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Digital when digital wasn’t cool


Gardening and art are intermingled in the mindset of Bill Luchsinger and Karen Strohbeen.

“Big Yellow with Grid,” 72 inches by 48 inches, digital painting on aluminum. Karen Strohbeen 2019

Bill Luchsinger and Karen Strohbeen are Iowa’s original digital couple. They were transferring images to computer prints back when they had to drive to Omaha to use computers and printers big enough to work to their scale. They were making digital images before David Hockney made it cool. They opened their 44th Des Moines gallery show last month at Moberg Gallery. That show includes the reissue of some of their earliest popular prints — animal drawings by Karen and enhanced by Bill. It is the 50th anniversary of that series.

The couple now splits their time equally between rural Macksburg here and Tarpon Springs, an old sponge-diving community near Tampa with a large Greek population.

“We always try to get back to Iowa for the beginning of planting. We do start our tomatoes in Florida and drive them back with us,” explained Strohbeen.

Gardening and art are intermingled in the couple’s mindset. Before the last 20 years or so, they were better known for their syndicated TV series “The Perennial Gardener with Karen Strohbeen.” Luchsinger produced, directed and shot the series behind the camera. Today, the photography is without action.

Prep Iowa

“One day recently I picked a beautiful bouquet growing wild near our place. It wilted the same day. That’s why we must make pictures,” Strohbeen explained.

The current show reveals works from both of their homes, more from central Iowa. In Florida, Luchsinger made a series watching sunrise in the western sky. The couple belongs there to a church they call the only church in America with the mission of striving for social justice, spiritual justice and art. The church reopened after five years of exile in a Florida sinkhole. Luchsinger and Strohbeen art now shares the walls with some older paintings by the likes of Innes.

“In Florida, the foliage is at least as interesting as the flowers are. In Des Moines, we grow and use a lot of hollyhocks now. Since we spend so much time now in doctors’ offices, we always bring bouquets with us,” Strohbeen said.

The fields around the couple’s studio and home in Iowa are equally divided between industrial agriculture and natural prairie.

“Interestingly, the native stuff doesn’t last long at all,” Strohbeen said.

“I suspect there is a good technical explanation, but it has such milky stems that maybe the water doesn’t draw moisture from the earth to the flowers,” Luchsinger added. They had practical advice on this subject: Poppies can be singed to increase their lives as the cauterization prevents the loss of moisture; sunflowers will completely drain a vase of water within moments of being placed there.

How did they get interested in digital art so early?

“When we were young and idealistic, it was important to make art more democratic, more affordable. Prints do that. We still sell some prints for $250 and large ones for $1,000. We work seven days a week now because we can only print a small fraction of our body of work. The end product is so much more personalized and sophisticated than it used to be. Bill designs our computer paint brushes; it takes him seven days to create a new one. We have six to eight that we rely upon,” Strohbeen recalled.

They believe that gardens have the ability to change human dynamics.

“Our neighborhood in Tarpon Springs started with a farmers market with a handful of farmers in a parking lot. In five years, it’s become a huge weekly event and potluck with people who had never talked to each other becoming friends. We bring flowers and tablecloths. We have a garden in our front yard in Florida. No one complains. In fact, a neighbor who voted for Trump waters our garden for us when we can’t be there,” Strohbeen concluded. ♦

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