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Cover Story

Murals of Des Moines

7/8/2015

They can be found all over Des Moines. The downtown and East Village areas are peppered with spots of color that catch your eye as you drive past. Faces looking back at you, scenes lamenting times gone by, moments of creativity, stories of change, hopes of the future — all constructs of artists’ imaginations.

Des Moines’ public art has an immense following, and right now, nothing is more exciting than asking where the next mural will be and who will make it. Perhaps it is because of the recent decision to tear down the Riverfront YMCA murals in lieu of moving them, or maybe because of that episode of “The Bachelor” when Van Holmgren’s painting of Chris and Whitney went up outside RoCA. Possibly, it’s because Des Moines Art Week is over and, here in Iowa, we can never get enough art. No matter the reason, it’s clear that these Des Moines murals are worth a second — or third — look.

 

Title: “Reunited, With Bees” Artist: Frank Hansen Location: 808 Des Moines St. (West-facing wall at the corner of Des Moines Street and Pennsylvania Avenue)

Title: “Reunited, With Bees”
Artist: Frank Hansen
Location: 808 Des Moines St. (West-facing wall at the corner of Des Moines Street and Pennsylvania Avenue)

 

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“Some people think it’s ugly, but it’s his self-expression. And that makes it truly beautiful,” said East Village business owner Patrick Faris of Frank Hansen’s mural on a Des Moines Street apartment building.

Faris isn’t wrong — some people do think it’s ugly (and that’s sort of the point), but “Reunited, With Bees” is one of Des Moines’ most recognizable pieces of public art. According to the Greater Des Moines Public Art Foundation (GDMPAF), Hansen’s mural is painted in the style of “emotionalism,” an art form Hansen created in college. His approach came from the thought that art didn’t have to be pretty, and, sometimes, the best art isn’t.

 

Title: “No Action Too Small” Artist: Chris Vance Location: 300 East Locust St. (East-facing wall of Metro Waste Authority, East Village)

Title: “No Action Too Small”
Artist: Chris Vance
Location: 300 East Locust St. (East-facing wall of Metro Waste Authority, East Village)

 

Of all the Des Moines area murals, “No Action Too Small” is arguably the most attention grabbing. With bright colors and bold characters, Chris Vance created a mural commissioned by Metro Waste Authority.

“It was a collaborative thing between Metro Waste and myself,” Vance said about choosing the design for the mural, as well as promoting its cause of educating good waste disposal and recycling habits, something Vance imposed throughout the project. He used recycled paint everywhere he could in the mural, and he recycled the empty spray-paint cans after he was done (something he learned about during the process). As for his fear of heights? Vance says you learn to face it when you’re three stories up.

 

Title: “The Bachelor” Artist: Van Holmgren Location: 208 Court Ave. (East-facing wall of RoCA, downtown)

Title: “The Bachelor”
Artist: Van Holmgren
Location: 208 Court Ave. (East-facing wall of RoCA, downtown)

 

After “The Bachelor” producers saw his work at the Des Moines Social Club, Van Holmgren was invited to paint a mural at RoCA during an episode of the show. Throughout the four hours he was given to create the piece, Holmgren covered a 15-by-30-foot span of wall in a colorful pattern, similar to the one the producers fell in love with. He then had only 15 minutes to paint the focal point of the piece: an image of the bachelor, Chris Soules, on his date with Whitney Bischoff. And it turned out stellar.

Though the celebrity couple broke up, Holmgren’s mural isn’t coming down anytime soon. He thinks of it as a two-year contract with RoCA. “I’ll probably paint over it with a new mural when that time comes,” he said.

 

Title: untitled Artist: Jennifer Leatherby Location: 208 Court Ave. (East-facing wall of RoCA, downtown)

Title: untitled
Artist: Jennifer Leatherby
Location: 208 Court Ave. (East-facing wall of RoCA, downtown)

 

Holmgren did more for the wall at RoCA than just paint it. He started handing out names of other artists to help fill the empty green space.

“I really like having more artists on the wall,” he said. “It’s nice to give an artist a chance to make a mural that speaks of their work.”

One of those artists was Jennifer Leatherby. Her mural went up during an event for Des Moines Art Week 2015. On the 15-by-34-foot wall, she painted a piece she considered “off-the-cuff abstract.” And abstract it is.

The entire wall is white, and, sporadically, there are splashes of pastel-colored geometric shapes, reminiscent of confetti. It’s definitely a mural for those into minimalism.

With two murals between hers and Holmgren’s — “Ancient Minds of Modern Scribes” by As Phate and “This Must Be the Place” by Anna Frederick — the patchwork mural wall at RoCA is starting to come together.

“I’m just excited to see all the artists’ art up on there,” Holmgren said. “I really hope that more murals go up from other artists on other walls in the Court Avenue area.”

 

Title: “The Puzzle of Life” Artist: Barri Lester Location: 620 Eighth St. (West-facing wall of PACE Juvenile Center, and south-facing wall, downtown)

Title: “The Puzzle of Life”
Artist: Barri Lester
Location: 620 Eighth St. (West-facing wall of PACE Juvenile Center, and south-facing wall, downtown)

 

As a reflection of their struggles in life, as well as their paths to success, students at PACE Juvenile Center helped visiting artist Barri Lester to create a mural on the two walls surrounding the parking lot of their downtown building.

