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Cover Story

Creative geniuses

6/25/2014

Minister Madai Taylor scratches out abstract religious art in paints made from excavated dirts.

Minister Madai Taylor scratches out abstract religious art in paints made from excavated dirts.

In his “Act of Creation,” Arthur Koestler defined the creative process as a Hegelian dialectic in which an idea is subjected to an antithetical environment from which something original is synthesized. He showed that great discoveries in science, art and humor all resulted from such a similar process.

On my beats the last 25 years covering the cultural scenes in central Iowa, I found many original thinkers who followed such a process, either consciously or obliviously. Painters Madai Taylor and Michael Brangoccio both applied articles of faith to their work, defining abstract concepts like grace with distinctly individual styles. By dropping out of academic life and becoming a night janitor, painter Richard Kelley internalized his artistic visions into an original, personal universe. Artist TJ Moberg built an umbrella of businesses including two galleries, a consultancy and a framing shop while providing an opportunity for a generation of younger artists to sell their work. He says he’s noticed that creativity often flares in artists who come to art from other disciplines. “My dad (Tom Moberg) was a dry wall contractor, Travis Rice a landscape architect, Justin Beller a chef, Sean Crahan a rock and roller, Frank Hansen a plumber, David Rose a computer programmer.”

Avionics sales director Larry Cleverley upgraded the culinary scene in central Iowa when he took over an eight-acre farm in Mingo and convinced local restaurants to use things they had never heard of before — green garlic, arugula, radicchio, heirloom tomatoes, fingerling and purple potatoes, etc. Alex Brown began developing his unique style of painting while still a member of iconic punk rock band Gorilla Biscuits.

TJ Moberg has created an umbrella of art businesses while developing his own unique artistic style.

TJ Moberg has created an umbrella of art businesses while developing his own unique artistic style.

All those creative folks developed a kind of genius for synthesizing original ways of doing what they do best. Others applied their creative impulses into successful businesses. Connie Wimer, a legal secretary at the time, reinvented the title business, chiefly by computerizing it — a decade ahead of her competitors. Then she founded a series of publications that had never been attempted in Iowa — a weekly paper about business (Business Record), a weekly alternative (which later became Cityview), and a glossy civic magazine (DSM), which she launched simultaneously while founding Wine Fest. In the process, she created an incubator for creative people who would move on: to edit Kirkus Review, Billboard, The Village Voice; to publish numerous things; to write best-selling novels, award-winning books of non-fiction; and to found high-tech companies.

Sarah Grant branded her artistic visions into an internationally recognizable style and employed an entire creative class of artists, by applying her artistic vision to furniture-making at her startup Sticks. She gave art jobs to hundreds of artists, from Africa, Eastern Europe, Asia and small towns all over Iowa. All of Grant’s artists also have personal careers. George Formaro created six destination restaurants by applying his travels with an obsession for old cookbooks in many languages. He has provided a similar incubator for creative chefs.

Wimer, Grant and Formaro all credited “out-of-the-box thinking” for their successes. Wimer says being active in community associations made her aware of “needs that could be filled.” Grant says the “best artists must use both sides of their brain. Artists just tend to get a pass for not being creative in business because in the public eye it is all about how creative, funky, edgy, whatever, we are as artists, not business thinkers. That gets artists nowhere.” Formaro credits his obsession with horror films for major successes he invented for both Centro and Zombie Burger. However, Wimer, Grant and Formaro all emphasized hard work over creative processes in the Hegelian mode. All advised surrounding oneself with talented and creative people.

Two other creative thinkers better illustrate the creative process as Koestler described it. Both have accomplished something unprecedented, as well as something they were told would be impossible to do in Iowa.

The Horse Whisperer

On Kentucky Derby weekend, two of Maggi Moss’ horses won stakes races at Churchill Downs — So Many Ways took the Eight Belles Stakes and Delauney the Churchill Downs Stakes. Most owners would have reveled in the pageantry of the winner’s circle during racing’s most famous weekend. Moss stayed at home in Des Moines.

Maggi Moss checks on a favorite before a race.

Maggi Moss checks on a favorite before a race.

She was here to watch the races with her mom, Berenice, who has a special relationship with So Many Ways. The younger Moss turned down a very generous fee for that filly because her mom told her not to sell. Maggi Moss says that was the most interest her mother has ever shown in a horse, so it was important to watch the races together. To her way of thinking, success derives from nurturing good relationships.

