Contact Buzz: The history of the Iowa State Fair’s old, inclusive art show

The Iowa State Fair fine art display, 1906. Iowa State Fair photograph collection (PH5000.1039), State Historical Society of Iowa, Des Moines

Shawn Palek doesn’t enter competitions any longer. Lately, he prefers to sponsor shows and competitions for emerging artists, mentoring many. He continues to paint new works, with many murals to his credit. But in the early 2000s, the contemporary visual artist and arts advocate decided to venture into the Iowa State Fair Fine Arts Competition.

The Iowa State Fair (ISF) may be Iowa’s most inclusive legacy of art for art’s sake. Each year, hundreds of artists from across Iowa submit their works to share with arguably the most intense patron visitation of arts the state has to offer. In its 11 days, the fair will attract more than a million visitors. While not all of them will wander the vast displays of artwork in the Patty & Jim Cownie Cultural Center, at least tens of thousands will explore its hallowed, creative halls, enjoying the diversity of expression.

The ISF presents several categories, including Fine Art and Photography, Wood Projects and more. In Fine Art, Palek’s division, Adult subcategories include acrylic/tempera, drawing, fiber, glass, jewelry, mixed media, oil painting, pastels, pottery, original hand pulled prints, sculpture and watercolor, none of which quite fit Palek’s work. There are separate Youth, Junior and Children groups. Registration fees are involved, and cash prizes are awarded, including the coveted Best of Show, which spans all disciplines.

What makes the ISF’s categorization and process so equitable is how it judges entrants. It is blind judging; signatures/names are covered. If a judge recognizes the style of an artist they know, then another judge would evaluate that work. Any biases about a registrant’s ethnicity, gender, etc. are avoided, allowing the artwork to be evaluated on its merits.

The Iowa State Fair fine art display, 1910. Iowa State Fair photograph collection (PH5000.1039), State Historical Society of Iowa, Des Moines

The roots of the Fair

Fairfield hosted the first state fair in 1854. The first mention of fine arts was the 1860 Iowa City fair, when a 24’ x 140’ hall was built for exhibition. When the fair landed in Des Moines in 1879, after having been in nine other cities, it was staged between 38th, 42nd and Center Streets and Grand Avenue. Its first time at the current east Des Moines location was in 1886.

In 1926, famous Iowa author Ruth Suckow wrote about her home state that Iowans had adopted “a timid, fidgety, hesitant state of mind with regard to cultural and intellectual matters, the result of decades of dependence upon New England for guidance in religion, learning and the arts.”

“Iowans … fundamentally lacked the confidence necessary to create their own, indigenous culture in their new environment,” she continued, concluding that the original settlers had come to Iowa “with the belief that they were leaving culture behind.” They came to acquire land, farm and make money doing it.
However, she did note that by the 1920s, “a native culture has begun to work itself out.”

Current perspective

Shawn Palek’s portrait of ’80s motorcycle artist and stuntman Lawrence DeSmedt, a.k.a. “Indian Larry,” won Best of Show at the 2005 Iowa State Fair Fine Arts Competition. — Palek Studios

“That’s the thing that drew me to it,” Palek said of the ISF’s flexibility and versatility of options. “Both the fine arts and the creative arts, and to be able to enter into both the competitions: A lot of it was free rein.”

As an airbrush artist, he uses a urethane-based automotive paint for his artwork. The director admitted that there wasn’t a category for that, so placed his work in the closest fit, the oil paint.

Palek attended the awards ceremony, coming directly from work.

“I still had on my black work boots, shorts with paint all over them and a black work shirt with the sleeves cut off with my tattoos showing and my long hair. And, they called my name — ‘Shawn Palek’ — so I walked up there to get my Best of Show prize. I could hear some murmurs and gasps.” Palek occasionally challenges the status quo, and this top honor win was special.

He next created a stir with another Fair entry, “Farmer’s Daughter.” Some observers objected to his work’s subject matter. He repurposed a hunk of a semi-trailer to look like nose art from a fictional WWII plane. A protégé served as his model, in the likeness of pinup models often adorning those planes. He added another historically accurate element: markings of small swastikas, called a score card, representing “kills” of enemy planes in combat.

The director of the Fine Arts competition defended his artistic expression from the naysayers, and the piece was exhibited. It didn’t receive an award.

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John Busbee works as an independent voice for Iowa’s cultural scene. This article was originally published in Little Village Central Iowa issue 005.