Works by Iowa artist and Sticks founder are a powerful presence on ISU campus

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Sarah Grant's sculpture, “Christian Petersen” (2000), stands in front of one of the 40-panel murals in her work, "We Shall Know Iowa State by Its Myriad Parts" (2007).

Sarah Grant
Sarah Grant

Iowa artist Sarah Grant grew up in Ames, where the ISU campus was her playground. Even though her college degrees are from the University of Iowa—a Bachelor of Fine Arts in drawing and intaglio printmaking and a Master of Fine Arts in intaglio printmaking and painting—Grant’s presence can be felt all across the ISU campus, where she later taught for 10 years.

With such a large collection of her works on campus, Iowa State University finally had the common sense to make her an honorary alumnus.

You may know Grant as the founder of Sticks, which she created in 1992. Sticks now has two retail locations and its headquarters in Des Moines. As her website says, “The company began by designing smaller items, such as ornaments and candlesticks, and has evolved to feature larger items, such as dining sets, beds and armoires.”

Every Sticks piece is unique. “All pieces are finely crafted from birch, poplar and driftwood. The pieces are further designed with hand drawn imagery, etched contouring and vibrantly blended paint. Pieces can be embellished with 3-D wood components, metal, leather and fabric.”

Sticks is about storytelling, Grant says. She refers to herself an “historian artist.”

Grant originally envisioned her paintings hanging at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York, but then was asked by Meredith Corporation to design a wooden nativity scene or creche.

“I don’t do tsotchkes,” Grant said.

The Meredith Corporation countered, “We have $500.”

Grant replied, “I’ll do it.”

Those nativities expanded into other works, such as the Blank Children’s Hospital installation she said she nearly gave away, and along the way she learned about listening to the customer and considering the viewer.

“I learned who is my audience,” she said. We are “blue collar factory workers with our tasks at hand to produce,” she said.

Last Wednesday she returned to the ISU campus to discuss three of her many pieces. The first was “We Shall Know Iowa State by Its Myriad Parts,” a two-story work of 80 wooden box panels, grouped in two sets of 40, located in the Hixson-Lied Student Success Center.

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The panels are colorful in Grant’s “We Shall Know Iowa State by Its Myriad Parts” (2007).

Created in 2007, “We Shall Know Iowa State by Its Myriad Parts” is based on ISU’s 78 academic departments as well as the athletic teams. The Sticks’ statement on the panels reads: “Many educators and authors from disadvantaged backgrounds have written of the importance of learning to identify themselves as part of the academic world. To succeed, you must see yourself in this mural of work, joy, curiosity, dreams and achievement. Celebrate that you belong here. A university is known by its myriad parts.”

If you’re familiar with Grant’s work, you’ll know that you could spend hours in front of her unique pieces, which blend images and text, and continue to discover new aspects that you’d previously missed. These murals provide ISU students with 80 potential study distractions along with a lot of inspiration.

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Grant’s “Christian Petersen” (2000) stands 13 feet tall.

Also located in the Hixson-Lied Student Success Center is Grant’s 13-foot sculpture, “Christian Petersen.” (2000).  This 2000 piece stands in front of one of the 40-panel murals. The Petersen work was originally to be 13 inches tall, and you can imagine the surprise and excitement of Museum Director and Chief Curator Lynette Pohlman, who commissioned a 13-inch piece, when she discovered a 13-foot Christian Petersen being delivered.

“He needs to be 13-feet,” Grant said, and any Cyclone would probably agree given the iconic Petersen artwork throughout the beautiful campus.  Petersen (1885-1961) had a 21-year tenure at ISU and completed twelve major campus works of art.

Original Christian Petersen works on the ISU campus.
Original Christian Petersen works on the ISU campus.

Most Cyclones probably couldn’t imagine campus without those iconic pieces, such as “The Gentle Doctor,” “Fountain of the Four Seasons,” “History of Dairying” and “Conversations,” to name just a few. Grant’s “Christian Petersen” is covered in quotations she found as part of her research.

The third piece Grant discussed is located in the Seasons dining area of Maple Hall, part of the Maple-Willow-Larch dormitory complex, and is titled, “A Celebration of the Iowa Prairie.” As befitting the name of the dining area, this artwork reflects the four seasons of Iowa.

Upon entering Seasons, you are flanked on either side by a metalwork piece which seems uncharacteristic of Sticks but reflects the four seasons.  Straight ahead is the eight-panel mural drawing upon Dr. Ada Hayden’s work, which Grant wanted to give a nod to.

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Grant’s “A Celebration of the Iowa Prairie” is installed in the Season dining room of Maple Hall on the ISU campus.

Ada Hayden (1854-1950) was the first woman to earn a doctor of philosophy degree at Iowa State University (1918).  She was an assistant professor of botany from 1919 to 1950 and named curator of the herbarium.

Grant drew directly from Hayden’s illustrations in order to create her panels in Maple, and she mimicked Hayden’s medium, using ink pen where Hayden used ink or charcoal where she used charcoal.

On the seating side of the panels is the Iowa landscape. Grant said she felt it should be peaceful on the seating side.  As part of her research, Grant drove her car from the Mississippi River to the Missouri River, taking pictures of the Iowa’s rural landscape across the four seasons.

“Oh my goodness, I really can draw landscapes,” she said. Since her paintings are very abstract, she said it was a fear in her heart that she could be representational, but it “turned out to be really fun.”

Grant’s work can be seen locally in two suites at the Hotel Pattee—the David Ahmanson Suite for Kids and the Travel Suite. When asked about her work at the Hotel Pattee, Grant said that the Travel Suite is her “favorite space.” In doing her research for the room, she went to AAA and got trip books for all the states. She wanted to recreate what it’s like travelling the U.S. Quotations on travel from famous people fill the suite.

The Sticks Room in the Hotel Pattee in Perry opened in 1997.
The Sticks Room in the Hotel Pattee in Perry opened in 1997.

Grant is also thrilled that all the artwork remained in the Hotel Pattee even after its ownership transitioned from Roberta Ahmanson, who originally commissioned her. She shared some horror stories about Sticks tables being spray painted over in black and about seeing her work in the trash. This seems to be a common lament among artists but something they must live with when creating public art.

Sticks continues to create both public and private installations along with customized work and continues to work to translate their artworks to the outside. They’re now working on pieces in fiberglass and other materials that can endure the weather.

According to the information sheet ISU provides on Grant’s 80-panel mural, “This information sheet is intended to be used in addition to viewing the Art on Campus. At no time should this sheet be used as a substitute for experiencing art in person!”

I couldn’t agree more.  Whether it’s at ISU, the Hotel Pattee, throughout Perry or elsewhere—get out there and experience art!

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