Iowa launches ‘20 Artists, 20 Parks’ to commemorate state park centennial

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Artist Barbara Walton has been matched with Pikes Peak State Park for the “20 Artists, 20 Parks” project, commemorating the 100th anniversary of Iowa state parks in 2020. From April through August 2019, faculty and graduate student artists from Iowa State University will each be matched with a state park, creating artwork that reflects their time as artists-in-residence. (Photo by Audrey Posten)

One artist is matched with Pikes Peak

By Audrey Posten, North Iowa Times

In anticipation of the 100th anniversary of Iowa state parks in 2020, the Iowa Department of Natural Resources; the Iowa Arts Council, a division of the Iowa Department of Cultural Affairs; and Iowa State University (ISU) are bringing 20 artists to 20 state parks this summer.

From April through August 2019, faculty and graduate student artists from Iowa State University will each be matched with a state park, creating artwork that reflects their time as artists-in-residence.

Among the parks involved in the project is Pikes Peak State Park, near McGregor, which has been matched with Barbara Walton, an associate professor of art and visual culture at ISU’s College of Design.

Walton said this venture evolved from a similar collaborative project where ISU faculty and grad students created work celebrating the geological history and landscapes of Ledges State Park, in Story County. 

“Knowing the anniversary was coming up, it started to gain momentum,” she explained.

The parks selected for the arts project represent diverse ecological, geological and cultural experiences in Iowa.

“This is a busier park,” said Pikes Peak State Park Manager Matt Tschirgi, “and it has unique features.” It’s frequently included on “must see” lists in print and online publications, he added.

“The 20 Artists, 20 Parks program highlights two important contributors to quality of life in Iowa—arts and the outdoors,” said Todd Coffelt, chief of the State Parks Bureau at the DNR. “By focusing on the unique natural and cultural aspects of our state parks, we are able to tell their story in a new and inspirational way.”

Walton said each artist selected three or four favored parks at which to work. She was drawn to Pikes Peak because of its spectacular views of the Mississippi River. 

“I grew up in Davenport and saw the river every day, so it’s significant to me,” she shared. Walton visited Pikes Peak as a child with her family, but remembers few details. “My parents loved getting out in nature.”

Artists will create paintings, sculptures, textiles, photography, woodworking—any art form they’d like—inspired by their parks. 

Walton’s medium of choice is encaustic painting, which pre-dates even oil painting.

“You may have seen it in a museum,” she quipped. “It involves me working on a hot palette with molten beeswax and pigment. Some properties make it feel like clay because I can manipulate the canvas with tools and make trails, textures and marks.”

Walton has been encaustic painting since 2001 and has based her research at ISU around it.

“It’s so crazy amazing,” she said. “It’s challenging because it’s so different.”

Due to the 220-degree working temperature, Walton won’t create the paintings themselves at Pikes Peak. Instead, she’ll use photos from the park to work in her studio. She visited Pikes Peak once in April, then again a few weeks ago, and will likely return one more time.

“The first weekend I was up here, in April, it snowed,” Walton said. “I got some images of the atmospheric view, before it all leafed out.”

The recent trip was significantly more green. She walked to Bridal Veil Falls and saw the mounds, and discovered other reaches of the park thanks to a tour from Tschirgi.

“It’s just so beautiful. There’s a really different feeling,” Walton shared.

She is fascinated with Hudson River views, like those painted by Thomas Cole, and envisions capturing Pikes Peak in much the same way.

“You’re on a hillside or a mountain top getting this great expanse of landscape,” Walton described. “I have it in my mind to do that.”

Walton enjoys “working big,” with the typical size of her paintings being 4 feet by 4 feet. 

“I’ll do at least one of those,” she said, “but 36 inches by 36 inches is also a comfortable size.”

Walton said there’s no limit to the number of paintings the artists can create. All work must be completed by September. The artists are sharing their progress, as well as adventures from the state parks, on social media using #20artists20parks, #IowaStateParks100 and #iowaarts.

“It’s all been pulled together so beautifully,” she said. “It’s fun to see other people do their posting.”

“We can’t wait to see what these 20 Iowa artists create through this unique collaboration to mark the state parks’ centennial,” said Iowa Department of Cultural Affairs Director Chris Kramer, who oversees both the Iowa Arts Council and the State Historical Society of Iowa. “The 20 Artists, 20 Parks program is such a creative and authentic way to celebrate our state’s art, history and natural beauty.”

Tschirgi said he’s excited Pikes Peak can be involved. It’s an inspiring location, particularly for photographers, but he occasionally sees other artists too. For example, this spring, on a trek down to Bridal Veil Falls, he discovered a woman set up at the popular site with an easel.

“Sometimes, it’s when you least expect it,” he noted.

Tschirgi is also excited from a personal standpoint. When he attended Iowa State, he started out studying art and design, before later changing his major. He picked up drawing and painting again around five years ago.

According to Luis Rico-Gutierrez, dean of the ISU College of Design, no other state better understands the intimate relationship between humans and the natural environment. 

“As we look to the future of that symbiotic relationship, Iowa State University artists and designers will invite the public to engage, enjoy and admire our state parks, and in the process, pose insightful questions, imagine alternative futures and, of course, create beauty,” he said.

The art created this summer will be organized into an exhibit that will travel to at least three art venues in 2020. Additionally, each artist will return to his or her park to share a program about the artist-in-residence experience.

Iowa’s park system began 100 years ago when Backbone State Park was dedicated on May 28, 1920, and has grown to encompass more than 70 parks and forests across the state. The DNR is planning a yearlong celebration highlighting the importance of state parks to the quality of life in Iowa, including outdoor recreation, historic preservation, arts and culture and natural resources.

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