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Flooding at the University of Iowa Art Dept. Photos: Britta Urness Ben Estes and Britta Urness


Cause & Effect + Art & Environment
Don't Forget Where You Are: Two Iowa Artists Discuss the Flood of 2008

July-August , 2008

Last month, the eastern part of Iowa was struck by some of the worst widespread flooding in years, most notably in the cities of Cedar Rapids and Iowa City. In Iowa City, the University of Iowa and their art department, which sits on the banks of the Iowa River, was hit especially hard, as seen in this remarkable slideshow at the University's Web site.

Britta Urness and Ben Estes are two artists currently working in Iowa City. Britta just completed her MFA in painting and printmaking at the University and currently teaches classes there. Ben is starting the third year of his MFA in painting and drawing, also at the University. Andy Sturdevant talked to them about their experiences with the flood, and how it has affected their daily lives and their work as artists.

University of Iowa flood
University of Iowa, Art Department | 2008

Mental Contagion:
We've been seeing some very dramatic images of the flooding, particularly on the art campus at the University of Iowa. Tell us a little about the part of Iowa City where you live and work. Was your studio or home affected by the flooding?

Britta Urness: Luckily, my home is on Summit Street, which is quite telling, since it is way above the flood plain. My studio was also uphill and safe from the water, but both art buildings and the University of Iowa Art Museum were severely flooded. It’s quite shocking to see the magnitude of the cleanup efforts taking place and our hopes are that the buildings can be restored in time for fall classes.

Ben Estes: With the art campus on the opposite side of the Iowa River from downtown Iowa City, it was hard not to be affected. Many of the roads in this part of town were closed, with basically one detour that accessed my home and studio.

The graduate painting building and my apartment are both two blocks uphill from the art campus, and luckily, neither were damaged.

Britta Urness: I am currently teaching a section of Elements of Art, which was to be held in the old Art Building. That classroom and all of the props and materials inside were lost. I believe the administration didn’t predict the flood levels to reach quite that far and time ran out for safe removal of resources.

Ben Estes: I believe the graduate painting building is the only building of the art campus that did not get flooded. The ceramics studios, sculpture, photo, printmaking, metal-smithing, art history, all the theater and music buildings, student galleries, the drawing and painting classrooms, our art museum, everything was completely flooded. I really can't imagine how long it will take to get them all back to a usable condition, or the amount of work that will be involved.

Britta Urness: My class has been moved to the east side of the river in the Communications Center. It has taken some settling in and the conditions aren’t ideal, but the class will go on. My students are all very adaptable and able to roll with the punches.

University of Iowa flood
University of Iowa, Art Department | 2008

Mental Contagion: How has the arts community in Iowa City been dealing with the disaster?

Ben Estes: Luckily, this all happened while classes were not in session, so a large percentage of the art students are not in town right now. Those that are here, that do not have access to their studios and have had equipment destroyed are feeling pretty low. There are a lot of questions about where classes are going to be held in the fall, and how studios are going to be made available to all of the students. We have been told that classes continue, but none of us have any idea in what fashion at this point.

Britta Urness: I am most familiar with the campus arts community and I know that the damage to the art museum building is tremendous. A small amount of artwork was left there due to how unsafe it was for the workers that were crating and moving paintings. There hasn’t been much of an estimate of when the museum can reopen or even if it will, but my guess is that it will take a good amount of time. The museum sits right on the western bank of the Iowa River, which may be rethought in the future.

University of Iowa flood
University of Iowa, Art Department | 2008

Mental Contagion: How long have you lived in Iowa City? Do you plan to relocate following your graduation? Has the flood changed your plans at all?

BenEstes: The painting MFA program at University of Iowa is 3 years. I have lived in Iowa City for 2 years, so really just plan on staying for one more. 

Britta Urness:
I have lived here three years and just received my MFA. I am hunting for a teaching job wherever the wind may take me, but it looks like I may stay here and teach adjunct for the next year since nothing has come through yet. The flood hasn’t really changed my plans, but the weather I have experienced here has been quite severe: a tornado (April 2006), ice storms (winters 2007 and 2008) and now this flood. We all adapt, but I would be more than happy to find myself somewhere more temperate.

Britta Urness
"Material" by Britta Urness | Arcrylic & Oil

Mental Contagion: I've wondered how large-scale natural disasters like this might affect an artist's work. Do you see a direct, overt connection between the sort of experiences you'd have in a once-in-a-lifetime situation like this and your art-making process? Or is it a more subtle connection?

Britta Urness: During the highest point of t the flooding, I found myself painting quietly in my studio while news crews filmed outside my door and National Guard helicopters flew overhead. Painting seemed to be one of the most therapeutic and holistic things I could do in the middle of chaos. I don’t see the subject matter of water or a flood entering my work, but this whole ordeal has made me think about what holds importance in your life, both materially and personally.

Ben Estes:
 Connections between daily life events and the things you make are unavoidable. While I have no direct plans to start a flood series, the around-the-clock sound of pumps and motors, the influx of sirens and helicopter traffic, the large amount of destroyed belongings in the street, the smells, the detours, traffic jams, blocked roads and mud-soaked-everything definitely creates a certain kind of mood in the air that I'm sure will somehow work its way in.

