EAGAN, Minn. – Michael Birawer spent a lot of time drawing and watching the Vikings with his family as a youngster in Cottage Grove, but he never imagined the two interests would one day collide.
This week, that happened.
Birawer, a Twin Cities-based artist who’s garnered a reputation for his unique portrayal of recognizable cityscapes and landmarks, recently created a commissioned piece for the team he grew up watching.
“I was just a little kid when the Vikings were in Super Bowls in the ’70s, and I remember Fran Tarkenton playing,” Birawer recalled.
“I had a Chuck Foreman shirt, and I had a lot of those little plastic Vikings helmets,” he added with a smile.
Birawer spoke with Vikings.com while assembling a large, three-dimensional painting inside of Twin Cities Orthopedics Performance Center. The work, called “Our Home – Past & Present,” is done in Birawer’s signature style and details the stops the Vikings have made along the way since the franchise’s inaugural 1961 season.
There’s a far-off nod to Bemidji, where the Vikings held training camp from 1961-66.
The campus of Minnesota State University, Mankato — summer home of the Vikings from 1967-2017 — is represented by Blakeslee Stadium.
The Metrodome is seen near downtown Minneapolis, while Metropolitan Stadium is also painted in great detail, down to the iconic colored blocks that made up the outside walls, and a majestic U.S. Bank Stadium is shown.
There’s an artistic mention of Winter Park, the Vikings headquarters from 1981-2018, and the largest space is dedicated to TCO Performance Center, TCO Stadium and Land O’Lakes, Inc. Fields.
Also within the painting are little “Easter eggs,” as Birawer called them, details and gems tucked throughout the Minnesota landscape.
For instance, the famed Purple People Eaters are in an end zone observing Vikings practice near clumps of fans. Vikings Owners Zygi and Mark Wilf also are depicted, if one looks closely. Vikings longships are traveling past the Stone Arch Bridge and down the Mississippi River. Birawer even included himself amongst the crowd, along with his wife and son.
And, of course, legendary Minnesota reporter Sid Hartman is performing an interview on the sideline.
“I love people to take it all in at first, but my work is also designed to draw you in even further,” Birawer explained. “When you see it all as a whole, you’re taking this whole thing in – you can see the field house, the performance center, and then as you look off you see U.S. Bank Stadium, and your eye just keeps sort of wandering out.
“I think where it finishes is where you take in the detail that’s on the field, which is really in the foreground, and it’s cool because a lot of that really is the players and the fans and just the energy that you feel,” Birawer added.
Over the summer, Birawer collaborated with members of the Vikings organization to come up with a direction and design for the commissioned work.
During that time, the artist was in a diving accident that could have – and by most accounts probably should have – cut short his creative career. Birawer broke his neck in two places, forcing him to wear a neck brace and sidelining him from painting.
Birawer visited TCO Performance Center and took in Vikings Training Camp as a sort of “research” and inspiration, but he was unable to start painting the piece until mid-November when the brace was safe to remove.
Incredibly, Birawer has no long-term disabilities from the accident. He does deal with residual pain but considers himself fortunate, all things considered.
“Eight out of 10 people [with a similar injury experience some level of] deficiencies,” Birawer said. “I was extremely lucky.”
He was grateful to return to the work he loves and tackle the Vikings project.
Birawer meticulously mapped it out, painting nearly 25 individual pieces of sanded plywood that then were pieced together into the final product.
“I think this is a really playful one, and it’s actually my favorite piece,” Birawer said. “The thing I love about it is that most of my work is in rectangles and squares, and it’s just so nice to break free of that. I think the three-dimensional aspect of it, it really helps draw the shapes out as opposed to things just being fixed into squares. That’s what is really fun and dynamic about this piece.
“You get a little bit of grain from the wood, which is nice, but it’s also smooth enough that you can really get into the detail of painting, when you’re doing a lot of fine-tip work of getting facial features and all that,” he explained of the surface.
Birawer called it a “puzzle,” working with a two-dimensional painting to create a three-dimensional installation. In addition to planning out the exact sizing and measurements of each piece, Birawer also does color studies in which he decides which colors will be most prominent on the artwork and which will be “more toned down.” He also analyzes how light from a nearby window will hit the painting and what effect that will have on the color and look.
He reflected back over the project and said he was “really ready” for the undertaking at this point of his career.
The three-dimensional painting wasn’t new for Birawer, who did a similar piece of Chicago’s Millenium Park in 2008 and soon after for House of Comedy at the Mall of America.
But when faced with such a large undertaking of creatively depicting the Vikings history, Birawer didn’t feel intimidated.
“It’s like building blocks of your career and things that you’ve done. You grow in confidence with every job and every project that you do, so this really followed in that path,” Birawer said. “I was actually very comfortable with this whole piece from the get-go.
“I was really surprised at how it just came together, like it was just sort of meant to be,” he added.
When Birawer stood back and looked at the painting – not only the journey of his hometown team but a tangible reflection of overcoming such a serious medical obstacle – he couldn’t help but smile.
For the kid who loved to color in his Foreman T-shirt, it seems things have come full circle.
“It’s such a great honor to be able to have my work be on display here,” Birawer said. “The Vikings are a very important part of the fabric of the state of Minnesota, and I know the Vikings organization has done a lot for the state.
“It’s very meaningful to me,” he added, “And I’m very, very proud of the opportunity to be able to work on such a great project like this.”