Artists seek timeless, traditional elements for modern murals

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In this detail from "Davidson's Dream," by Rebecca Ekstrand and Thomas Rosborough, what looks like a traditional landscape yields, on a closer look, a magical biosystem.

“I want statistics to look sexy.”

That’s what an Iowa State University statistics professor once told visual artist Thomas Rosborough he wanted to see in the mural planned for Snedecor Hall, home of the ISU statistics department. Rosborough recalled the curious conversation as he discussed his mural, “Inferences Drawn,” which still adorns the foyer of the campus building.

As part of University Museums’ 40th anniversary, the current series of monthly art walks, usually led by University Museums staffers like Interpretation Specialist David Faux, have lately been supplemented by the artists themselves, who can speak directly to their experiences of the process and the final result.

Snedecor Hall at ISU
Snedecor Hall at ISU

November’s walk began with Rosborough speaking about his collaboration with William Barnes to create “Inferences Drawn.” There is unending “noise” in the world, Rosborough said, and statisticians take that noise and turn it into something useful. He said his mural seeks to depict this process visually.

According to Roberta Vann, University Museums docent and professor emerita in the ISU English department, “Students may be reminded that statistics is the science of decision-making under uncertain conditions and that reaching clarity is challenging and demanding and often a collaborative process, with insights springing from varied sources and answers changing over time.”

Rosborough said the statistics department formed a committee to advise him, and they were “ecstatic” to have “something that talked about what they do.” It’s left to the viewer to decide if the mural brought sexy to statistics.

Elings Hall
Elings Hall

Art Walk walkers moved to Elings Hall, home of ISU’s department of agricultural and biosystems engineering, where Rosborough and his artist collaborator, Rebecca Ekstrand, discussed their joint work, “Davidson’s Dream.”

The artists discussed their process with the committee and how they enjoyed figuring out how to incorporate into the piece what was important to the committee members. They admitted not all public artists have the same perspective, that some artists have a vision and don’t want to be diverted from that vision.

With “Davidson’s Dream,” the artists wanted to do something about innovation but were challenged with the question, “How do you show technology without physically showing technology?”

Rosborough explained that artists creating public art don’t want to create something that will go out of date and become laughable because of the images in the work of art, such as a bulky, boxy, desktop computer from the 1980s. If an element tended to date the mural, Ekstrand and Rosborough removed it.

After gathering data from the Elings Hall committee about what was important to them, it was left to the artists “to decide how to approach that visually,” said Rosborough. They decided that it’s the people at ISU who are driving the innovation, so they put people into the mural.

They also wanted to “have a little fun,” Ekstrand said, so after multiple iterations the mural became an “allegorical narrative” with people doing “magical things.”

In talking with the committee members, the artists repeatedly heard the members talking about the land, bio-renewable crops and clean water and concluded they were describing a landscape. At first glance, the mural appears to be a traditional landscape painting, but upon closer observation the landscape is compressed, the perspective changed and the elements are highly stylized.

They said they decided not to divide the mural into vignettes but showcase the interconnectedness of the people with the land.

After presenting their risky proposal for a mural with magical things, they were met with silence from the committee. The silence was finally broken by an influential committee member who said,

“This isn’t exactly what we had expected.”

Lorenzo de' Medici knew almost nothing about biosystems engineering.
Lorenzo de’ Medici

The artists were tense and weren’t sure what the outcome would be. Maybe Michelangelo felt the same as he awaited the judgment of his fabulously rich patron, the Florentine banker Lorenzo de’ Medici.

Then, to the relief of the artists, the committee member continued: “I actually love this.” They incorporated some feedback from the committee into the final mural, bringing in vineyards and orchards and not showing cultivation on every square inch.

In the mural, flying chickens are happily dropping their eggs. One person is controlling and placing the water. A small-mouthed bass indicates that the water is healthy and clean. There’s a buffer between the crops and the water. The hogs are outside — no confinement buildings in site — and another person is the actual tractor tilling the field, right down to the triangular “Slow” emblem on his back.

Because they had recently viewed an exhibition of works by Iowa painter Grant Wood, an artist known for using real people as figures in his paintings (most famously in “American Gothic”), the ISU artist-partners used their son and other family members and neighbors as models for most of the people in the mural.

Ekstrand and Rosborough’s son is in the center of the mural, representing an ISU student. A professor stands next to the student, reaching to the future but also holding a folder with a portrait of Jay Brownlee Davidson, the instigation for the title of the mural. Davidson is considered the father of agricultural engineering, and he held multiple positions at ISU and elsewhere, including head of agricultural engineering at ISU from 1919-1946.

Lagomarcino Hall
Lagomarcino Hall

The walk ended at Lagomarcino Hall with a viewing of another Ekstrand-Rosborough collaborative work. Faux pointed out that one would probably not recognize the work as being by the artists of “Davidson’s Dream,” which spoke to the diversity of the artists’ work.

“Elements of Erudition” was commissioned by the ISU College of Education, which occupies Lagomarcino Hall, and University Museums. Unlike the previous two murals, which are placed at eye level, this one is overhead, surrounding the viewer on four sides with a pattern repeated in different colors.

“Elements of Erudition” is not only stunning visually but in its placement since it fills an open space, rather than an entrance or a conference room, and surrounded by glass windows, which allows light to reflect off the work and add to its aesthetic appeal.

Iowa State Art Walks are free and open to the public. The next walk is Wednesday, Dec. 9 at noon and will explore the origins of ISU at Farm House Museum.

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