Updated: Jun 22, 2020
First published March 1, 2018
My father was distressed before I went to graduate school in Iowa City in 1989. He said that I would go away and never be the same – I would in essence become one of “them.” I, of course chalked it up to him being up-tight and closed minded. I joked that me saying I was going to graduate school was like me saying I was going to Mars.
My father attained a high school education – earned over a longer period than most because he took time off to help on the farm – his three brothers and one sister were gone from home. His brother Earl was a Screaming Eagle in the 101st Airborne Division, at Bastogne during WWII. Dad didn’t join the Navy until the tail end of the war and ended up on Attu, one of the Aleutian islands of Alaska – not far from Siberia. Dad was thoughtful and read all his life.
In graduate school I ended up getting into and winning an award from the Print Club – the most important print competition in the US. I was completely ignorant as I applied for the Print Club show – had no idea it was as prestigious as it was and actually was ill prepared to apply. Instead of having it professionally shot, I held up my still wet print for my friend Kent to take a slide, which I later sent to the first show I found on the bulletin board outside the Print Studio office. After getting accepted I asked my boss at the Museum of Art if the Print Club was a very good show. He marveled, stating “yes, only getting invited to show in a museum would be better.” I was later invited to a museum show. In my naiveté, I entered and got accepted into shows I wouldn’t have dared to if I had known how “prestigious” they were. Previously during critiques what I had to say was not taken seriously. Suddenly I was elevated in status; people listened to me when I spoke. My work had not changed, it had simply been acknowledged in a major venue.
Sometimes ignorance is bliss; sometimes it is not. The longer I was at Iowa, the more I realized that I was from a different social strata than the majority of my friends, many of whom were from other countries, or an entirely different American culture (Mennonites). My peers were children of professors, doctors, or married to doctors. At the time “Educating Rita,” was in the theaters and as I watched it, I realized in many ways, I was working class Rita. However, I had no intention of leaving my farming heritage, or my faith behind. I loved God; I loved rural Wisconsin. This is what had given Dad anxiety. He was right; there was plenty of pressure to change and become someone I was not – to discredit my heritage; to leave it behind because I was in the midst of getting an advanced degree from a highly respected department in a highly respected university.
The Eve Drewelowe gallery, terribly battered and repainted to the point of distorted walls, is also one of the best galleries I’ve ever been in (I think it’s gone now – succumbing to the floods in Iowa City). It was naturally lit, intimate, and housed my art exhibit in my final year at Iowa. I’d structured the exhibit as a church, setting up several pedestals holding handmade books, one to imply a baptismal font in the back of the church. “Congregation” was an installation of ten abstract typographical Japanese-paper-printed hangings suspended from the ceiling in the middle of the room; “windows” around the outside were composed of landscape prints. In the back was a row of “icons:” assemblages of paper and religious postage stamps; in the front was a triptych and other images of Jesus (one of these is what got me into the Print Club exhibition). I’d printed them on a magnificent printing press reserved for graduate students.
When Dad and Mom came to visit for my final exhibit, it was the custodian I introduced them to. I felt most comfortable entrusting them to him. Though the exhibit was well attended and well received, it was Dad who “got” the intent of the show and made comments germane to both the subject matter, and intent, more than any other person. I truly felt at that time that I could die and my life would be complete.