The Gathering: of Time, of Land, of Many Hands

Title: The Gathering: of Time, of Land, of Many Hands

Site:  East Leach Park
            Spencer, Iowa

Artists:  Nina Smoot-Cain and John Pitman Weber

Community Participants: Spencer, Iowa community volunteers

Sponsors: Mid-Atlantic Arts Foundation

Year:  2000

Scale:  Variable. Totems, mosaic game table, and pavers set in a garden

Materials:  Concrete with mosaic elements

Information: “John and Nina have totally enriched the community with their presence and what they’re leaving behind. A lot of traffic will come by here and I’m quite sure that this is going to be a point of interest.” --Kay Darnell, community volunteer.

“I’d never cut a piece of tile before. Once I got started, I became addicted. I couldn’t wait till the next morning. At the beginning, I think there were some skeptics. Now I think the whole community feels that they are totally involved.” --Lou Rasdal, community volunteer.

Darnell and Rasdal, both senior women, were among the 40 core volunteers from the Spencer, Iowa area--there were hundreds altogether--who assisted John Weber and Nina Cain in the creation of The Gathering: Of Time, of Land, of Many Hands. The huge broken tile ceramic mosaic covers a three-sided, freestanding curved wall and two tall columns in the town’s East Leach Park, forming a symbolic marker to the town’s center; the artwork’s shape evokes the nearby confluence of the Ocheyhedan and Little Sioux Rivers. The mosaics--400 square feet in all--depict the past, present, and future of Spencer, Clay County, and northwest Iowa. Like many rural areas, in recent years the region has seen a decline in farmland and industry as young people leave and older folk age.

The Main Street Iowa community of 12,000 hadn’t had much exposure to “public art,” unless one considers that its downtown boasts one of the largest, most diverse collections of 1930s and Art Deco architecture in a small-town in the Midwest. Most of the business district was destroyed in a July 4, 1931 fireworks-related blaze, but was virtually rebuilt in weeks owing to residents’ keen, can-do spirit. The Gathering --which includes images of the fire as well as communal activities such as quilting, barn-raising, and town planning--was also shaped by that same spirit of pitch-in citizenship and pride.

Quiltmaking, in fact, became a metaphor for the project. Weber notes how he and Cain, in several flights to Spencer, were amazed to see the farmland spread out below them in patchwork-like grids. “We thought about this whole thing as kind of like a quilt--an extended quilting bee,” says the CPAG cofounder. “And part of that is how we saw the land itself as a quilt, the entire state laid out in square-mile sections with rivers meandering through them.”

By contributing story ideas, creating drawings and designs, cutting and setting tiles, and learning to work as a team, participants of all age groups and skill levels--from retired farm wives to software designers to at-risk youth--felt they were involved in an experience that not only changed their perceptions of “public” art, but also changed their lives.

“Public art was something you went to see in the city, on the street,” says project co-ordinator Judy Hemphill of the Spencer Area Arts Council. “I did not have any clue about community-created public art. It’s not just art in a public place; it’s art created with, by, and for the public.”

Weber and Cain researched the area, came up with the piece’s structural design. By spring 2000 they were conducting brainstorming sessions with many groups and organizations, including business people, schoolchildren, and service club members, from farmers to quilters. The artists asked two main questions: “What do you value most about Spencer?” and “What are the challenges facing groups here?”

Over a four-week period, the core volunteer group worked in a donated workshop space --the first one had been gutted by fire the night before it was to open--transforming themes and ideas into drawings and then colored cut-paper designs. Weber and Cain, assisted by “ParkArt” interns and college art students Ann Ewoldt and Staci Keenan, helped translate the composition into a ”big picture that people can read.” The first tile was laid June 1--an event that made the front page of the local newspaper, which covered the artwork’s progress from March through its September dedication. Scoops, a local ice cream parlor, even named a flavor after the work: Mosaic Madness.

The Gathering’s three wings--five to six feet high and 10 to 14 feet long--depict the history of the land, from Native American to pioneer to present times; local pastimes and recreation; and the tale of Spencer, especially the town’s ability to reinvent itself after crisis. “All these farm towns have a past,” says Weber. “But some towns in Iowa don’t have a future. This town wants a future, and will have one.” Local plant life, both farmed and wild, is portrayed on each of the two 11- and 9-foot columns. The entire piece is set in a paved area and flanked by two benches.

The artwork also changed the lead artists. Cain says that she and Weber--an African-American woman and a Jewish male--didn’t know what to expect when they got the job. They were accustomed to working with Black and Latino inner-city youths, and knew that northwest Iowa had a largely homogenous population. But the artists did find surprising diversity in Spencer, and from the beginning were adopted as honorary citizens. They learned to respect small town and farm community life, as well as the people who have shaped, and are reshaping, this part of the prairie.

“I think Spencer had a complex of being all the way up here in Iowa, away from cultural hubs,” comments Cain. “But culture is wherever you are. I’ve learned that there’s as much creativity here than any place I’ve ever been. It’s been wonderful to have people share their values about living here. We’ve had the opportunity to have younger children sitting at the table doing the same work as 70, 80-year-old people, and they were respected at all times for their viewpoints. We’ve seen people who didn’t know each other beforehand help each other out and come up with creative tile solutions...I think we walk away from here enriched, because we have been appreciated and that’s a great feeling. I made friends.”