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Dimensions: 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.”

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.

He’s sat outside a Parisian cafe where Carl Van Vechten likely lingered over coffee and conversation with other innovative expats. He’s delved into texts that reveal not only the Black and Native American themes that inspired Antonín Dvořák during one famous summer but also the experiences of the composer’s teenage daughter that may have led to the family’s abrupt departure from Iowa.

“That’s why you do the research,” he says of the larger story uncovered. “Those are the things that make your life as an artist more interesting.”

Photographs can aid his creative process, but his job, clarifies Kelley, is not to mimic. His artwork serves to interpret facts in an interesting, often surprising way. “I want to make sure that I capture the era. If I’m going to show a Civil War soldier, I want to do the research — but not to the point that I do something that looks like a photograph in the end.”

It was not a photograph but a drawing of a photograph that led Kelley to the young infantryman portrayed in Shiloh Suite. In a dim corner of the Civil War exhibit at the State Historical Society of Iowa, Kelley paused in front of a wall-size black-and-white photo and took out his sketchpad. “As an artist you realize that when you draw something, you have to look at it; you have to absorb it. Take a picture? Click, and it’s done. But when you draw something, you have to study it; you have to notice relationships all over that guy’s body and his uniform.”

Always in the back of Kelley’s mind was the staggering statistic: One of every four Union casualties in the Battle of Shiloh was an Iowan. “By drawing him, I made much more of a connection to that poor kid who was tossed into hell.”

While pastel has defined much of Kelley’s career as an illustrator, monotype and oil on canvas are prominent in this calendar collection. A desire for variety to some extent drove media selection, says Kelley, but subject matter often steered decisions. Monotype enables the ghost prints that lend emotion to Shiloh Suite and impart background music in From the New World. The medium lends an ethereal look to Buxton Wonders, a work celebrating one Iowa town’s brief but remarkable existence (and providing the calendar’s bonus month).

In his oil paintings Kelley plays more with abstraction, incorporating geometric and organic shapes that in isolation are elusive but when assembled define the subject — the stylized bull in Great White Hunter, the highlighted book in Prairie Girl. Here, too, he sometimes introduces vertical panels (Inner Circle), sometimes visual metaphors (Boy Wonder), and even illogical composition (Greatest Show on Earth).

Highlighted dates in the new calendar mark not only births and battles but also defining episodes, unscrupulous acts, humanitarian efforts, and inspirational leadership. These are the people and experiences that have touched and shaped who we are as Iowans — sometimes from the outside in (a Czech in Spillville), sometimes from the inside out (an Iowan in Paris), and sometimes blurring the state’s borders (a Native American straddling the Mississippi, hobos convening in but ever movin’ on from Britt). Kelley’s yearlong Iowa journey explores not so much place as essence: not where we live, but who we are.

The 2013 limited-edition fine art calendar Brilliant and Subtle — Iowa Esoterica can be ordered here.

Beth Wilson can’t get over the greatest fact on Earth — that she shares her birth state with the Ringling Brothers. In her own circus, she juggles the editorial demands of a little bimonthly called The Iowan.

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