When it became clear that a sewer renovation project on Washington Street in downtown Iowa City would obscure the streetscape for nearly eight months, the Iowa City Downtown District turned to local artist Thomas Agran for help. Agran has been responsible for the murals at both the Cedar Rapids and Iowa City New Pioneer Co-op locations, as well as managing the city’s Benchmark Project, which invites local painters to produce artistic renderings upon public benches. So when confronted with the challenge of creating beauty out of the chaos of a block-long construction site, Agran arrived upon the concept of transforming the chain-link fences along Washington Street into interactive canvases for the public.
“The aim of the fences project was to transform the current downtown into a vibrant and colorful and attractive space,” Agran said. “I was also interested in there being a public participation component.”
Agran currently teaches studio arts at Coe College in Cedar Rapids, having obtained a BA in studios arts from Grinnell College and MFA in painting from Indiana University. In addition to his public artworks, Agran produces highly representational portraits and photo-realistic landscapes.
“During graduate school my paintings focused mostly upon bleak midwest scenes and depressing industrial farmscapes,” said Agran. “But while I was working on my first mural at the co-op, painting these cows and pigs and vegetables, I thought, ‘I just hope people walking by and families will enjoy looking at this.’”
The artist spent weeks cutting 16 thousand strips of multicolored ribbons, and affixed buckets stuffed with these ribbons to the fences to serve as dispensers. People walking through downtown are encouraged to collaborate with the installation by taking a ribbon and tying it on themselves. The rainbow-colored ribbons are made from the same recycled material as reusable grocery bags, and City Carton has agreed to recycle the materials following the project’s completion.
The local artist’s current canvases still possesses the pathos of his old works, but his tenure as an artist of public works has certainly affected his practice. While tying yellow and red ribbons to the construction site fences on an overcast afternoon downtown, he handed a handful of ribbons to his studio assistant. “It is just pretty nice to be outside and making art,” said Agran.