An Art Trip To Iowa City

On a Thursday morning I throw a dozen or so paintings and a couple changes of clothing into the car, load an audiobook version of “Moby Dick” on the iPod and drive west on I-80. I’ve never been to Iowa City. In fact, I don’t think I’ve ever been to Iowa, even though I live in Chicago, a mere two hours or so from the state line.

A woman named Chris Ameling who follows me on Twitter invites me to come. She wants to turn the front room of the real estate firm where she works into a gallery; the first show there will feature my work. Most artists don’t have the luxury of turning down exhibition opportunities; I know I certainly can’t. The fact that it’s only a few hours’ drive makes the decision a no-brainer.

There are several tiers of prestige in the art world: at the top are museums and other venerated institutions, below that, established galleries, lower down, up-and-coming and not-for-profit exhibition spaces, then, far below those, the walls of bars and restaurants, craft fairs and everything else. It’s a mostly closed system where you have to be part of this or that club to even participate, let alone be celebrated. I’ve never been much of a joiner and have rarely longed to play in those upper echelons. The reason I paint and draw has little to do with gaining approval from the gatekeepers of culture and those gatekeepers have, for the most part, reciprocated by ignoring my work.

A few times a year Iowa City holds an arts walk. A couple dozen businesses put up paintings, photographs and other art in their windows and on their walls. They make a route map, advertise in local publications and print an oversized punch card for people to carry from stop to stop – get your card punched at 10 participating places and you’re entered to win a pair of tickets to a concert at the Englert Theater down the street. The newly named B Gallery – the little front room of Ms. Ameling’s firm, Barker Financial – is on this map.

Queequeg and Ishmael haven’t even boarded the Pequod yet when I get into town. Barker Financial is located on the second floor of a building on College Street – which is a pedestrian mall – so the people walking around and lunching al fresco are a bit put out to see my car creeping carefully along their quiet plaza. It’s the only way to unload my work without running a block back and forth several times. After the task is done and the car is properly parked in a municipal garage around the corner, I take a look around.The second floor of 114 ½ East College Street houses a variety of businesses, each behind a door with an over-sized transom above it. I could imagine a down-at-the-mouth detective hanging his shingle here in bygone days but now it’s home to several art studios, a messenger service, a taxi company, several vacant offices and – directly across from Barker – a tattoo parlor. I spend a couple hours hanging my oil paintings of bookshelves and gouaches of taxis in the little front room, battling the close, humid June air, the intermittent buzzing needles from across the hall providing a backing soundtrack.

A book reading has been set up for me at Prairie Lights bookstore but I’ve got a little time to kill before that so I wander around downtown Iowa City for a bit. Before leaving Chicago I’d asked people for recommendations and was told to go to George’s Buffet. George’s Buffet has no buffet but does have a Hamm’s Beer waterfall sign behind the bar. A woman with a leg in a cast invites me to take the barstool next to hers, finds out the reasons for my being in town and introduces me to her drinking buddies, one of whom is a sullen, aging history student who moonlights as a cabdriver. I order a cheeseburger and my new friend instructs me to ask for horseradish on it (which isn’t listed on the menu). There are a dozen types of potato chips for sides. I ask the bartender what Sterzing’s are like, and she says they’re the local brand and twice as greasy as the major brands, making my decision easy.

After washing down the cheeseburger and chips with Wild Turkey, George’s starts to feel like home, but it’s time to head to the bookstore so I say my goodbyes and walk the few blocks back to Prairie Lights. In the window display they’ve got a bunch of my books and an old photo of me behind the wheel of a taxi, to advertise the reading. A large poster for Dan Brown’s latest provides the backdrop for the whole display.

The reading, while sparsely attended, goes well. The University of Iowa is between semesters, so the students whose attendance at readings is practically mandatory, aren’t around. All you can ask for is for people to listen and to ask good questions, and I get both, so there’s nothing to complain about. Afterwards my hosts take me out for more drinks. They’re buying, so I order a bourbon a notch above Turkey. It feels good to be the guest and to have the bill taken care of because they’re happy to have me in their town. It doesn’t happen that often but I could certainly learn to get used to it.


Friday starts with breakfast at the Bluebird Diner. The host is an exasperated-looking David Cross type, all the waitresses have tattoos and most of the waiters are very obviously gay. Maybe it’s big-city prejudice but I’ve been struck since getting to town with the very prominent gay/lesbian presence in this little place. My hosts tell me that the lesbians paved the way and that Iowa’s early passage of gay marriage has a lot to do with it. Having spent some time in the restaurant racket, the vibe of the Bluebird feels very familiar, almost nostalgic to me. The art walk doesn’t start until 5 p.m. so I have a few hours to wander and see what else there is to see.

It turns out that this art walk I’m part of is a kind of add-on to a larger art fair. Several of the streets on the main drag are blocked off and a music stage and rows of booths are being assembled as I amble around without any particular destination in mind. Vendors unpack plastic bins and cardboard boxes full of jewelry, ceramics, macramé, paintings and all manner of crafts and creations all around. Street fairs always bring on a low-level malaise. Thinking of all these people doing so much work for so little reward, the sheer volume of handmade products is overwhelming and dispiriting. I keep walking, thankful not to really be part of it. The selling and showing of artwork has always been my least favorite part of the whole process, be it in a pristine white-walled gallery or a temporary tent down the street from where they sell the corndogs.

I get back to the B Gallery a little before 5 p.m. Chris is putting out strawberries, cheesecake bites and mini bottles of water in the back room for the prospective art walkers. The tattoo shop isn’t part of the festivities but stays open for business anyway. The daughter of one of the tattooists wanders about listlessly, cradling a very real-looking bloody, bandaged leg, waiting, apparently, for the evening to end so she can go home. David Barker – whose firm is hosting my show – comes by with his family and buys one of the cab paintings. It reminds him of his time at the University of Chicago. His purchase makes this whole two-day out-of-town trip worthwhile. A couple dozen other visitors come through as well. Most are bent on getting their cards punched and only give cursory attention to the artwork. The ones that do linger get a look of recognition on their faces as they examine the cluttered bookshelves and parked taxis that populate my pictures. That look tells me that what I’m doing is worthwhile and valued, even if it’s not valued enough to crack a checkbook open very often. As for the rest, the ones that start stretching out punch cards to be attended to before even coming all the way into the room, I do my part to make their stay as brief and painless as possible. I stand holding the hole-puncher, ready to dispatch them on to their next stop with a smile on my face. The ones that figure out that I’m also responsible for the artwork pause a moment or two and glance around politely before lowering their eyes and moving on.

I buy a breaded tenderloin sandwich from one of the vendors around the corner from the parking garage around 9:15 p.m., get in my car and turn “Moby Dick” back on. Ishmael and Queequeg are still negotiating the terms of their employment and haven’t even met Captain Ahab yet as I pull into my garage back home in Chicago some three and a half hours later.