

“Melissa really came through,” said Kathleen Risch, John’s wife. “It really means a lot to us.”

Subscribe to Daily Headlines

* I understand and agree that registration on or use of this site constitutes agreement to its user agreement and privacy policy.

Reach Cheryl McCormack at 701-250-8264 or