Moss is no stranger to winner’s circles. She was a three-time national equestrian champion. A formidable prosecutor and trial lawyer, she became famous for her defense of Troy Mure in a Dallas County murder trial. Her work in the domestic abuse case Long v. Broadlawns changed the way alcoholics are treated in Iowa’s criminal system. A burning baby case and a creative “Munchausen syndrome by proxy” defense landed her on the Oprah Winfrey Show, once on 9-11.

In 2006, Moss was the nation’s leading thoroughbred owner in number of wins. Since then, she has ranked in the top five every year in wins and in the top 10 every year in money won. She has also led the nation in percentage of races won and races run in the money. She has been the leading winner at Churchill Downs, Fairgrounds in New Orleans and Aqueduct in New York City, as well as Prairie Meadows. “It’s getting easier for me to race my horses out east so I don’t get so attached to them. At Prairie Meadows I see them every day,” she said.

She is consistently the only woman ranking on any kind of national leader board and often the poorest owner. She was edged out of the Eclipse Award in 2006 by Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, the monarch of Dubai and prime minister of the United Arab Emirates. She believes that her creative edge derives from her appreciation for nurturing.

“It’s as simple as the treatment you insist on for your animals. Much like people, horses have the similar needs to be happy. Basically, if they are healthy and feel good, they are happy and do well, ironically, much like people. It is nurturing, it’s being able to see if horses are happy by their behavior, and one does need to understand animals to see that,” she said.

Moss has worked to end puppy mills and to establish HART (Hope After Racing Thoroughbreds). She has also become an advocate against horse slaughter and has started a program to provide horses to former prison inmates in order to provide them with a sense of purpose upon release.

Moss does not pay much heed to bloodlines and dosage indexes, things most top owners consider gospel. She does not breed horses either. She picks most of her horses at claiming races, not gala auctions. Claimers are de facto rejects. Someone has given up on them, assuming they have peaked. Moss’ great success with them means she sees something others cannot see.

Her main tools are the same things top gamblers use. She studies Racing Forms compulsively and applies what she learns outside the lines. Yet she never bets on horses, even her own.

She also believes that her career as a trial lawyer prepared her to succeed as a horse owner.

“Back when I was doing trial work, it was a bit of a ‘boys club.’ Very few women were doing trial work. It was the work ethic and understanding people — juries — that aided me. When a trial day was over, most people would go to dinner, cocktails, home, and I would work all night. I found that just hard work would make the difference. Ironically, with horse racing, it truly is a boys club, there are no women in the top group of racing. There are enormous monies, and it’s a rich hobby for most,” she explained.

The one quasi boys club Moss has not been able to enter is the Des Moines Register’s Iowa Sports Hall of Fame, a place so politically incorrect it honors the infamous racist Cap Anson. Slights like that keep her motivated.

“I run it like a business and again, just have to outwork it. I probably spend more hours working in this business than I did in the law. The similarities are remarkable. If you work long hard hours and are victorious in the law, the feelings are identical to the hard work with horses and having them be successful. The advantage is it’s now animals, not people, and at times, they seem more grateful,” she said.

The Prosciutto of Happiness

Herb Eckhouse has two state-of-the-art pieces of equipment in his home kitchen — an Italian espresso machine and a Berkel meat slicer. One sees both of these in most any bar or café in Italy’s Emilia-Romagna but rarely in Iowa. “Hey, I don’t have a Lamborghini or a Ferrari. These are my indulgences,” he laughed.

More than anyone else, former avionics sales director Larry Cleverley upgraded the local food culture.

More than anyone else, former avionics sales director Larry Cleverley upgraded the local food culture.

In the 1980s, Herb and wife Kathy spent three-and-a-half years in Parma, the culinary heart of Emilia, when Herb was president of Pioneer Hybrid Italia. Before his time in Italy, his only experiences with charcuterie had been with cooked meats. In fact, most uncooked forms of charcuterie were illegal to import.

When living in Parma, dry cured, uncooked Italian charcuterie became a part of their daily diet. “In Italy we learned to eat in a culture where eating is quasi-religious. It connects you to the Creator. That sinks in past gourmanderie or hedonism. It is what makes life worth living,” he explained. When the Eckhouses moved back to Iowa in 1989, the United States also passed legislation to finally allow the import of prosciutto.

