Party in the trenches | All Music All Art (1016 Gilbert Ct.) | May 4 | 3:00 p.m. | $5 (donation)
Photos by James Davies
Update: The Quatro De Mayo event begins at 3:00 p.m. rather than 8:00 p.m. as previously stated. Little Village regrets this error.
Art wears many faces; sometimes you’ll remove art’s mask and surprise, there’s another mask underneath. It can be hard to tell where art starts and stops. There’s an art to broken pianos, to rainy day gravel back lots and, of course, to communities.
Enter All Music All Art (AMAA), an off-the-beaten path gallery and music store tucked around the corner from a hair salon at 1016 Gilbert Ct., that walks to the beat of it’s own drum (and piano, guitar, etc.), running concerts and art showcases for local artist for the last two and a half years. It’s run by E.G. Madison and my host on this visit, M.F. Downing. Downing is an eccentric and stoic craftsman asteroid perpetually in Iowa City’s art orbit, at least for the last few years.
“We buy and sell new and used musical instruments and we specialize in restoring them,” Downing says in a voice equal parts molasses and ash. “If I had $10,000, right now, I’d spend it all on instruments to restore.”
Paintings and glossy photographs hang next to shelves of rusty tools, glossy acoustic guitars and all manner of silent pianos. The rooms of AMAA form a stockhouse bunker where creation meets conception, where massive collections of tools hang confidently overlooking drafting tables piled high with fliers and ideas for projects. And while the sheer amount of stuff in the gallery space might drive a minimalist mad, Downing sees a comfort in the aesthetic of the gallery and store.
“There’s no madness,” he says. “We restore musical instruments. People pay me to restore pianos. I’ve been in the restoration business for over 35 years, all over—the East Coast, the West Coast—but I’ve been making art since I was a little kid … people need to get out of their shells and hunt [art] down, experience it a little more, instead of doing the same things over and over again.”
Downing sips a Budweiser as he leads me through a thin labyrinth of hanging artwork and standing musical equipment. “We don’t have a half a million dollar budget. We’re on a real shoestring … All the art here is for sale, and it’s all from local artists. These are the artists from this upcoming show alone.”
Warming psychedelic jazz music plays from a dusty boombox on a paint-splattered shelf in a workroom filled with pianos and warehouse-high ceilings. Downing puffs a cigarette, the smoke reaching around from under his Hawkeyes cap like monster fingers through the sewer grating of American movie posters. He gestures with hands ruddy like someone who’s tuned a lot of things.
Currently, he’s designing a flier for AMAA’s next event: A Quatro De Mayo celebration. “You like that? Most of the Mexicans I know think it’s funny too,” Downing says with a smiling shrug. It happens May 4 at 3:00 p.m., a Saturday night. Nearly a dozen artists will be there alongside half a dozen bands in the lot next to the store. “What we do is we set up tents and lights and chairs and tables outdoors, out in the parking lot, and we’ve been lucky with the weather so far. See, I rent a little fence and block off the whole parking lot.”
Downing’s an earnest, hard working guy, a perfect representation of the wilderness art community surrounding the domesticated clearing that is the central downtown region with its quick University accessibility. He smirks, “We’re hoping to get under the skin of Iowa City, get them away from the pretentious stores downtown, and they can see some real art, art that’s affordable.”
And for only $5, AMAA offers quite the affordable celebration that includes wine, cheese and Mexican food. “[The $5 donation] doesn’t cover the cost,” Downing explains. “It never does, so it helps but doesn’t go too far. If we get, say, 200 people, though, we’d throw money to the musicians, buy some of the art … I’ve been saving up to buy some of their work myself … A good friend of mine is a wine expert and wholesale wine dealer; he provides the wine and talks to people about it. He actually teaches the wine class at Kirkwood (through the Continuing Ed Dept). My partner teaches guitar, drums and he’s working on piano. He’s a drummer for a lot of different bands … he’ll be playing with James Kennedy and Friends at the show.”
All Music All Art is a passion project where musicians and artists peddle their wares and services. And they’re always seeking new artists and musicians to showcase for future shows. “I plan to do (events) two, three times a year for the rest of forever,” said Downing. And if his shoestring budget gets untied? “There’s always reincarnation! You gotta think about the future. You’d be surprised how quick the future comes.”
And then, after hearing about his passion for restoring ancient pianos in the room of instruments, I ask him, “Why the art?” He answers as only a true art spirit might, starting with laughter. “I don’t understand the question,” he says with a cool, collected voice like a long stretch of highway. “It’s obvious. What do you mean why? There’s no answer to that question. That’s like asking Michelangelo ‘Why the art? What’s with the art, man?’”
“You know, my dog may have run out the door,” he continues. But the shaggy black dog that greeted me with cuddles upon entry is in the other room resting, staring up at us with brown eyes like thick wooden screws. “There’s no question about art, it’s a necessary aspect of life,” says Downing. “Can you imagine a world without art and music? Good luck with that.”
He continues: “Iowa City has two faces, you know? There’s the plastic chichi wannabe cosmopolitan scene and there’s the trenches,” he laughs. “People are just scratching and clawing through life, clawing through the trench. Both faces are fine, except they clash. They don’t come together like they should. But that’s the way society is anyway. It’s a crazy mixed up world out there, you can’t be scared to go out and face it.”
Russell Jaffe is the editor of Strange Cage and is a real man doing real things.