Redefine art and you redefine a community.
Art on the Prairie 2013, Perry’s two-day festival of all things creative, has again done just that.
Some art fests focus on the expected wall-hanging and shelf-filling fare. Not Perry’s. This week more than two dozen musicians performed free at various venues and hourly poetry readings beckoned, while plastic art was found on every hand.
Traditional arts fests happen in one location, but in Perry visitors instead might ask where Art On the Prairie is not. Six locations throughout Perry’s historic downtown hosted the 2013 proceedings. Even the public library was teeming with creation. A teen artist created caricatures of passersby while an artful seamstress displayed eye-popping fabric covers for Kindles and other e-readers atop traditional bookshelves.
Mary Rose Nichols wears no crown, despite being the widely identified queen who inspired Perry’s cultural renaissance.
After a 31-year career as a school teacher, she opened Mary Rose Collection in 2006, rehabbing a former telephone company edifice built in 1913. Nine tons of removed rubble later, her side-street store is a magnet for creative types.
Not the average art dealer, Nichols divides her time between her building’s store and its two studios. From painting to stained-glass art (that features Nichols wielding a soldering iron), she is an artist in action.
Art on the Prairie’s communal enthusiasm is a cultural contrast to the aftershocks felt following the demise of Hometown Perry Inc. Native Roberta Green Ahmanson had pumped more than $20 million into restoring the community’s splendor.
When her foundation curtailed tts support in 2007, Perry needed time to remember that creativity means more than just a bank roll.
Artist Betsy Peterson has been a star in both chapters of Perry’s fine arts forays. She has been a Perry resident for 27 years. With potter-husband Eric, Peterson’s local career began when the couple turned their barn into a studio that is still a landmark on Highway 141 just east of Perry.
The pair showed their enduring support for the local arts scene in 2012 by building a gallery on the property to showcase their works. From commissioned murals and major works seen in Hotel Pattee and all around town to designing the sign for young Grant’s refreshment stand, Peterson’s work stands out.
"Roberta’s original vision had in mind what Art on the Prairie is doing," Peterson said. "Her desire was to beautify the streets and the buildings here, so that we’d get excited. She wanted history to be rewritten by local people, not her."
Peterson feels that "logistics" challenged the original effort by Ahmanson. "Who was in charge of each project?" she asked. "Was it Roberta or Hometown Perry or the TownCraft Center or someone else?"
Other made-in-Perry artistic careers were in evidence at the 2013 festival.
Cindy Skeie’s nature photography, for instance, highlighted the Spring Valley Ballroom of the newly reopened Hotel Pattee.
"I’m not a professional photographer or artist," Skeie claimed. "I just do this as a passion." But her blossoming reputation rivals the unveiling of any flower she has documented.
Before the first Perry event, "I was giving away copies of what I did," she explained. "I didn’t feel like I could sell professionally."
Jen Heins, an Art on the Prairie committee member, thought otherwise.
"I went to see Jen," Skeie said. "She gave me hours of professional instruction, matting and packaging my photos."
The encouragement paid off. Visitors at 2010’s first Art on the Prairie voted Skeie "The People’s Choice" award. According to the public, this rookie artist was best in show.
"Art on the Prairie 2010 was the first show I ever did and if it hadn’t been for you guys welcoming me, I probably wouldn’t have pursued it much more," she said.
Why does she keep coming back?
"They aren’t artsy-fartsy here," Skeie said. "This place reinvigorates me."
Art on the Prairie has provided other artistic launching pads. Sarah McCoy transformed herself from old-fashioned type-set printer to bona fide artist at the urging of Nichols (coincidentally, McCoy’s aunt).
Starting with a Perry appearance, McCoy’s artistic vision grew. Positioning one letter at a time, making each individual impression without computer or other electrical device, McCoy’s old-fashioned creations earned a fan following. Ironically, her first taste of old-school ways came hand-cranking a press at the University of Iowa Center for the Book in 2001.
These days, even business cards come from McCoy’s own inky efforts. "I do them all myself. I’ve had to set up the press at midnight when I see that I’m out and need them for an event the next day."
From Perry, creations from McCoy’s permanent collection have found their way to showcases ranging from the prestigious annual New York stationery show to shops nationwide.
"I’m from Adel," she said. "I sell across the country. But I get the most satisfaction from selling right here. This is my community."
Perry artist Gavin Warnock, a Grinnell College student with a double major in science and art, was asked if he was really an artist. "Yes, I am. I want to teach high school physics."
He confessed that as a local high schooler, "I didn’t see a lot of art and opportunity here in Perry."
Now, rivaling Bill Nye the Science Guy, Warnock held a group of students from Woodward Academy in stunned silence as he explained "fractal pattern wood-burning through electricity." He captures the etched current on wood, much like an EKG machine monitor displays a patient’s heartbeat.
"I see the beauty through physics," he explained.
Nichols knows that as Art on the Prairie’s fame grows, artists throughout Iowa will clamor for inclusion.
"We welcome artists from around the state but also recognize and value talent nearby. At this time we do not have any strict guidelines that assure the inclusion of local and county artists, but I know that it will be a top priority to continue to include talented artists from the area."
Some space is set aside in the festival’s crowded concourses for budding talent. "We have a space for artists from Perry and the local area who cannot fill a 10-foot booth but who want to be included in the show," Nichols said. "The first two years these artists filled the Board Room of the Hotel Pattee, but this year Mary Murphy, our library director, offered the public library for these artists as well as for student art displays and youth activities. These young artists are not required to pay a registration fee."
Likewise, the Art on the Prairie committee maintains contact with its artist participants, always ready for any artists to relocate to Perry. The committee keeps campaigning for art throughout the community, working to get public art installations along the Raccoon River Valley Recreational Trail.
The only thing missing from the 2013 festival may have been much of Nichols’ own art. "I’m so embarrassed," she confessed. "I’m supposed to have my own booth. But I haven’t had time to create very much."
Nichols’ creations may not have filled many walls or shelves then. But her artistic vision keeps filling the hearts and hopes of a community.