The south-facing wall starts very dark and desolate with few children spread out alone in a wasteland. Gradually, as the mural turns the corner to the west-facing wall, the children come together carrying puzzle pieces. Eventually, the children work together to put the puzzle together, covering up their dark “past,” revealing a bright scene of kids playing closely with one another.

According to the GDMPAF, “The Puzzle of Life” mural was a collaborative effort between them, PACE, Orchard Place and the Des Moines Art Center.

 

Title: “Garden of Blessings” Artist: Patrick Faris Location: 412 East Fifth St. (South-facing alley wall, East Village)

Title: “Garden of Blessings”
Artist: Patrick Faris
Location: 412 East Fifth St. (South-facing alley wall, East Village)

 

Inspired by the need for more beauty in the East Village, business owner Patrick Faris placed flowerbeds along his sidewalk and painted a flower garden on his wall.

“It was what little bit of beautification I could do for our street,” he said.

This East Village mural has, by far, the most symbolism of all the murals on this list. Walking toward Vanity and Glamour Cosmetics, the mural is clearly displayed, and it looks like a lovely garden with smiling flowers. Upon closer inspection, it’s clear that there’s more to this garden than just a pretty picture.

Three panels (meant to represent the three sons of Abraham) show a sunset, outer space and a Christmas scene. A longer viewing will start to reveal even more about the image — Numerology, chakras, the Muslim man in the moon, the energy, Christ, monotheism, polytheism and Sanskrit symbols with beautiful mantras — all equaling one thing: coexistence.

The East Village is known for being an artistic and cultured environment full of history, and that was one of the things Faris really wanted his mural to encompass. He said the image is “a history of who we are as people.”

“You can’t have an East Village-like district with everything being pigeon-holed. It has to be a little eclectic. It has to have a little edge,” he said.

 

Title: “The History of Graziano’s” Artist: John Neal Location: 1601 South Union St. (Facing both South Union Street and Jackson Avenue in Des Moines’ South Side.)

Title: “The History of Graziano’s”
Artist: John Neal
Location: 1601 South Union St. (Facing both South Union Street and Jackson Avenue in Des Moines’ South Side.)

 

For the 100-year anniversary of Graziano Brothers Italian Foods, co-owner and president Frances Graziano wanted to do something honoring the original works of her ancestors. She decided to recreate the storefront of the 1912 shop, but she knew it wouldn’t be cost-effective to renovate. So she did the next best thing.

Using pictures and memories handed down, Graziano hired artist John Neal to recreate the look of the old red building.

“John is an extremely talented artist. He grew up on the south side as well and has a feel on what the south side would like to see,” Graziano said of her experience with Neal. “I could never have anticipated the reaction from the community.”

With extreme realism, the mural is “a tremendous reminder of the past.” She said that, sometimes, it’s too easy to take tradition for granted and, sometimes, all you need is a bunch of colors on a wall to remind you what that history was.

 

Title: “Nation at Work” and “Nation at Play” Artist: George Grooms (“Work”) and Glen Chamberlain (“Play”) Location: 3010 Center St. (South and north stairwells at Callanan Middle School)

Title: “Nation at Work” and “Nation at Play”
Artist: George Grooms (“Work”) and Glen Chamberlain (“Play”)
Location: 3010 Center St. (South and north stairwells at Callanan Middle School)

 

Gregg R. Narber and Lea Rosson DeLong explain in their book, “A Catalog of New Des Moines Mural Projects in Iowa,” how the “Nation at Work” and “Nation at Play” murals were created through the Federal Art Project, a section of the New Deal back in the 1930s.

George Grooms and Glen Chamberlain worked on both murals together, but each took the lead on one. Chamberlain’s “Nation at Play” centers on images of children’s activities of the times, such as playing sports, band, Boy Scouts and marbles.

Grooms’ “Nation at Work” features images of laborers, chemistry class, a secretary and architects. The murals were painted in the upper part of each stairwell of Callanan Middle School on Center Street.

 

Title: “Riverview Amusement Park” Artist: John Neal and Ken Tynan Location: 3612 Sixth Ave. (South-facing wall of Hiland Park Hardware Company)

Title: “Riverview Amusement Park”
Artist: John Neal and Ken Tynan
Location: 3612 Sixth Ave. (South-facing wall of Hiland Park Hardware Company)

 

Back in 2002, the Parks Area Foundation, based in Highland Park, commissioned a 135-foot mural on the wall of the Hiland Park Hardware Company to commemorate the former Riverview Amusement Park.

Just off of Sixth and Euclid, artists John Neal and Ken Tynan painted the mural using a collage of old photos. The final image shows residents’ favorite attractions of the now-demolished park, including a roller coaster, fireworks, a Ferris wheel, bumper cars, a miniature train and a carousel. The children seated on the carousel horses are actually images of Neal and his brother.

These murals are only the start of a long, long list of unique and beautiful artwork in Des Moines. Keep your eyes open, because it’s everywhere.

And where there’s currently none, there might be soon. CV

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