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Obscure Iowa

Artist Gary Kelley Digs Around the Edges

By Beth Wilson

A fine art collection of pastel, monotype, and oil on canvas presents Iowa history as a provocative paraphrase.

“I’ve never done anything about Iowa on this scale,” says artist Gary Kelley from his studio in Cedar Falls. “There are some pretty interesting characters here if you dig around the edges.”

Kelley — a renowned illustrator whose works have reached a wide variety of audiences, from readers of Rolling Stone to fans of the NFL to customers at Barnes & Noble to patrons of the Waterloo-Cedar Falls Symphony — went looking for the most intriguing subjects he could find, sidestepping the more familiar to fill 12 months with the unexpected.

He titled his new calendar Iowa Esoterica. “It’s the stuff that your average kid, and probably your average adult, doesn’t realize about our Iowa history.”

Prairie Girl (top). Writer Laura Ingalls Wilder spent a year living in Burr Oak.

Kelley selected his subjects with diversity, point of view, and visual potential in mind, but his primary guideline (other than the criterion of “no living people”) was a beloved quote from Gertrude Stein:

“You are brilliant and subtle if you come from Iowa and really strange and you live as you live and you are always well taken care of if you come from Iowa” (Everybody’s Autobiography, 1937).

“It rings pretty true for Iowans,” says Kelley. “I thought it was an ideal kind of summary of a lot of the people in this calendar.”

Research for such a project is essential, he stresses, and fine details — 48 stars in the early 20th-century American flags of Amendment 19, for instance — matter. But Kelley mines deeper, getting to know his subject. He’s stood in front of the same barn that a young Norman Borlaug helped his father build.

(Read more Obscure Iowa)

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