When Joe Duffy was inducted into DeLaSalle High School’s Hall of Fame last August, his mentor and long-time friend Br. Michael Lee Anderson planted the seed of an art project celebrating the school’s long history. That project, a floor-to-ceiling painted mural in the school’s lobby, was dedicated at an all-class assembly on Feb. 4.
Duffy, a 1967 graduate of the school, is a nationally-renowned creator in the field of graphic design and product branding. He founded the local design group Duffy & Partners in 1984, and has been recognized as a medalist by the American Institute of Graphic Arts. In 2006, he was ranked 7th among the 50 most influential people in the future of business by Fast Company Magazine. In January 2010, Duffy was named one of 20 “People to Watch” in the design industry by Graphic Design USA Magazine, and described as “one of the most respected and sought-after creative directors and thought leaders on branding and design.”
Last August Duffy was the first recipient of the Brother Michael Collins Award, which recognizes “Those members of the Islander community who have made significant contributions to DeLaSalle and to our greater communities through their talents and contributions to the fine arts.”
Duffy’s design for the mural was developed over the next two months, and with the collaboration of DeLaSalle art students, painting began in late November. The work was completed just before Christmas.
The mural is filled with images both historical and current. Two faces dominate the painting: St. John Baptiste de La Salle, the founder of the Institute of the Brothers of the Christian Schools, and Brother Michael Collins, class of 1955 and school president from 1991 to 2012. There are depictions of the old and new school buildings and the athletic field, the 19th-century Hennepin Avenue suspension bridge, Our Lady of Lourdes church, the Grain Belt sign, an eagle, and an Indian with a feathered headdress.
The assembly was held in the school’s main gymnasium, with faculty, guests, parents and 750 students filling the chairs and bleachers. School Vice President Mike O’Keefe addressed the audience: “The idea for this program started with one person, and we’re going to celebrate him today: Joe Duffy, graduate of the class of 1967. Fifty-two years ago, he sat in those bleachers like you folks are now.
“To the students of today, I want you to know that you have a lifetime of friendships ahead of you. We celebrate community. Legacy, history. We are here to celebrate Joe Duffy, and to celebrate all the people who helped him with this project. And by extension, we celebrate the fine arts. Over 80 percent of our student body attends a fine-arts class each day. An alumnus of the class of 1971 once said that the world was harsh; and that to appreciate art is to soften that harshness. To that I would add, to be able to have a different and broader perspective of the world. You here are part of a legacy that has endured for 12 decades.”
After juniors Nick Ericksen and JunSen Freihammer led a prayer, O’Keefe introduced Mayor Jacob Frey. Frey said, “I’ve found that DeLaSalle students are not just college-bound, they’re leadership-bound. DeLaSalle, like Minneapolis itself, got its start right here on the Mississippi River. For 119 years, thousands of your graduates have made meaningful differences in both the city and beyond with their service and leadership. Joe Duffy has put Minneapolis on the map in the world of branding and graphic design, at the same time giving so much back to his alma mater. DeLaSalle is an extraordinary community, and whatever you’re doing, it’s working!”
O’Keefe spoke about the school’s pride in its music and theater program, which mounts six to seven productions per year. “We’ve won more awards for our theater productions than any other high school in Minnesota.” He then welcomed two dozen student actors for a song from the school’s next musical, “Newsies.”
Duffy addressed the assembly: “This is such an amazing experience; I got so much out of it because of the hard work everyone did. I always say, about my art, when I paint, I design, and when I design, I paint. I tried to show the students the way to come up with a design for a piece of art. I can’t tell you how great they were; first of all, for re-absorbing all the imagery we were going to use, and finding a way to use these composites to tell the story of this amazing school and this amazing city. We did what I call visual briefs, which is to take all the images we want to use and make a collage, and from that get an inspiration of the work. Believe me, I didn’t come up with all these ideas; these folks did an amazing job. The second half, the physical part, was more difficult. Climbing the scaffolding, getting up to the third level, was a challenge. At first, people were really nervous about it; then every day, it got a little bit easier. There were many moments that were inspiring for me. All of you who worked on this with me, I can’t thank you enough for the hard work and the beautiful result.”
Vice Principal Martha Coughlan thanked Duffy and the students who worked on the project, and invited the audience to raise their hands as she read a plaque, which began, “May this mural bring joy, comfort, clarity and inspiration to students, residents, and visitors to Nicollet Island for generations to come.”
After photographs were taken of the three Christian Brother teachers, Duffy and his wife Patsy, art teachers Christine Swords and Megan Longman, former City Council President Barb Johnson, and School President Barry Lieske, the audience moved to the lobby to view the mural. Before closing, Lieske said, “To know your story, to know where you came from, will make you grounded in your future. You will know who you are. Joe Duffy came back to his roots here.”
Below: Designing the mural was a collaborative process involving students in “visual briefs” to collage the images from which the work evolved. Joe Duffy (center, standing) and alumni (front row) with arts program students. Parents (front row) join arts program students. Joe Duffy presented with print of his mural by DLS Vice President Mike O’Keefe. (Photos by Mark Peterson)