Cause & Effect +
Art & Environment
Don't Forget Where You Are: Two Iowa Artists Discuss the Flood
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, Art Department
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, Art Department
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, Art Department
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.
"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.
"Mariah" by Britta Urness
| Arcrylic & Oil
Mental Contagion: In the Midwest in particular,
I think we feel particularly sensitive to these large natural
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
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.
"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.
"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 brittaurness.wordpress.com.
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.
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 mnartists.org.
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.