Creating public art becomes more private during the pandemic, but the work continues in Iowa City

A Ped Mall picnic table painted by artist Ali Hval. — courtesy of the artist

A reduction of Iowa Citians in the streets hasn’t stopped local artists from beautifying them.

Thomas Agran, director of public art for the Iowa City Downtown District, said that when the pandemic started affecting local businesses and jobs, his office mobilized to try to get projects in the hands of artists as quickly as possible. Because of the pandemic, some mural locations or plans had to change, but most of the projects they envisioned happening were able to go forward.

“For the most part, I feel really good about the way that public art projects that we had planned to do have been able to still be implemented and implemented in a way that feels relevant to this moment,” Agran said.

One such project was the painting of picnic tables installed downtown, part of an effort to encourage outdoor dining. Ali Hval was one of three artists asked to paint these new tables.

“That’s such a practical thing to do during the pandemic because people don’t feel safe dining inside, so if there’s a way to bring them outside, why not?” Hval said. “And I think the best way to entice people to do that is by making something beautiful, and making the town beautiful.”

One of 16 Ped Mall picnic tables painted by Iowa City artist Ali Hval. — courtesy of the artist

Hval painted 16 tables in total. Her designs were inspired by sewing, a skill she learned from her grandmother, and her studio work with fabric and sewing. Hval hasn’t had access to her studio at Southeastern Community College in Burlington, Iowa, where she works as an adjunct instructor, so she has mostly been working on murals lately. She was painting a mural for a private residence during her interview with Little Village.

Another project to come out of this season of COVID-19 is a new mural in the well-trafficked corridor between The Graduate hotel and Martinis Bar.

“Originally it was going to be happening last year, but I think the original plans fell through, so they did a second round of calls for designs and I was fortunate to get picked for that,” artist Drew Etienne said.

Drew Etienne’s mural in the alley connecting Dubuque Street to the Iowa City Ped Mall. — courtesy of the artist

His design features anthropomorphized woodland creatures sitting around a campfire. He said the location of the mural, specifically the lights hanging above the walkway, inspired the cozy nighttime setting of the mural. The fireflies and spirits in the painting mimic the lights that surround it.

“They wanted something that kind of tied to Iowa City and thinking about Iowa City, being a city of literature and sort of thinking about all these different ways that we tell stories and how long stories have been with us and how important they are. But I also wanted to make a design that would be appealing for people of all ages,” Etienne said.

Creating a mural during the pandemic presented new challenges. Etienne said he didn’t want to expose himself to COVID-19 while working on the project, so he set up caution tape around his work area and wore a mask while he painted.

Hval also said the experience of creating art in the last few months has been different.

“I am aware more now of interactions I have with people,” she said. “Usually I’m standing closer to people and I’m talking to them for longer amounts of time, and now you can’t really do that as much because you have to keep your distance. And it almost feels a little cold, which I don’t want it to be, but, you know, you have to keep other people safe.”

Agran is also sad to see the social nature of public art dampened by the virus. He was working on a mural installation in Okoji recently and said it felt like a foreign experience not talking to people and actively keeping his distance.

“One of the reasons that I got involved in doing murals was that I really enjoy not just being cloistered in a studio — I really love being out in and in the open elements and meeting people who love to talk to you and everything,” he said.

Although artists can’t engage with the community in close proximity while they are painting, the art itself can be appreciated safely.

“It’s wonderful for people to be able to see a mural being made and feel kind of like they have an insight and connection to the process of how it [came to be],” Agran said. “But that can’t happen right now, but luckily these projects are not temporary; you know they’ll be around for quite a while.”

Robert Moore’s Harvesting Humanity project is superimposed on top of the mural he created with Dana Harrison, The Reciprocal of Humanity. — Genevieve Trainor/Little Village

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