Britta Urness
"Mariah" by Britta Urness | Arcrylic & Oil

Mental Contagion:
In the Midwest in particular, I think we feel particularly sensitive to these large natural forces—the flooding being extreme example, but also being under these large, open prairie skies where huge storm fronts rolling in from miles away can be seen, and long, hard winters that can shut down entire citiesovernight by a heavy snowfall. Are you both Midwest natives? Does this sense inform your work at all?

Britta Urness:I am definitely a Midwesterner. I grew up in rural, southern Wisconsin on a dairy farm amongst rolling hills and lots of natural awesome-ness. The terrain in eastern Iowa seems to be pretty rolling and lush as well, but the further west you travel, you see the wide expanses of sky and a very flat horizon line. I think that my use of bright, saturated color is in opposition to my natural surroundings. I tend to draw from pop culture, design and color theory more than nature. Possibly to foster a more exotic feeling around me.

Ben Estes:
My childhood was primarily spent on the West Coast, but I have been in the Midwest for many years. My family lived in the Bay Area during the earthquake of 1989. I also have very vivid memories of droughts, and the threat of fire was huge as it would sweep over a mountain and jump from house to house, and in a matter of minutes an entire neighborhood would be burning down. Out of control forest fires seemed to be a regular summertime news item.

In the winter months, heavy rains would create mudslides causing homes to slide down mountains and across highways. A house belonging to a family I grew up with was hit and destroyed by another house sliding down the side of the mountain.

It's all pretty heavy-duty stuff for a kid, and I was a pretty sensitive kid. So, early on I figured out that I was living on this huge old living, breathing thing, this planet, and that I was not necessarily the one in control in the relationship. I was obsessed as a kid with dinosaurs and extinction, it's really scary!

I guess what I am getting at is a sense of respect, and that it is an important philosophy that guides my work in many different ways. It underlines relationships and what is expected in them and from them.

Ben Estes
"Untitled" by Ben | Oil on Canvas; Ceramic & Wood Sculpture

Mental Contagion: So what about the river in particular? The way it flows directly through campus, it must have been an integral part of your experience studying at the University. Environment plays such a large part in the creation of one's work, and the river is a major part of that environment. Did it carry over into your work at all?

Britta Urness: While watching the news coverage of the impending flood, the newscaster said that in Iowa City and Cedar Rapids we tend to ignore the river until it raises a problem and seeps, quite literally, into our life. I found that to be quite untrue. I cross the Iowa River daily either on foot by the Memorial Union or by car. I think we all have our quiet times by this river and keep abreast of how high it is. Many of my fellow painters and I have spent time along the river at Sutliff Bridge, north of Iowa City. It’s a lovely, old bridge that attracts bikers (both bicycles and motorcycles) and those in need of an escape from town. Sutliff Bridge washed down the river during the flood and will be greatly missed until it is rebuilt.

Ben Estes
"Untitled" by Ben | Oil on Canvas

Ben Estes: Since I've been here in Iowa City, many of my paintings have dealt with ideas of boundaries, reflection, attention, what it means to draw a line, the many different ways a line can be drawn and the meaning attached to these things. I guess the river, in some ways, can become a surrogate for these concepts. I can safely say that I have crossed the river, this "line" every single day for the last two years without even really thinking about it. It was basically invisible. So, again, it becomes about a kind of attention—the roles have flipped, this something that was almost invisible quickly became the focus, and is demanding attention. This huge old thing we live on is saying, "Hey now, don't forget where you are here, now..."

About the Artists

Britta Urness grew up in Black Earth, WI and earned her BFA in Studio Art from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. She recently finished up her MFA in Painting and Drawing with a minor in Printmaking from the University of Iowa and is fervently trying to find a teaching job. Britta is the proprietor of the Milkmaid Gallery, a mobile art venue housed in the rear of an ice cream truck. Her paintings and projects can be seen at

Ben Estes grew up in California, and has also lived in Missouri, Iowa, Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Massachusetts, Florida and New York. He received a BFA from the Kansas City Art Institute, and is currently getting his MFA at the University of Iowa.

Ben is currently working on different collaborations with the poets Geoffrey Hilsabeck, Jane Gregory and illustrations for Zachary Schomburg's book of poems Scary, No Scary. September will find Ben in a show called Shipped Shape at Fakespace Gallery in Los Angeles, and moving to Brussels for a few months to make some paintings and figure shit out.

About the Interviewer

Andy Sturdevant
is a Minneapolis-based artist, curator and writer whose work has appeared in various magazines and Web sites, including ARP!, The Rake and He curated History Room: 20 Years of No Name and The Soap Factory at The Soap Factory in 2008, and is working on an accompanying book. Andy is a contributor to the Electric Arc Radio Show music and performance series, beginning a new season at the Ritz Theater in Minneapolis this fall.

For more information, visit Andy on Facebook or read his writing in the The Thousandth Word art blog.

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