More Than Just Art on the Wall: How Murals are Telling the Stories of Iowa Communities

by Bryon Houlgrave/Iowa PBS

OSKALOOSA – The town of Quimby in western Iowa boasts a population of 250 people, give or take. But one hot day last July the town was crawling with visitors, many of which had never heard of the town before. 

Iowa’s cycling event of the year, RAGBRAI, made a stop to the community perhaps best known for its annual Watermelon Days celebration (held each June and it serves up more than 3,000 pounds of watermelon) and pumped wads of sweaty cash into the community, much of which went to help services in the community, such as the Quimby volunteer fire department. While in town, cyclists parked their bikes along building walls. One in particular offered bike riders a visual history of Quimby in the form of a large mural on the south side of a two-story brick building that houses a block and concrete company. 

The mural is painted white with a large locomotive halting to a stop at the local rail station. The town was founded in 1887 when the Illinois Central railroad came through. It was named after the railroad official F.W. Quimby.

In southeast Iowa a large mural in the town of Corydon tells the story of its community, a collection of major events that took place in the town of just under 1,600 residents all painted on the west side of a law firm building. In this mural you’ll see George Saling, an Olympic track and field hurdler who won a gold medal in the 1932 Olympics in Los Angeles. Further down the mural you learn that the town was visited by an infamous bank robber. According to the details on the mural – and backed up by a quick computer search – on June 3, 1871 the James Gang robbed the Ocobock Brothers Bank, making off with $10,000. The mural shows a single rider, but an article published by the Minneapolis Star-Tribune in 1991 reported that there were four robbers, including Jesse James and his brother, Frank James.

It’s histories such as these that capture the imagination of mural artist Nicole Pitts of Oskaloosa. 

“A lot of towns are realizing that murals are a phenomenal way to visually draw people into those moments in history,” Pitts said. 

At the time of the interview, Pitts, an art teacher in Pella, was painting a mural for Tulip Time, Pella’s annual tulip festival.

“Towns all over are kind of learning that murals are a really good way to teach people about the moments from their history,” Pitts said.

Pitts said she’s the kind of person who will visit a town’s history museum regardless of the size of the town, but she understands that not everyone who might love history has the time to spend in a museum. Murals such as the dozen or so in Corydon that offer a visual history on the side of an otherwise drab brick wall can draw visitors.

“The mural is a way that towns can visually connect visitors with that part of history in a really palatable way,” Pitts said.

In 2008, Cedar Rapids was devastated by a major flood. The crest of 31.1 feet set a record, damaging more than 10 square miles of the city, which straddles the Cedar River. More than 16,000 residents were impacted in the flood zone. It was the sixth largest Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) declaration, below three major hurricanes and the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. 

City officials began right away rebuilding and implementing flood mitigation measures to make sure an event like this couldn’t happen again.

There is often beauty in the regrowing process, and it showed in Cedar Rapids. City leaders wanted to rebrand Iowa’s second largest city as one rich in public art. Iowa’s most famous artist, Grant Wood, was from Cedar Rapids, so it made sense to have a community that reflected the arts. 

“The city has not just rebounded, but really thrived after that terrible event,” said Cedar Rapids City Council member David Maier, who serves as a treasurer for several non-profit boards in town.

That's what art's all about. It’s pulling you out of your phone. It's pointing out of the mundaneness of life and making you feel something. - Isaac Campbell, artist

Maier said Cedar Rapids has invested heavily in public art since the flood.

“They’re very conscious about making public art a differentiator for Cedar Rapids versus some other cities. There’s a conscious decision to make it that we have public art throughout the city,” Maier said.

A lifelong art lover and collector, Maier has partnered with Murals and More, a nonprofit organization that works with local and area artists to install murals on buildings across the city.

“We're fortunate to have art everywhere, whether it's downtown or whether it's in your neighborhood,” Maier said.

As murals pop up on more and more walls across Iowa, transforming once drab walls into public art, and in many cases visual history presentations, Pitts hopes to see more towns celebrate their uniqueness with murals. 

“I think introducing murals into the community is a really really good way to differentiate those towns from the towns around them or anywhere else in the world,” Pitts said.

“Murals are far more than just a pretty thing on the wall,” said artist Isaac Campbell of Ottumwa. Campbell is a wheat paste mural artist and works mostly with historic photos. His work has been featured on public school walls in Coralville, in Washington, D.C. and Los Angeles. His work has even taken him to Europe and Central America.

“I try to find ways to help people ask questions when they see the mural. Why is that picture up there? What's going on? I try to inspire curiosity with people,” Campbell said.

Campbell attributes much of his drive and attention to detail to his background as a classical musician. He loves telling the stories of people. The underprivileged, historic figures, the elderly and the young. 

He especially loves when his work causes people to look up from their cell phone.

“That's what art's all about. It’s pulling you out of your phone. It's pointing out of the mundaneness of life and making you feel something. And those feelings can really change the trajectory. Change the trajectory of communities, of people, of ideas,” Campbell said.