University of Iowa

Taking Art Across Iowa

University Of Iowa Art Students And Faculty Create Public Art For 10 Communities Across Iowa 

Boarded up windows, concrete block walls, and stucco facades will all become canvases for large-scale public art projects in cities and towns across Iowa this June through August. Four University of Iowa art students are painting 10 murals in six Cedar County communities—Clarence, Lowden, Mechanicsville, Stanwood, Tipton, and West Branch—as well as in Iowa City, Keokuk, Maquoketa, and Webster City. One faculty member assisted by two students will develop and install a large-scale solar-powered sculpture at the plaza by City Hall in Webster City.

These projects not only help beautify the spaces in which they reside, but they boost the sense of place, community, and cultural vitality. The communities involved sought out partnerships with the University of Iowa Office of Outreach and Engagement, which is making the projects possible. Increasingly, communities across Iowa are interested in engaging citizens through creative placemaking and public art. The University of Iowa offers a deep pool of talented, creative, and innovative art students as well as faculty experts to help with projects. 

“Our goal is to take the university’s resources—faculty, staff, and students—to the people of Iowa,” said Maura Pilcher, Grant Wood Art Colony director who is coordinating many of the public art projects for the Office of Outreach and Engagement. “While some of our students have years of experience in public art projects, others are still learning under the close direction of University of Iowa faculty and staff. These students enter communities with fresh eyes, recognizing assets while appreciating local history and culture. Through conversations and research, the artist develops design concepts from which a steering committee may choose. The artist then creates a mural to celebrate the community. Each process and product is as unique as the people and places that shape them.” 

This is one of 12 panels for a mural Ali Hval, MFA 2019, painted for Webster City

Webster City Projects
“Webster City has history that can be played up in the mural I designed that may otherwise be unknown or overlooked by people in the town or those passing through. I enjoy being able to see what differentiates one place from the next and how that can be capitalized in public art,” said University of Iowa graduate Ali Hval, MFA 2019, who is also painting murals in Keokuk and West Branch. 

Webster City’s solar-powered art sculpture, designed by Dan Miller, assistant professor for the University of Iowa School of Art and Art History, is being fabricated at the University of Iowa by Miller and art students Christian Woodruff and Duncan Moore. It will be installed later this summer. The shape mimics the meandering Boone River, turning it into a stylized physical structure made from ground stainless steel that emits light. The “river structure” will function as an elevated bench with columns rising from it that support precision-cut metal screens, referencing a canopy of trees. The canopy is actually based on the Webster city street plan. During the day, sunlight will cast a shadow of the Webster City street map on the ground. At night, the river will project blue light from its center and green hues onto the metal canopy above. The sculpture was made possible by a grant from the EPIC Network, donations from Ken & Kathy Getting, Dean Bowden, and Maureen Seamonds, and support from the University of Iowa Office of Outreach and Engagement. 

“Webster City counts itself very fortunate to introduce new public art to the community through our partnership with the university. The colorful mural created by Ali Hval tells the story of Webster City's past, present, and future on 12 8'x8' foot panels that will replace the old plywood covering the upper story windows of 645 2nd Street, a large building on a prominent corner of our downtown. With Professor Miller's solar sculpture placed at the opposite end of the district, next to our City Hall, the two works will create beautiful bookends that grab the attention of visitors and residents alike,” said Lindsay Henderson, Webster City community vitality director.

Murals for the nine other Iowa communities are currently being developed. The students working on the murals participated in the Grant Wood Public Art Residency in spring 2019. The projects became an extension of that program, coordinated by the University of Iowa Office of Outreach and Engagement. 

Public Art Residency
A week-long residency in mid-March prepared nine select University of Iowa students with strategies to engage communities and taught practical skills to implement murals. The students learned from artists, community planners, and other experts in the field. Four of those students are now working on public art murals for Iowa communities. The student artists are Katlynne Hummel, Painting and Drawing, BFA 2019; Alexis Beucler, Painting, MFA; Drew Etienne, Painting, MFA; Ali Hval, Painting and Drawing, MFA 2019. 

“With these murals I'll have many opportunities to work with the community, from deciding where it's going to go, the materials that will serve the project best, talking with local folks about their sense of place in their community, and physically working on the mural together,” said artist Drew Etienne, who will be painting murals in Maquoketa and Tipton. “I'll have the chance to put to the test the wealth of information that I received from Thomas Agran and Vero Rose Smith during the Grant Wood Public Art Residency.”

“We are training these students to go out and do this work,” Pilcher said. The history of University of Iowa students creating murals for Iowa communities dates back to the hiring of Grant Wood to the faculty. When Wood directed the Iowa program of the Public Works of Art Project, he was assisted by students. The Grant Wood Art Colony, a featured program of the Office of Outreach and Engagement, plays a key role in shaping arts and culture activities both on and off campus.

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