Geno Okok was born in Nigeria, far from the frozen cold of Minnesota. But the 31-year-old artist, who came to the Twin Cities at the age of 9 with his family, appears to have captured the essence of winter in St. Paul.
On Saturday, the St. Paul Winter Carnival unveiled its 2023 buttons — designed by Okok. The local artist is the first person of color to create the carnival’s buttons in its 137-year history, officials said.
The family-friendly frozen festival’s upbeat message is right up the artist’s alley.
“The way my art is, I’m someone who likes positivity,” said Okok, who lives in Minneapolis and has painted murals in Brooklyn Park, St. Paul and at the State Fairgrounds. “It doesn’t take much effort to be negative. I like art that is positive, energetic.”
Okok said he got the job, in part, through his connection with Brooklyn Park Mayor Lisa Jacobson. He painted a mural there in 2020, after the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, “as a way to build community with its youth from high school and junior high, to be more positive,” Okok said. “She had seen my work before.”
Jacobson is president and CEO of the St. Paul Festival and Heritage Foundation, which produces the Winter Carnival.
“I met him through my own community. I like his style of art and how he depicts people, specifically his diversity of people,” she said. “His vivid use of color, the purples and the greens, you have feelings of positivity and joy. That’s what Winter Carnival is about.”
Okok, who attended North Hennepin Community College and the Art Institute, has been creating art since he was 7 and has worked as a professional artist for five years. He said he used old photographs and previous years’ buttons to give him a frame of reference.
“It’s almost impossible to do something not done before,” Okok said. “I had to stand out but keep the original design of the buttons.”
The Winter Carnival usually chooses a new button artist every year, said spokesperson Molly Mulvehill Steinke, though there have been years — including a stretch from 2017-19 — when an artist nabbed the honor more than once.
The Winter Carnival began in 1886 and is the oldest winter festival in the United States, officials said — and it even predates the Pasadena, Calif. Tournament of Roses festival by two years. The St. Paul attraction was started, according to its website, as a way to challenge the view of several eastern newspaper correspondents that Minnesota was “another Siberia, unfit for human habitation.”
The Winter Carnival legend, of King Boreas and the Queen of the Snows ruling over winter until vanquished by the Vulcan Krewe, was created by newspaper columnist Frank Madden in 1937.
Today, King Boreas and the Queen of the Snows rule over approximately 21 members of the royal family, including Boreas’ brothers Titan, Euros, Zephyrus and Notos along with their four princesses, the prime minister and up to ten royal guards. The culmination of the Winter Carnival — and the signaling of the coming of spring — is the dethroning of Boreas by the Vulcan Krewe.
Okok said he feels honored to add his work to a long line of artists’ images. His favorite buttons, he said, are of arm-wrestling Vulcanus Rex and Boreas and of the carnival’s famous “bouncing girl” being tossed into the air.
With the kings button, “I wanted to show it’s like a friendly competition and stuff, but it’s still competition.”
And the girl? “You have to be brave and courageous like her to bounce, and you have to trust.”