A state of being

Monday, July 3, 2017

The recent passing of a friend and frequent customer has reminded me of how Iowa is often perceived by other parts of the country. Some think Iowans are unqualified to hold the first caucus. Some think our state is covered in hog confinements. Some think we wear overalls and speak with southern accents. Some even think we’re the potato state. We’ve heard them all.

So it comes as no surprise that the Hawkeye state isn’t exactly considered a fortress of artistic creativity by many people out there. But, just like our reputation as spud producers, that perception isn’t necessarily accurate. In fact, this friend of mine was an artist who showed the galleries of New York just how wrong they were about Iowa, which I didn’t know until he passed.

I first met Hans Breder when I was working as a shipping clerk in downtown Iowa City. There were those who knew Hans Breder better than I did, specifically the guys who had been there much longer than I was. But I always enjoyed chatting with Hans when he came in to ship his artwork or anything else.

Then, last week, I saw his obituary — thanks to the modern marvel of social media, of course. A few days later, a friend posted a piece that recently ran in the New York Times in memoriam of Hans and his contribution to the art world. It’s funny how much you learn about someone once they’re gone. Apparently, Hans’ work had been a catching on in the mid ’60s. Soon after, he was offered a position at the University of Iowa. The article said his friends warned him “he was leaving the center of the artistic universe for a cultural desert.”

The Times quotes Hans’ response.

“I will bring New York to Iowa.”

He did just that. The intermedia art program he created at the University of Iowa was the first in the world. Frankly, interdisciplinary work is an integral part of the artistic world these days. I didn’t know I’d ever spoken with the man who was largely responsible for it.

There’s the possibility that I am simply fortunate enough to have only known an Iowa under the influence of Hans. But there is also the possibility that Iowa was never an artistic salt flat, devoid of any creative value. Perhaps Hans saw what our state had to offer.

Iowa has claim to one of the most recognized — and satirized — paintings this side of the Mona Lisa. I’m, of course, referring to Grant Wood’s “American Gothic.” I’ll admit, it’s not the most revolutionary painting, but it’s a starting point. There was value in his work and how it contributed to the Regionalism movement. That’s an art movement, not a political one. In fact, his work was so valued that, in the 1930s, he became the artist in residence at Iowa State University, which was Iowa State College at the time. There’s no way to prove this, but perhaps the credence given to Wood’s work at this time served as a beacon for later artists.

Take artist Sylvia Schuster for example. She studied in Rome and graduated from the Rhode Island School of Design approximately a year before Hans took the position at the University of Iowa. Schuster has shown her work in New York, but guess where she’s based out of now. Iowa City. Has been for years.

Or take Ingrid Lilligren. She’s pretty well known in ceramic art circles. She researched and developed techniques for using crystalline glazes and even found a way to transfer photographic images onto clay. Today, she’s the chair of art and visual culture at ISU and encourages her students to understand the wave of artistic history they’re riding so they can develop something new and keep the wave moving.

You see, in my opinion, artistic development isn’t related to geography. It’s related to culture. Cities like New York may well be the supposed Meccas of the artistic world, but that doesn’t mean other places are devoid of creative culture. I mean, community art centers have been popping up all over Iowa the last couple decades and they’re starting to be somewhat of an accepted expectation.

As time goes on, I think the historically established art scenes of the scrambling cities will gradually recognize the value of art produced in different cultural settings and begin to gravitate toward artists outside the metropolitan circles — like it did in Grant Wood’s time. So, perhaps Hans did indeed bring New York to Iowa. Not by seeding an artistically barren wasteland but by sending a bounty of his artistic harvest back to the concrete jungles.

Thanks Hans.