Effigy Mounds art exhibit re-imagines Iowa

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An art exhibit on display now at the Effigy Mounds National Monument Visitor Center re-imagines Iowa through the eyes of members of the Ioway tribe of Kansas and Nebraska, descendants of some of Iowa’s original inhabitants. (Photos by Audrey Posten)

“This is a little bit of the past connecting with the present, because we’re all here today looking at the wonderful work, but it’s kind of forward-looking work as well,” said Effigy Mounds Superintendent Jim Nepstad at the exhibit’s Aug. 30 opening reception.

Jessica Pope said the plan is for the Effigy Mounds Visitor Center to become more of a cultural center—"a living, breathing site where all Americans can come together and get to know one another.” The exhibit plays well into this vision.

Reuben IronHorse-Kent is one of five Ioway artists whose work is featured in “ReImagining Iowa.” He spoke about his piece at the opening reception.

Phillip Pursel’s painting features an Iowa corn maiden.

Sydney Pursel took a more interactive approach. “I wanted to make something that was touchable,” she explained. “I wanted to do something that had an impact and would actually contribute to the re-wilding of Iowa.” The result was two gum ball machines filled with seed balls. The balls are made of clay and compost with seeds rolled up in them. Thanks to input from Effigy Mounds staff, Pursel purchased seeds that are specific to the area.

By Audrey Posten, North Iowa Times

An art exhibit on display now at the Effigy Mounds National Monument Visitor Center re-imagines Iowa through the eyes of members of the Ioway tribe of Kansas and Nebraska, descendants of some of Iowa’s original inhabitants.

“Many of us who’ve established roots in areas for a generation or two become very attached to those places. Some might have roots in Iowa that are six, seven generations deep. But imagine having ancestors that have been attached to the land for hundreds of generations? They remember a place very different than it looks today,” shared Effigy Mounds Superintendent Jim Nepstad at an opening reception for the exhibit on Aug. 30. 

The interesting thing about Iowa, he noted, is that is has been undeniably altered from what it used to be. Unfortunately, much of that change took place early, prior to the advent of modern photography. 

“So it’s hard to really imagine what Iowa used to look like. It’s hard to know how the changes occurred, and how drastic those changes may have been,” said Nepstad. “So this is a little bit of the past connecting with the present, because we’re all here today looking at the wonderful work, but it’s kind of forward-looking work as well. It’s uniting the past with the present and the future all at once.”

Entitled “ReImagining Iowa: 5 Ioway Artists,” the exhibit features work by Lance Foster, Kayla Kent, Reuben IronHorse-Kent, Phillip Pursel and Sydney Pursel. It explores a future for Iowa by those whose ancestors once lived here harmoniously, during a time when people were not driven by desires and unessential possessions but took only what was needed for survival.

The exhibit is funded by a grant from BeWildReWild, a special fund within the Iowa Natural Heritage Foundation that explores three questions: What do you/we mean by wild? What lifestyle changes are needed for us to live within the bounds of sustainability? How can we create a wilder, more beautiful, more biologically diverse, and a more enduring Mississippi River watershed?

“I was intrigued by those three basic questions,” said IronHorse-Kent, who spoke at the exhibit opening. “They’re not really easy questions, not really questions to say ‘yes’ or ‘no.’ They’re going to lead into a lot more explanations and a lot of thought.”

In his four-piece painting, IronHorse-Kent tried to encapsulate work from earlier societies and capture “how we came to be where we’re at today.” The four symbols of earth, air, fire and water are featured prominently, as are the sun, moon and stars, and man and woman. They’re all connected by a DNA helix.

But aside from showing that connection, he also used the painting as a warning.

“It seems to be what we’re dealing with today is how we’re going to perpetuate a clean, healthy environment. We’re here for a little while, and we can utilize things, but we have to put back,” IronHorse-Kent detailed. “Somewhere along the line, we got into the square where we don’t have to put back, we’ll just utilize. Now, somewhere along the line, we have to go back to the circle.”

 Phillip Pursel’s painting features an Iowa corn maiden.

“When I first heard about re-wilding the Mississippi basin, the first thing that came to mind was corn and a corn maiden,” he said. 

She was inspired by versions within the Pueblo and Hopi tribes, which he became more familiar with while trying to re-wild himself in New Mexico.

“There’s a lot of different versions of the corn maiden,” Pursel shared, “and I’m sure we had one as well.”

Sydney Pursel took a different, more interactive approach with her piece. 

“I wanted to make something that was touchable,” she explained. “I wanted to do something that had an impact and would actually contribute to the re-wilding of Iowa.”

The result was two gum ball machines filled with seed balls. The balls are made of clay and compost with seeds rolled up in them. Thanks to input from Effigy Mounds staff, Pursel purchased seeds that are specific to the area.

Although the seed balls can’t be distributed within the park, “you can put your quarters in it and take some seeds home,” she said.

One of the other artists, Foster, who is also the tribal historic preservation officer, approached Effigy Mounds about hosting “ReImagining Iowa.” Nepstad said they jumped at the opportunity.

“This is exactly where we’re trying to go,” he noted, in crafting a new vision for the visitor center space. Not long ago, the wall where the art now hangs featured worn, faded photos of other national park sites, along with a National Park Service arrowhead and a random map.

Nepstad said it was easy for Jessica Pope, interpretation, resource education and volunteer program manager at Effigy Mounds, to look at that and see room for improvement.

“The word sacred doesn’t even begin to capture what this incredible resource is,” Pope shared. “One of the things that is my job to do is come up with the programs and the way we tell the story of this place and share it with our visitors and create opportunities for visitors to join us in finding the meaning of a place like this.”

When Pope joined Effigy Mounds over a year ago, the monument embarked on the significant task of creating a five- to seven-year long-range interpretive plan. Since then, Effigy Mounds has utilized its tribal partners, as well as local resources and community stakeholders, to begin crafting a vision of what the visitor center, and the visitor experience as a whole, should be.

“What resounded through that whole process, and what’s in the document we created, is we want to make this a cultural center—make this a living, breathing site where all Americans can come together and get to know one another,” Pope said. “The people who built these mounds, they did not disappear. Their descendents walk amongst us—they’re our fellow Americans—and their cultures have survived despite everything that was done to them.”

Through exhibits like “ReImagining Iowa,” by sharing stories and finding meanings, “we can come to understand one another,” she added. “That really is the vision for this visitor center.” 

“ReImagining Iowa: 5 Ioway Artists” will be on display at the Effigy Mounds National Monument Visitor Center through October.

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