Iowa City porches serve as gallery spaces for public art

Katie Roche’s home at 1034 E Burlington St is hosting two works by artist Casey Whittier. — photo by Jiyun Park

For the next two weeks, until Nov. 15, five homes in Iowa City and Public Space One will be part of a larger Chicago-based Terrain Biennial, where artists engage front yards, porches and windows as public exhibit spaces. Started six years ago in Chicago’s Oak Park, a suburb also known for Frank Lloyd Wright architectural tourism, the Terrain Biennial is the effort of artist Sabina Ott and author John Paulett, who aspired to foster dialogue between neighbors and to reframe private spaces as public experiences.

The third Terrain Biennial is partnering now with the Chicago Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events. There are over 120 sites from Los Angeles to Marnay-sur-Seine, France. The art ranges from sculptural installations to time-based performances to public interventions. The Biennial has grown, now often featuring block parties with music, poetry and performance.

Stacey Lee Gee, who is exhibiting in the Chicago Terrain Biennial, is curating the Iowa City installations. Ott asked Gee to suggest new spaces to show work for Terrain, and Gee suggested they extend the project to Iowa City, where she is a first year graduate student in sculpture. Along with Isabel Barbuzza, who is head of the Sculpture Department at University of Iowa, they reached out to people in the community to open their homes to the exhibits. In curating, Gee selected artists she felt would resonate with Iowa spaces.

From her studio in Kansas City, artist Casey Whittier brought two 2-by-3-foot fired clay “windows” framing “textiles” in white painted steel, to be suspended in openings on either side of Katie Roche and Joe Demarest’s porch located at 1034 E Burlington St just east of Summit Street. Whittier met Gee at an artist residency in Nebraska called Art Farm. The living situation at Art Farm is communal and furnishings are left for the next inhabitant—the bed sheets left behind by one of the residents at the Art Farm helped inspire Whittier’s paired piece, “My Promise”/“My Prison.”

Casey Whittier’s “windows” are made of clay and steel. — photo by Jiyun Park

Whittier handcrafts ceramic rings of exacting size for her projects, repeated hundreds of times. She then connects the rings, creating a seamless loop. The individual ceramic rings mimic patterns of hand-stitched embroidery revealing parts making up the whole. Whittier says she never tires of the material and remains mesmerized by clay’s capacity to hold a delicate fingerprint and yet be beaten and reclaimed back into something both physical and emotional.

Colorant and water are added to dust, forming the solid clay body that will be fired in a kiln multiple times. The lack of control and coping with unexpected results often requires removing certain links and recreating new links in a destruction/creation process. In the ceramic community there is a common saying: “Process saves us from the poverty of our intentions.” Committing to a minimum of 700 links for each piece becomes a kind of prison itself that renders what happens during the work a kind of church, in which a desire to realize a vision reigns supreme and unexpected things get worked out.

Whittier’s own pillowcase, a hand-embroidered antique textile, is the inspiration for “My Promise.” Living with and researching these textiles supports Whittier’s interest in the social and cultural history of craft in America. The textile as an artifact of skills once mastered by women as an expression their value, reflects the sentiment of being “a promising young woman” or “having promise.”

The work of Casey Whittier, a Kansas City artist, will have residence in Iowa City through Nov. 15. — photo by Jiyun Park

Revisiting familiar assigned qualities, “My Promise”/“My Prison” responds to the back and forth between the public and private spaces of porch and gallery. Considered as potential or as a kind of prison of expectation, handcrafted textiles were often added to a dowry. A craft that was passed on as “woman’s work” fashioned into chivalrous chain mail usurps both narratives in a kind of contemporary ceramic mash up.

On display throughout Iowa City, porches offer a public experience hinging upon private realms, not unlike the porch swings at Black Hawk Mini Park on Iowa City’s Pedestrian Mall. Synchronistically, the October issue of the Economist Groups’ 1843 publication of ideas, lifestyle and culture featured the porch as America’s pleasures and paradoxes on display, spanning epochs. The Terrain Biennial is happening in a local and global capacity, inviting neighbors to re-engage in the porch.

Iowa City Terrain Exhibitions

Curated by Stacey Lee Gee

2112 F St

Stacey Lee Gee, host
Mike Rea, artist

1168 E Court Dr

Isabella Barbuzza, host
Judith Mullen, artist

Subscribe to LV Daily for community news, events, photos and more in your inbox every weekday afternoon.

746 Juniper Dr

Jessica Pleyel, host
Shivani Patel, artist

Public Space One, 120 N Dubuque St

John Engelbrecht and Kalmia Strong, hosts
Mia Capodilupo, artist

913 E Jefferson St

John Engelbrecht and Kalmia Strong, hosts
Jeff Lassahn, artist

1034 E Burlington St

Katie Roche, host
Casey Whittier, artist

Jiyun lives with her two children and companion in Iowa City. She aspires to record conversations about art and architecture as a way of understanding how art clarifies truth as beauty. This article was originally published in Little Village issue 231.