May 18, 2016

“There are more valid facts and details in works of art than there are in history books.” -Charlie Chaplin.

On Friday, May 13, an unconventionally historic piece of architecture proudly sat outside on the rippling green grass of the West Liberty Elementary School.

Only one-month old, the nine-sided structure already carried hundreds of years of history, based off of an old-style voting booth found in New York by its maker, Terry Conrad.

“It’s an object where events can happen inside,” he describes simply. As he does so, around 10 elementary students on recess run over, sitting in a circle inside the booth.

They proceed to chant in their circle, playing a communal game that involves everyone clapping hands. Their voices can be heard flowing out of the structure.

It was, indeed, an event.

They were sitting inside Conrad’s latest project, aptly named Iowa Booth. The young artist lives in upstate New York near Saratoga Springs. He’s visiting the University of Iowa for one year as fellow in print making.

“When I was at the caucus I had the idea to do something with this structure,” he said. “A lot of my work is studio based, but then I have these other projects where I go out into the community.”

His “out-in-the-community” idea was made possible by the Grant Wood Art Colony, whose mission is to nurture creative studio art and teach disciplines relevant to the art and life of Grant Wood.

Specifically, he’s a part of the colony’s Arts Share Project. Maura Pilcher, Director of the Grant Wood Art Colony describes Arts Share:

“Arts Share takes faculty and students, writings, theater, performing and visual arts across Iowa, especially in schools,” she says. “We love getting our fellows out across Iowa, to let these kids from West Liberty experience an artist from New York.”

The program has been in around 80 Iowa counties, but bringing the Iowa Booth to West Liberty represents its first foray into our area, 20 minutes from Iowa City.

Fifth grade students, divided into four classes, helped paint half of the panels on the outside of the booth in vivid kaleidoscopes of color, under first year K-5 art teacher Megan Dehner.

“It happened serendipitously,” she says. “Having the kids get exposure to a real living working artist is exciting, and they respond really well to the novelty of someone else.”

Her classes have been working on it for the past two weeks, rotating one class at a time. It was a chance for them to be involved in communal art, something bigger than the individual.

“Most of the time they make art for themselves,” describes Dehner, “But this they are making with each other in collaboration with Terry, contributing to a space that they can be in.”

Terry Conrad designed the Iowa Booth last semester, he plans to take it back to New York where he’ll have students in that area fill in the remaining panels with art.

It’s relatively simple, made of wood and canvas. On a windy West Liberty day the artist has to help hold it in place. But, it’s not about the materials, it’s about the idea.

“A huge component of what we’re trying to do is continue the legacy of Grant Wood here in Iowa, making sure people know who he is,” says Director Pilcher. “Grant Wood was passionate about education, he was a teacher his whole life.”

Most would be familiar with Wood’s American Gothic, an iconic painting of the 20th century featuring two rural Midwesterners, a solemn farmer with a pitchfork by a just-as-solemn woman.

However, Wood has contributed so much more than his most famous painting. Born in Anamosa, Iowa, his body of work represented American regionalism, specifically in the Midwest.

It’s that same idea, regionalism, that has brought the Iowa Booth to the region.

“I made this canvas much like the original design, but then I thought it would be fun to do a project for kids to design the actual panels,” says creator Conrad.

The hope is that this is only the beginning of an artistic outreach from the Grant Wood Art Colony to West Liberty Schools. Art teacher Megan Dehner and her students are definitely open to more.

“They really enjoyed it,” she adds.

Perhaps Arts Share will find its way back into West Liberty again soon; we can only hope. Either way, the kids will keep on creating.

Publication Source: 
West Liberty Index