It’s another hot Iowa City summer night and in the woods, the trees hang tired and droopy. Black leaves gently shiver against a cascade of smoke rising from a 10-foot-high bonfire. Sparks of flame jaunt into the sky and crackle alongside an endless drone of mating insects. A huge hand-painted mural covered in dreamlike poetic sequences hangs on a thick branch, proudly overlooking a burning shopping cart filled with newspaper and watermelon.
The scene may seem like a surrealistic vision of post-apocalyptic milieu, but for University of Iowa art professor and Walnut Farms curator David Dunlap, as well as the other attendees at this evening’s fiery art occasion, it’s just another night at Walnut Farms and another celebration of Iowa City art.
Tonight’s event features Tyler Luetkehans’ Watermellon [sic] Moon. Luetkehans, a recent art student undergraduate, has set up the aforementioned bonfire surrounded by watermelon patches he’s grown all summer.
“I like to think of what I do as arts and crafts,” Luetkehans explains. “We’re trying to protect our watermelons and gourds from the rays of the moon,” he explains. “So they won’t become ‘were-melons.’ We’re celebrating growth and life. And watermelon.”
Walnut Farms owner Dunlap emphasizes that it is this state of creative play, experimentation and childlike wonder that drives his farm’s life.
David Dunlap has lived in this house and raised his two daughters here on this wooded property (located directly behind the Dodge St. Hy-Vee) since 1999. A well-spoken and kindly man with a preference for plaid and a friendly gait, he’s taught art at The University of Iowa since 1977 and has a deep commitment to his students.
“Claes Oldenburg said everything he learned he learned as a child, and I know that all children make art,” Dunlap says. “So [art is] a language that you get to have a conversation with yourself. I say, remember that time we built that fort?”
Acting as a space for student artists and visitors to work, Walnut Farms hosts MFA shows and occasional events beyond serving its central purpose as David’s actual house—a house that feels like it’s in a constant state of play with rooms curated by artists who have come and gone through its doors. But whether classified as an organic art factory, a home, a sanctuary or an off-grid hipster happening, Walnut Farms is a vital gallery where the undercurrent sap of art can be extracted from Iowa City’s greater body locale.
Dunlap points to his surroundings. “Iowa City is this,” he continues. “Iowa City is free art school to me—Public Space One, ps+z and what Tyler’s doing, leaving a roaring fire unattended out there.” David pauses to roll his eyes at Tyler, who laughs. “These are the ways we make art happen.”
In reality, the fire pit is safe and well-constructed, and its implementation requires, as in a real gallery, a tremendous amount of faith in the artist. Countless artists have plied their trades out here. Surrounded by expansive woods, the grounds feel surprisingly isolated when you think of how close to town they are.
Tripping over murals and boxes of art supplies into the woods, and using my iPhone as a flashlight, it occurs to me that the best way to describe the farm isn’t to say that the air is thick with art, but rather the art is thick with air. The open circles of woods provide amazing natural gallery spaces that have held paintings, prints and massive installations of all sorts. Even the fire pits and cob ovens have roots in UI student work. It’s the artists who are the soil and the yield of this locale.
“People ask me if the students have changed a lot in the years I’ve been here,” Dunlap reflects. “I say our students are eternal—art students don’t change a bit. Every year wonderful students enter my life, and all their forms are different, but this energy bubbles up.”
Russell Jaffe is filling in for R.A.D Wudnaughton, a shameful excuse for a correspondent whose mortal foibles have finally caught up to him and kicked life’s proverbial sand onto his theoretically wimpy frame.