If you really think about it, it takes generations of strong people to recognize, cultivate and promote that thing we call art. What have been cave drawings, daring derivatives, assorted doodles, Dadaist deconstructions and everything thereafter have been pushed forward by the powerful passions of true art bosses answering the calls of the mysterious heart’s forces.
Jeff McNutt, the mind and manpower behind McNutt Gallery in Iowa City, a space tucked into a strip off Stevens Drive en route to the Waterfront Hy-Vee, is a man who truly answers such a call. And he’s no stranger to our home sweet home; “I was Herky the Hawk in ’87!” he says with a laugh. “I was the big bird in the suit.”
“I’m very proud of what I do,” says McNutt, owner of his namesake studio and arts showcase. An Iowa native calling Iowa City his home for over two decades, he represents 23 artists across the nation as a consultant and seller of their work, and also sells his own art.
“I love the people who have supported me and will continue to support what I do; my Hawkeye work builds off of history and I try to build off materials or things that have a layered effect.”
He stands in front of a factory landscape piece smudged with black scrawlings like a calligraphy of crow’s feathers. “This is from a 1909 brickyard belonging to a family that’s commissioned me. The original brick has been crushed down into a pigment and the scribbles on it are from a notebook from the patriarch, the head of the family business.”
For McNutt, history and community converge at a breaking point of art, namely in the form of reappropriated original building materials, like brick and metal that are broken down and used in his paintings. He’s worked on pieces for Kinnick Stadium and Wrigley Field, among others.
“Half my brain is sales repping, but the other half is art,” says McNutt, who took a nearly 10-year break from art to work full time and raise a family. “I started out trying to be an artist and I did a marketing internship at Disney. That led me to wanting to create animation for them, and I moved out to LA in ’91 … I had a friend who worked for Warner Brothers, specifically the show Tiny Tunes [Author’s note: if you haven’t heard of Tiny Tunes, work harder to complete the void in your life.] He introduced me to people and I home schooled myself with animators. I wanted to do children’s books and I eventually realized I wanted to paint … What I ended up doing was taking courses in Graduate Painting at the University of Iowa. I didn’t know anything about painting; before my first class, I was at Prairie Lights learning how to hold a brush. I just went in there, asked questions, but stuck it out for two years and fell in love with painting.”
After a serious gutting and rebuilding process, the last year saw the birth of an off-grid art sensation right here in Iowa City. Through hard work and amazing luck, McNutt developed the space into a gallery with workrooms. There’s an office stuffed with McNutt’s art and comic book collections, along with some rare unique collectables, like ancient benches from Wrigley Field and film canisters containing coaching films for the Chicago Cubs.
Yet some of McNutt’s central work calls upon the repeated image of our very own Herky the Hawkeye, as well as local legends. “I did the first Hayden Fry painting for Fry Fest,” he says. “I’ve done Dan Gable, but I worked with the Olympic athletes for this year’s wrestling trials and I did paintings of individual wrestlers. After interviewing them, each of their individual stories is translated into a painting. Yeah, I’m the guy who was Herky and does the Hawkeye paintings; It’s not pretentiousness, but this is a contemporary fine art gallery … My paintings, for me, are more about learning painting. It’s not about Hawkeyes and then painting, it’s the other way around … It’s fun to have a conversation with someone and talk about painting.” This pop art serves a major (pop) cultural purpose, namely that of sports, within Iowa City.
“If I was just opening a gallery to sell art, I wouldn’t be doing this. It’s so hard,” laments the oft-positive McNutt. “The build-out alone … working with Bret [Sharp, legendary wrestler and space benefactor] and doing my day job on top of this. I need the help of these other artists, and they need my help. It’s really a community thing … [If one is to open their own gallery] they need to ask themselves ‘Why?’ For me, I think what I don’t believe I’m doing is what the typical gallery owner would say, ‘I want to sell artwork.’ This is the artist I represent; for me, I’m on a mission. I know it sounds cheesy, but when a piece of artwork goes into an environment or home or whatever, there’s a presence there you can’t ignore. I believe that there’s a certain energy that’s given off by original artwork and I believe more and more people are gravitating to that rather than some of the stuff that may have passed in the past as art. They’re finding something special and new with original artwork. I am on a mission to celebrate art and be a part of an experience for people that come in here and have a motivation that may be a little foolish, but is pure of heart. I want to be a part of that.”
The rest of 2013 will see individual and tandem shows by Iowa City artists like Mary Laube and Andrea Ferrigno, Jan Duschen, Amber O’Harrow and more. From designing and renovating a space to coordinating his gallery, producing his own work and managing others, McNutt is a busy man with an eye on Iowa City’s art scene. “It’s a great town for art, but you have to dig a little bit to get into it and figure it out. You ever see those Roadrunner cartoons where [Wile E. Coyote] runs over the edge and just doesn’t want to look down? That’s where I am.” And he’s not looking down.
The high-flying, knowledgeable, impassioned McNutt has some words of advice for potential gallery founders:
“Wear a diaper.”
Russell Jaffe is an actual man doing actual things.