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Artist who grew up in Nisswa returns home and paints mural on downtown building

Samantha French now lives in New York but still has families ties to Stonehouse Coffee and Big Axe Brewing Co.

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Samantha French and Aaron Hauck work on their mural on the side of Kisa Boutique in downtown Nisswa, next to the Big Axe Brewing Co. patio, on Thursday, July 29, 2021. Nancy Vogt / Echo Journal

Anyone who has frequented the coffee shop in Nisswa Square will recognize the scene on a giant mural on Main Street that’s clearly visible from Highway 371 when traveling north.

The mural on the wall of Kisa Boutique, rising above those dining outside at Big Axe Brewing Co. in downtown Nisswa, is an underwater portrait of a swimmer blowing air bubbles as her face comes up to the top of the water.

The painting is by Samantha French, the daughter of Mike and Julie French, who own Stonehouse Coffee with locations in Nisswa Square, Sportland Corners in Nisswa and Baxter. Samantha French’s paintings are for sale at the coffee shop and adorn the walls there.


"We’re just really glad she (Samantha) and Aaron were able to do it. We love it. Everyone loves it. We’re getting all kinds of positive comments."

— Julie French, artist Samantha French's mother


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French grew up in Nisswa, attending Nisswa Elementary School and graduating from Brainerd High School in 2001. After attending Central Lakes College in Brainerd, French went to the Minnesota College of Art and Design in Minneapolis. That’s where her longtime partner, Aaron Hauck, went after graduating from Brainerd High School in 1996. The two met during French’s last year of high school.

Hauck moved to New York in 2005, and French soon followed after graduating in December 2005. They lived in Queens in Brooklyn for 12 years before leaving the city and moving upstate four years ago.

The working artists have now painted four murals together - in Bushwick, Brooklyn, New York; Norwalk, Connecticut; Kingston, New York; and now in Nisswa. All four murals are different and tailored to each wall and the available space.

“This was kind of spur of the moment,” French said of her hometown mural. “We’ve been wanting to do one of the large faces.”

The artists were returning home from New York to celebrate Mike French’s 70th birthday.

“He said, ‘Hey, do you want to do a mural?’” Samantha French said, and the trip turned into a working vacation of 12- to 14-hour days painting the wall in hot conditions. French and Hauck made the drive from New York with their paint, equipment and two dogs.


"This was kind of spur of the moment. We’ve been wanting to do one of the large faces."

— Samantha French, artist


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Mike and Julie French own the building where Kisa Boutique recently relocated to. It’s right next to Big Axe, which their son and daughter-in-law, Chris and Rebecca French, own.

“We had thought about how cool a mural would look there quite some time ago,” Julie French. “The huge tree there on the Big Axe patio would have excluded the view.”

Then Julie and Mike drove by one day in June, looked up at the wall and again thought of the mural. The big tree had caught fire and burned down on a windy day a few months ago, and the Frenches realized the wall was now a perfect spot for a mural.

“We knew Sam was coming home for Mike’s 70th birthday party. Mike got on the phone and talked to her about it,” Julie said, adding the plans came together in just a few weeks.

“We’re just really glad she and Aaron were able to do it. We love it. Everyone loves it. We’re getting all kinds of positive comments,” Julie said, adding it’s nice to bring that artistic life to Nisswa.

“It’s quite beautiful. We’re really proud of her and Aaron and just grateful that they were willing to do that,” she said, especially in such hot, sunny weather.

French and Hauck painted with brushes and a mix of colors. The model depicted is an artist friend. French said all her paintings are based on someone they know or family members. This body of work explores the idea of escape, the tranquility and nostalgia for the lazy summer days of her childhood, her website says.

French felt pressure to do well on the mural because it’s in her hometown, and she’s happy with the result.

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“It’s one of those things where you can always kind of work on it,” Hauck said.

“It mattered to Sam that it turned out really well. It reflects on her family,” he said.

They started drawing the scene Tuesday, July 13, and finished the mural about 10 days later. There were interruptions as people walking by asked what they were doing, but it was fun to talk to them about their work and to see people they hadn’t seen in years.

To see the other murals by French and Hauck, as well as other works by French, visit samanthafrench.com .

Nancy Vogt may be reached at 218-855-5877 or nancy.vogt@pineandlakes.com. Follow her on Facebook and on Twitter at www.twitter.com/@PEJ_Nancy.

Related Topics: ARTNISSWA
Nancy Vogt is editor of the Pineandlakes Echo Journal, a weekly newspaper that covers eight communities in the Pequot Lakes-Pine River areas - from Nisswa to Hackensack and Pequot Lakes to Crosslake.

She started as editor of the Lake Country Echo in July 2006, and continued in that role when the Lake Country Echo and the Pine River Journal combined in September 2013 to become the Pineandlakes Echo Journal. She worked for the Brainerd Dispatch from 1992-2006 in various roles.

She covers Nisswa, Pequot Lakes, Lake Shore and Crosslake city councils, as well as writes feature stories, news stories and personal columns (Vogt's Notes). She also takes photos at community events.

Contact her at nancy.vogt@pineandlakes.com or 218-855-5877 with story ideas or questions. Be sure to leave a voicemail message!
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