Thursday, July 22, 2010

How to Sculpt a New Civic Image

As the John and Mary Pappajohn Sculpture Garden (PSG) completes its debut season most of its skeptics have gone underground.

Bustling every weekend with camera-laden visitors, the the garden park has become extraordinarily popular with locals and tourists alike. A bright happenstance during an economic recession, the New York Times even proclaimed the PSG a “cure from urban blight.” As its novelty ages and the value of free entertainment depreciates in a hopefully revived economy, now’s a good time to ponder what might be the city’s next move. I posed the following question to some keen observers of Des Moines culture:

“What can be done to capitalize of the Pappajohn’s largess to help Des Moines become known as “a sculpture town” rather than just a town with a downtown sculpture park?
Des Moines Art Center Director Jeff Fleming likes what’s already been done.

“I think that we’re already moving in this direction. The Principal River Walk project has two major sculpture works in progress. The Parks Department has completed one project by creating a sculpture map to downtown and they have another in the works that identifies, with consistent standards of identification, sculptures of note all over the entire metro area. I think the most important thing is to progress with a focus on maintaining an enhancement of quality,” he said.

Journalist Chuck Offenburger also thinks the Parks Department map will lead to more good things.

“First, I’d say a detailed study should be done to identify and locate the most interesting existing sculptures around metro Des Moines. Of course there’s “Crusoe Umbrella.” But we forget some of the intriguing ones – like the tricycle rider in Merle Hay Mall, the tree carvings at the Iowa State Fairgrounds, some of the statues in the Iowa Hall of Pride, the string quartet at Drake, the stylized baseball outside Principal Park, the new Paragon Prairie Tower in the extreme northwest corner of the metro, those at the Art Center, the various military-related statues, some of the best church ones, those on the State Capitol grounds, some great ones in businesses (Mac Hornecker’s in the Iowa Farm Bureau headquarters lobby), and some good ones that might be accessible to the public at private residences.

“That could 1) make it possible to put together a new self-guided “Sculpture Tour” of the city, with occasional escorted tours. 2) It could also identify areas of the city that are really short of sculptures and may stir ideas of what new pieces could go there and 3) If we’re really paying attention to sculpture in Des Moines, that might lead to some new funding sources to commission new pieces – and one of the first ones we should get done is a big one by Sticks, since their headquarters is in Des Moines,” he said.

Sculptor James Ellwanger, who created several of the pieces Offenburger mentioned, agrees that new commissions could stimulate a positive image for the city. He’d like to see it result from a sculpture prize though. Noting that Chicago’s image as America’s greatest architectural city was boosted by the Pritzker Prize, he mused about a competition at the Iowa State Fair.

“They have a million visitors and lots of open space. They already have arts competitions and they’re moving those into a new venue. It would be a great place for sculptors to bring works,” he said.

Author John Domini likes the prize idea and adds that legislation requiring sculpture in new developments has worked imaging miracles in Portland, Oregon and New York City.

“The Portland legislation is called "1% for Art," and it's meant that even the city-center shopping malls Lloyd Center & Pioneer Place have eye-catching, mind-bending sculpture installations at all four entrances. Even parking garages have them, lightening the tomb effect. As for New York, Manhattan has recently grown full of sculpture in public, on block after block, park after park,” he noted.

Grandeur & Glamour: Lost & Found

Anyone with a cell phone is a cameraman today. So what does it take for a photographer to catch the eye of museum curators? This year’s Iowa Artists Exhibition at the Des Moines Art Center (DMAC) provides two very different answers.
Ranked the #12 most watched musician on You Tube, Leslie Hall is a bona fide “ceWEBrity.” CNN profiled her. reported 900,000 downloads during the launch period for her song “How We Got Out Version Two.” She was featured on a VH1 special of the 40 greatest internet stars. Hall recently completed her fourth national tour to rave reviews, has a Los Angeles booking agent and is in talks with HBO about her own show. Why is she still living in Iowa?

“I am not appreciated here and I have a deep Midwestern need to earn hometown love. I also love cheap rent. In New York or Los Angeles I’d be a starving artist with a day job I hated. I can’t do that and I don’t have to do that in Ames. I have a big apartment and a car too. Besides, Iowa thrift stores and garage sales remain relatively un plundered,” Hall explained.
Garage sales and thrift stores are the mother lode of her art career. While a student in Boston, she photographed herself in each of 400 gem sweaters she had collected. She posted those shots on a web site and that became a internet sensation. Today she uses the web to sell her musical albums, original artwork, T-shirts, and a line of custom spandex outfits under the label "Midwest Diva." The best of her famous gem sweaters are now enshrined in a museum that also serves as a gay wedding venue.
“An artist today has to make a living any which way,” she said.

Hall began posing in second hand clothing for publicity at Ames High School. She entered the homecoming parade in a neck brace, a sparkling pink Goodwill gown and a tiara her mother had worn when crowned Miss Auburn 1970. The Ames Tribune ran Hall’s photo on the front page and that sparked her successful campaign to become Prom Queen. Hall had that stunt in mind when she began performing “large sized hip hop” to turn heads in Boston.
“It worked as a publicity generator. I dressed up in glitter and big hair and spandex and the media picked up on the act. People came to the shows and things just took off. That probably would never have happened in Iowa,” she explained.

Hall admits there are drawbacks to being a rap star in Iowa.
“The Iowa Dream is killing my music career. Back up singers keep pursuing that dream - having babies and moving away. They also experiment with weight loss fads and become sassy,” she complained.

Hall’s gem sweater photos, including one dedicated to her “main dead man” (Elvis), are part of the DMAC exhibition.

Richard Colburn of Cedar Falls has spent years chronicling the effects of economic transitions in the Midwest.

“I came from Pennsylvania where the decline of the American steel industry effected so many lives. So, I started these projects interested in how that also effected the Iron Range,” he said.
In the DMAC exhibition, a Colburn series on closed schools reveals Midwestern ingenuity (schools converted into tornado shelters, private homes, fire departments, a City Hall, and haunted houses) as well as lost grandeur (empty swimming pools in once wealthy towns.)

“I wanted to photograph from the point of view of a student in the school, not like a realtor,” Colburn explained of his preference for close-ups and details.
Colburn and Hall’s works debut June 11 along with those of sculptors Josh Black, Daniel Weiss and Jim Shrosbree, painters Micah Bloom, Megan Dirks, Laura Farrin, Larassa Kabel, Teresa Paschke and Kristin Quinn, installation artists Nathan Morton and Benjamin Gardner, and ceramicist Ingrid Lillgren.