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Dec 1, 2011
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Des Moines’ art mama

By Jim Duncan

“Is it Good News?” by Sarah Grant.

Sarah Grant is the mother of Des Moines’ art scene. More than any person, agency or organization, she gave birth to it, bestowed an identity on it and nurtured its growth. When Grant started Sticks in 1985, as a one-person studio, committed artists in Des Moines had to choose whether they wanted to be artists or to live here. Her company let them do both by giving full-time jobs to some 100 artists at a time. They formed the creative core that snowballed into a legitimate art scene. Sticks makes furniture and art that is now sold in fine galleries and art museums all over the country. Its design work has become as recognizable as an icon, making it easy for tourists from Des Moines to spot it in Los Angeles or New York and feel some local pride.

Grant’s personal art career is also best known in large scale. She constructed, with Michigan architect Stephen Fry, a 30,000-pound kitchen table atop downtown Grand Rapids’ Blue Bridge. Her giant murals “What I Love About Iowa State,” “We Shall Know Iowa State University by Its Myriad Parts” and “My World Is So Full of Many Things,” grace Iowa State’s campus. She won an Honor Award from the American Institute of Architects.

Grant has also chronicled her emotional life in abstract paintings. Her annual shows at Olson-Larsen Galleries have been distinguished by moody colors that have made her fans either happy or sad for her. Whether dark or sunny, Grant’s paintings have always been characterized by heavy layering. Even in happy years, they revealed a compulsiveness that almost seemed penitent. One fan called it “the yin to the carefree yang of Sticks.”

Her current exhibition of new work is remarkably restrained. I’m tempted to say it’s better edited. However, painters don’t have an editor’s luxury of going back and subtracting the superfluous. So it’s more as if Grant has attained a new clarity and now simply intuits when less is more. This year’s work is also more narrative and less abstract. She even pushes narratives with playful Sticks-like titles such as “With Bloodhounds, Band-aids Don’t Work,” “Is It Good News?” and “Four Guys in Sports Coats & Ties.”

Most of the new pieces focus through frames within frames, as if the artist is looking reflectively through windows of perspective. “Just an Old Printmaker,” a painting added to the show at the last minute, is autobiographical. (Grant holds an MFA in intaglio printmaking from the University of Iowa.) It is also the most restrained work in the show. All Grant’s work begins as black on white. This painting adds little additional color and yet makes a most dramatic impact.

This exhibition plays through Nov. 26 along with shows of new works by printmaker Paula Schuette Kraemer and painter Thomas Jewell-Vitale. Kraemer exhibits visual prayers, for nurseries and kennels, which have long distinguished her career. Jewell-Vitale reveals a dramatically different palette within his familiar medium of oil and wax. He deserts his trademark cool colors for a sunny excursion to new emotional territory.


Paintpushers, a group of past and present Sticks artists, are holding their 10th anniversary retrospective at Heritage Gallery through Dec. 1… Jeremiah Elbel, a Des Moines artist who won England’s Saatchi Prize, is exhibiting in Iowa State University’s Memorial Union Pioneer Room through Dec. 5. An artist reception will be held Nov. 30, 5 to 8 p.m.… Robyn O’Neil, who rocked the Des Moines Art Center two years ago with her black and white visions of Armageddon, is currently exhibiting a single drawing, “Hell,” which took two years to complete and includes 65,000 characters, at New York City’s Susan Inglett Gallery… Des Moines painter Alex Brown has begun work on next year’s return exhibition at Feature Inc., a renowned New York City gallery. He will show drawings as well as paintings this time and a new, retro style. CV

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