ia: The best of Iowa arts and culture
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Produced in partnership with the Iowa Department of Cultural Affairs
This line of stamps, called the "Voices of the Harlem Renaissance," showcases the contributions from African American luminaries in the 1920s. Photo: United States Postal Service


By Michael Morain
Iowa Department of Cultural Affairs

Artists who want to make a lasting impact could do worse than create stamps for the U.S. Postal Service. After all, they’re “forever.”

So the Cedar Falls artist Gary Kelley was honored to create a quartet of tiny portraits of four larger-than-life luminaries of the 1920s Harlem Renaissance. Their faces adorn four new Forever stamps the USPS released on May 21 – just four days before the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis refocused the nation’s attention on racial injustice and the often-overlooked contributions of African Americans.

The stamps honor novelist Nella Larsen, writer and arts advocate Alain Locke, historian Arturo Alfonso Schomburg and poet Anne Spencer. All four contributed to the burst of creativity that centered in Harlem, the New York neighborhood where thousands of African Americans migrated after the First World War.

The new stamps aren’t Kelley’s first commission for the USPS. He created portraits for an earlier series honoring famous gospel singers, another series about Hollywood directors, and a single stamp about Oscar Micheaux, a pioneering African American filmmaker, who spent several years in Sioux City.

“I’m always happy to do them,” says Kelley, who participated the postal service’s virtual unveiling ceremony.

Over the course of his award-winning career, Kelley has exhibited his work all over the world and created illustrations for Time, Rolling Stone and the New Yorker. His murals adorn Barnes and Noble bookstores nationwide, as well as the World Food Prize Hall of Laureates in downtown Des Moines and a massive Google data center in Council Bluffs. He just polished off a manuscript for his first graphic novel, about the Spirit Lake Massacre, which will be released later this year.

But there’s nothing quite like a postage stamp. As soon as the new series was released, his wife picked up a few fresh sheets at the post office in Cedar Falls.

Others have mailed him sets to autograph — tucked in, of course, with pre-stamped, self-addressed envelopes. “I’ve gotten a few packets in the mail now,” he says, “from people I don’t even know.”
Carol Gunn of Bonaparte participates in a plein air painting competition in Van Buren County. Photo: Mel Stockwell


By Michael Morain
Iowa Department of Cultural Affairs

For 132 years, a big white barn stood in Van Buren County. For a few hours, some artists set up easels nearby and captured its beauty on canvas.

And for just a few seconds later that night, during the summer of 2018, a storm lifted the old building off its foundation and then slammed it down, dashing it to smithereens. The artists’ paintings turned out to be the last record of the Galloway family barn — and an almost surreal example of why old-school, outdoor painting is catching on here in Iowa and across the country. The art form forces people to pay attention, to appreciate the moment.

The pastime is especially attractive now, in the era of social distancing. A Facebook page for the Iowa Plein Air Painters regularly offers informal painting challenges and an online platform for folks to show off their work.

“It’s nothing to be driving somewhere in Van Buren County and — boom! — you’ll see three or four plein air painters. We’re thick with them around here,” says Villages Folk School Director Mel Stockwell, who organizes plein air competitions at the county fairgrounds.

“And face it,” she says, “it’s kind of romantic, don’t you think?”

The French term “plein air” — pronounced “plen” air — means “outside,” and the art form hit its heyday in the 19th century, when Impressionists like Paul Cezanne and Claude Monet left their studios to get some fresh air and fresh ideas. They wanted to capture their impressions of a particular place in time.

Here in Iowa, artists like Ding Darling and Althea Sherman carried on the tradition in the 20th century, training their eyes toward details in nature.

“It’s the way the light hits a certain area and it just draws you in. You feel like you just have to paint it,” says Gin Lammert, one of the artists who painted the Galloway barn.

She readily admits that outdoor painting isn’t for everybody. She’s been swarmed by bugs. She’s been caught in a downpour. She’s painted at night. But for her, that’s part of the fun.
Ryan Smith of Barley's Bar shows us how to make his special pizza rolls.


When Matt and Jill Johnson decided to purchase an old watering hole named Dirty Harry’s, their reason was simple — they wanted a locally focused bar in historic downtown Council Bluffs.The youthful plan evolved into Barley’s Bar in 2001, now a popular destination for folks in western Iowa.

One of the favorite menu items is pizza rolls, which are made with pepperoni, sausage, mozzarella and pizza sauce wrapped in an egg roll, all cooked in a fryer. You can add marinara sauce for dipping, but the flavor alone is enough. Learn how to make this dish on the latest dsm CultureCast What's Cooking With Iowa Restaurants with Barley's owner Ryan Smith. The recipe is easy and takes around 20 minutes.

Anne Niyitanga, who was 5 when this photo was taken, and her family found refuge when they arrived in Iowa after years of living in refugee camps in Tanzania and the Democratic Republic of Congo. Photo: Ben Easter.


Iowa is a land of beauty, bounty and opportunity. But the state is defined less by the range of its attributes than by its greatest resource, the people who live here. The faces of residents have changed as the state has embraced the value of diversity, and we are enriched by the experience of elevating the newest residents while nourishing the youngest and venerating the eldest.

In this ia magazine spread, we present a gallery of images that celebrate the differences among us and the title that binds us: Iowan.
Towering big bluestem, once the monarch of prairie plants, still stretches leisurely upward and waves from the bluffs of Five Ridge Prairie State Preserve in Plymouth County. Photo: Kelly Norris


By Kelly Norris

At Five Ridge Prairie State Preserve, there’s a certain crackling sound that dried prairie grasses make when they take flame. The roar of that thermodynamic force across the wind-worn ridges of the Loess Hills must have reached unfathomable crescendos. But 25,000 years ago these flames burned hot on a nearly annual basis, an ecological version of creative destructionism.

In the ashes of disturbance, hundreds of species of flowering plants thrived by adapting to the rigorous reality of the midcontinent, a turbulent struggle between the subtropical flirtations of summer and the subarctic plunges of winter. Big bluestem thrived in this context, a westward easterner that proliferated across the Midwest, perhaps the single most populous plant on the continent at the peak of its existence.

Today, the plant’s familiar turkey-footed flowering stalks reach skyward — 6-foot-tall reminders of Iowa’s natural history — alongside trails that snake and squirrel their way through oak-lined valleys and grassy bluffs of the 964-acre preserve in western Plymouth County. Amid this weft of late summer stems, purple prairie clover and stiff sunflower speckle the landscape with magenta and gold.

The preserve is located seven miles south of Westfield on the east side of Iowa Highway 12. More information: 712-947-4270;
The Iowa Department of Cultural Affairs has supported arts and culture organizations around the state, many of which have been devastated by the pandemic.


Arts and culture organizations have been some of the hardest hit during the pandemic, losing valuable event and ticket revenue and foot traffic during the warmer months. The Iowa Department of Cultural Affairs has provided some relief, awarding more than $1.1 million in 173 grants statewide, it announced last week.

This includes $923,372 for emergency relief and another $178,000 in humanities grants to help Iowa cultural organizations rebound from the financial impacts of the coronavirus pandemic.
The grants are intended to support ongoing cultural projects, preserve jobs and keep the doors open at thousands of cultural organizations that boost the economy and creative life of communities.

Applicants cited a range of financial losses stemming from cancellations and closures. Many cultural organizations reported losing out on revenue from admissions and gift-shop sales, as well as canceled classes, programs and fundraisers. A recent survey conducted by Americans for the Arts showed that more than 340 Iowa arts and cultural organizations collectively have lost at least $16.3 million since the coronavirus outbreak began.
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