Des Moines installs ‘art corridors’ along five bike trails, showcasing local artists

Des Moines Parks and Rec park planner Aaron Graves at John Pat Dorrian Trail art corridor — Courtney Guein/Little Village

New art installations have changed the view along five of Des Moines’ popular bike trails. These “art corridors” include panels mounted to a line of metal posts, angled towards pedestrians and cyclists zipping down the trail.

“If you’re familiar with kinetic art, or elliptic lenticular art, where no matter how you’re moving, you get to see something different — that’s really what we wanted to do,” said Aaron Graves, four-year park planner in the Des Moines Parks and Recreation Department.

The Bike Trail Art Corridor Project, spearheaded by Graves, is scattered along sections of the Bill Riley Trail, Carl Voss Trail, John Pat Dorrian Trail, Neal Smith Trail and Walnut Creek Trail.

Map of the five art corridor locations. — via the City of Des Moines

The project is a collaboration between the city, community organizations and a local family looking to memorialize their lost loved one. The Honorable Colin J. Witt, who died in February 2020 after a 19-month battle with cancer, served as an associate judge in Polk County’s juvenile court and spent his career advocating for child welfare and the rights of families.

“He believed that each of us is more than the worst thing we’ve ever done,” reads his obituary. “Colin had the ability to hold power and tenderness in the same breath; always seeking to see the other and lead with love, understanding, mercy and justice.”

The Witt family wanted to celebrate his life in a way that incorporated art, not just a plaque on a park bench. Witt was an avid cyclist, competing in triathlons and riding RAGBRAI with a team of family and friends, which turned the project’s focus towards bike trails.

Grants and donations funded the project, primarily from Bravo Greater Des Moines. Founded in 2004, Bravo is a partnership between 17 Central Iowa city governments who commit a portion of their annual hotel-motel tax revenue to funding local arts and culture initiatives.

The Des Moines Parks and Recreation Department also supported the Bike Trail Art Corridor Project, along with Friends of Des Moines, ArtForce Iowa — which contributed artwork for the corridors along the Riley Trail — and the Witt family, who funded the installation of the Riley Trail corridor.

“The digital trail system connects all of the central Iowa trail systems all around, so like 600 miles, and it’s a free accessible area,” Graves explained. “[The Bike Trail Art Corridor Project] is a way to showcase local Des Moines artwork in a kind of non-conventional way, but also gives people the ability to see it.”

The Witt family, including Colin Witt’s wife, son and dad, volunteered to help with the installation of the ArtForce pieces Colin Kindness and Sunset Birds along Riley Trail, which made Graves quite nervous.

“It’s a memorial, and I knew the family was coming out. And instantly, it’s gut-wrenching,” he said. “I don’t want something to go wrong, because they raise the funds to do this … it’s like, I really hope this works.”

But despite Graves’ butterfly tummy, he says he remembers that day being very special. “After working with them for about a year to develop what we were doing, to schedule and everything like that, even raising money, it was cool to see them all be a part of pounding in the rivets onto the sign.”

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Des Moines Parks and Rec held an art competition to select works for the corridors. For artists to enter they had to either be a Des Moines resident or own a business in Des Moines. Each artist was allowed to enter up to two pieces of work. Out of the 40 artists who applied, only nine were chosen: Julie King, Paula McArthur, Diane Bohlen, Emily Lawson, Autumn Rozario Hall, Mike Hiatt, Jessica Gomez and Paula Maxheim.

“We got a lot of really great pieces and I was shocked at the number of pieces that we got,” Graves said. “I was really excited that we got that much involvement from local artists because that was my goal. To develop something that gave them the ability to showcase their work, and especially with that many eyes, like, a potential of five million eyes on it, throughout our system — I think it’s great!”

The Bill Riley Trail art corridor, designed by ArtForce artists. — Courtney Guein/Little Village

The idea for the art corridors came from a series of trailside art installations designed by Seattle artist Jennifer Dixon. Dixon’s Flipbooks “whimsically invites users of the trail to experience a sense of movement and play along the public right-of-way,” according to the artist.

Each panel of art from the chosen local artists is printed on a 3-ft-by-11-ft sheet, then cut into different layers and installed in a row on posts. Depending on where you’re standing, you can get a different perception of the art.

Not wanting to leave the back of the sheets blank, Graves worked with Des Moines company Project7 Design to create colorful graphics on the post-side of the panels, inspired by the local landscape.

“Each graphic on the back of the signs is based upon the trail location. So this one [at the John Pat Dorrian trail], will always have John Pat Dorrian stuff on the backside. When you go to Bill Riley Trail, completely different graphic. Carl Voss Trail, same thing,” Graves said.

When riding to the right of the posts, you will see the artwork on the front; to the left, the identity graphics.

Unique graphic designs cover the back of ArtForce Iowa’s art panels on Bill Riley Trail. — Courtney Guein/Little Village

Images of the art installation can’t be found on the Des Moines Parks and Rec website, which Graves said is intentional. He encouraged curious eyes to go see the art in person.

“It’s a matter of going onto the trail and actually experiencing these trails. And I think that’s the good part of spreading them out through the city … it’s not just ‘I can hit all five within a half an hour.’ No! It’s, ‘I’m going to go on this adventure. I’m going to see this one, then I’m going to go to the next trail maybe the next day or next week.'”

Graves describes himself as a creative person that needs some sort of artistic outlet. He went into landscaping architecture after getting a degree at Iowa State University in the field. Jobs after that ranged from publishing DIY projects in Lowe’s Home Improvement magazine to freelance art and photography.

Since he joined Des Moines Parks and Rec, he said he’s made sure to continue putting his artistic foot forward to bring his hometown more art, innovative playgrounds and other new experiences. During our interview, he stopped to smile, noticing children playing on a nearby playground that he designed.

Moments like that are monumental for Graves, who grew up in Des Moines. “Nothing better than being involved in the communities and meeting with them to figure out what they want and what they need. And then trying to give them as much as I possibly can with budgets that I’m allowed — it’s amazing,” Graves said proudly. “I live in Des Moines, I don’t plan on leaving Des Moines.”

The biking community seems to be as excited about the new views as well. Graves said he’s gotten positive feedback from cyclists, even during the installation process.

“Just to see the reaction of people,” he said, “it’s been an amazing process, to be honest with you. It’s been seriously a really amazing project to work on.”

Organizers hope to keep the current artwork up for about two years and hold another art competition for new pieces to take the originals’ places.

Meanwhile, Graves wants to create a spatial rhythm that would further identify the location with ground art. He is pushing for standing indicators to view the art from different perspectives. Adding corridors along even more local trails is also on the table.