“At the time, Iowa needed economic development. Driving across the rolling hills of Iowa, I would think, ‘Wow, all this abundance, what can we do with this?’ And I wondered what do we make here that’s really great. That really wasn’t much at the time — Maytag blue cheese? So I thought why not make prosciutto. After all, it’s a multibillion-dollar industry in Parma,” he recalled.

Stars were smiling on the idea. Pioneer was sold to DuPont, and the hard work of saving to put children through college was over. The Eckhouses decided it was time for Herb to quit the company and pursue their idea. “Change was afoot in the American food market. It started with wine. The U.S. upgraded to European levels. The cheese industry was in full evolution about 14 years ago. Craft beer was starting to happen. Cured meats, at the time, were still being made just to fill the import shortages — not for premium quality. Legal imports created a market for quality prosciutto. So did the Cooking Channel,” he explained.

Of course, no one in Italy thought they had a prayer of succeeding. “When I was in Parma everyone told me that was the only place you could make good prosciutto because of the cold winter climate in the Apennines, the cool nights all year round and the salty air blowing into the hills — ‘il perfumo.’ They said you cannot make prosciutto without il perfumo,” he recalled.

Herb saw fallacies in that opinion. Refrigeration changed the way the Italians made prosciutto after World War II. Hams no longer hung in houses and open-window warehouses in the hills, but in air-conditioned plants. “Of course they still advertised their air, but the hams don’t get exposed to it.”

The Italians also had begun using confinement hogs rather than local grazers who were fed acorns and cheese whey, as they were for hundreds of years before mid 20th century. Herb started making prosciutto at home in his basement in Des Moines. He received good feedback from expert tasters. “I became convinced it was the meat, not the air, that made great prosciutto.”

 Herb and Kathy Eckhouse and their creations.

Herb and Kathy Eckhouse and their creations.

He insisted upon standards of stewardship that few Iowa pigs enjoy. In 2000, Herb heard that Niman Pork, who also demanded such standards, wanted a prosciutto partner to appeal to the Whole Foods chain. “They had talked to many different people about opening a prosciutto partnership. I was the only one crazy enough to actually do it.”

When they started making prosciutto, the Eckhouses stuck with Niman Pork and Organic Valley hogs. “We figured Iowa did not need more pigs, just something excellent to do with them. At the time, ham was a very seasonal thing and both Niman and Organic Valley needed an outlet for their legs year-round. Prosciutto makers are a steady customer,” Eckhouse recalled.

Today, the La Quercia plant in Norwalk delivers a considerable slice of Emilian culture to central Iowa. Italian opera plays as staff salts hams and other muscle meats. Herb says they listen to everything from Pavarotti to Mary Chapin Carpenter. “The crew likes opera. We have music in the entire plant.” A marble bar is being installed where another Berkel will slice meats while guests sip espresso drinks.

About 65,000 hams hang at any time, most from nine to 12 months, some for as long as 30 months. La Quercia (the oak) now contracts small farmers like Jude Becker and Russ Kremer to raise hogs on a diet of acorns, the legend of Parma reborn in Iowa. Those acorn edition hams hang for 15 months for front legs and 30 months for their rear legs. Much like the development of a great wine these things have been worked out by trial and error over the years. “We have lost a lot of meat over the years testing,” Eckhouse said.

He also prefers older, fattier hogs — Berkshire crosses seem to provide that best. Eckhouse developed new techniques for curing his hams. Instead of salting the hip joint of whole legs with the fat cut off, like they do in Italy, or cutting the hip in half and leaving the hip joint on, like they do in Spain, he chose to open legs up and put salt directly onto the muscle. “Our method is costlier, we suffer more weight loss, but we also have more control. I think this produces a dryer, richer flavor.” With the acorn edition hams, they salt whole legs with the foot on and trim it differently from the Italians or Spanish. “We hold acorn-fed hams so long that they would dry out if we opened them up.”

Today, La Quercia makes artisan cured pancetta, coppa, speck, lonza, guanciale, and lardo as well as prosciutto. Their various charcuterie have won the endorsement of a Who’s Who in the food world and defeated most of the legendary hams on Italy and Spain in international contests. Even without “il perfumo.” CV

Barmuda