Iowa State Parks Artists

Iowa Outdoors | Episode
Apr 8, 2020 | 27 min

Iowa Outdoors celebrates the 100-year anniversary of Iowa State Parks by profiling Iowa artists that find inspiration in the state's public lands.


´╗┐Hi, I'm Kelly Kramer.

And I'm Scott Siepker.

Siepker: Welcome to Honey Creek Resort in southern Iowa

Kramer: And our twenty artists twenty parks edition of Iowa Outdoors.


[Iowa Outdoors opening sequence. Kellie and Scott talking in front of a covered bridge. A scuba diver under water. A para-sailor skying a water way. A child catching a fish. A man biking a trail. A scuba diver submerging into icy water. A team of kayakers kayaking a river rapid.]

Kramer: Coming up on a special edition of Iowa outdoors.

Firat Erdim: I'm trying to sense both through touch but also through sounds, what's happening up there.

Kramer: We'll showcase the artistic inspiration Iowa State Parks provides for Iowans still today.

Carol Faber: Who'd ever thought I'd photograph with a phone in my life I never thought of that.

Nancy Thompson: And you notice those kinds of things you can bring it back into the studio.

Christopher Yanulis: And I'll write down first thoughts about what I just experienced.

Kramer: We'll have all that and more.

Siepker: So sit tight. Iowa Outdoors is about to begin.


Funding for this program was provided by Friends, the Iowa PBS Foundation, as well as generations of families and friends who feel passionate about the programs they watch on Iowa PBS.


Funding for this program was provided by the Claude P. Small, Kathryn Small Cousins and William Carl Cousins Fund at the Quad Cities Community Foundation to support nature programming on Iowa PBS.

And by the Alliant Energy Foundation.

Many of Iowa's natural wonders you'll find on Iowa PBS can be found in Iowa Outdoors magazine, the Iowa DNR's premier resource for conservation, education and recreation activities.

Subscription information can be found online at Subscribe by phone: 1.800.361.8072


Kramer: The allure of the outdoors is practically the definition of indescribable. Its wondrous, inspiring, fulfilling, dangerous and a million other words that never seem to fully capture the essence of why we love to venture outside.

Siepker: In lieu of words, the Iowa State Park System is taking a different route with artistic interpretation. Throughout the course of 2019, twenty different artists were tasked with capturing the unique beauty of twenty different state parks.

Kramer: From Stone State Park in the northwest to Wildcat Den in the southeast, artists spread across the state to share the beauty of Iowa. And for our first story will head south to Lacey Keosauqua.


[Lacey Keosauqua State Park]

Siepker: The beauty of Iowa is not hidden. In fact, much of it is labeled for all, to find within the Iowa Department of Natural Resources, State Park System. Those wonders are what pulled Ames artist and professor Nancy Thompson to a creek bed in Lacey Keosauqua State Park. And yet it took Nancy practically her entire life to connect her love for creating art with the bounty of Iowa state parks.

Thompson: I've lived in Iowa all my life and until 10 years ago I'd hardly ever been to any state parks. So, it just kind of became a goal of mine, was to visit as many of the state parks as I could.


Siepker: For her setting in the centennial project, Nancy chose Lacey Keosauqua State Park. A site she had yet to visit. With eye grabbing features, both natural and historic. Using pastels, Nancy is creating a series of paintings of park treasures including the beloved CCC stone bridges, Lacey Keo's campgrounds and a triptych showcasing a Wesley Creek, earth bridge. One of the park's deep, wood settings.

Thompson: My goal is to try to finish this in one sitting. So. If I work on something that's too big, then I oftentimes will have to finish it in the studio.


[Thompson's studio. Thompson is in the background working on one of her pastels from Lacey Keosauqua State Park. The artistic work is of a sunset over one of the parking area at Lacey Keosauqua State Park. A pastel in blues and greens is hanging on another easel on the right. The picture is of an rural Iowa road at sunset with wind turbines in the foreground of the picture and a barn in the background.

[Thompson steps away from the pastel that she is working on.]

Thompson: Let's see what that looks like, from a distance.


[Thompson steps back up to picture she is working on and touches up a tree that frames the picture on the right-hand side.]


[Thompson at the easel working on the sunset pastel.]

Thompson: I can tell that this piece is getting close to being finished. I'm just kind of nitpicking at this point. Sometimes it's hard to know when some. . .when one is finished. You just. Sometimes you just have to walk away from them. A couple things that I want to do with this, is I just kind of want to. I don't want to put a lot of detail down there, but I need to.. . I need to just identify this area a little better.

Siepker: Nancy, who now teaches at Iowa State University's School of Design, did not start seriously learning how to paint until her early 20s, while taking private lessons. From there, juggling her time as a full-time mom and squeezing in classes when she could, Nancy continued her education at Des Moines Area Community College, as often as her art allowed.

Thompson: I would take as many classes as I could sell artwork. Like, how much artwork I sold determined how many classes I could take. It took me a long time. Took me a long time to get through a hundred credits. It took me about eight years.

Siepker: Throughout her formal education, Nancy fell in love with pastels. Likening it to finger painting. Now as an educator, herself, Nancy has both the passion and skill to approach painting from a creative and technical mindset.

Thompson: I'm always really interested in this time of day and in painting this time of day. The twilight hours. Where suddenly we lose the ability to see color and the camera always tricks us, right. It can't focus on all the things that the human eye can focus on at the same time, so.

Siepker: As obvious as it might sound, color is incredibly important in painting. And Iowa brings surprising challenges to creating representational art. Specifically the color green.

Thompson: The one thing about working in Iowa's state parks is that, you know green. And green is hard to work with. It can be very difficult because, you know, is it warm? Is it cool? What happens to the color when it's in shadow? All those kinds of things. And when you're out on location and you notice those kinds of things, you can bring it back into the studio. Because I want to differentiate the green in the background to the green in the foreground. It gives my painting visual depth.


Siepker: Now with the project complete, Nancy and her peers work is set for public exhibition. Throughout 2020, all the works will be on tour for art lovers and outdoor enthusiasts to see in their pocket of the state. But even long after the year comes to a close and the centennial celebration is over, Iowa state parks will be waiting for visitors to discover the inspiration for all this work. Except unlike the CCC bridges and park campgrounds, finding sites like Nancy's earth Bridge triptych will take a little more exploration.

Thompson: I don't think it's marked or anything. There's no signs that say that this is there. They're gonna have to find it, and it's not the easiest place to find. Or, you could ask the park ranger. At this point he definitely knows where it's at.


Kramer: For many of us, the time we've spent in the Iowa State Park system has practically colored our lives. Experiences that we treasure and build off of with each successive trip into the wild.

Siepker: For Carol Faber growing up in the Sioux City area Iowa State Parks left an indelible mark on her childhood. Now as an Iowa State professor and working artist, she made the perfect choice to return to Sioux City's Stone State Park to mix her unique photography with her childhood memories.


[Stone State Park]

Faber: So this piece is off of in Stone State Park and the original. . . I'm gonna go backwards in my Photoshop file. Just turn all these off, and show the original piece. So that's the original photo. Not too spectacular, really. I wanted to make it feel even grander. Express the emotional part of it, and I think that was my goal. Giving it that kind of grand feeling.

Kramer: Carol Faber is a digital artist. In place of paints and an easel, her primary tools are a digital camera and her computer. While her work is only possible through modern devices and software, the idea can be traced back to the 19th century art revolution of the Impressionists. In their day, Impressionists would use open composition, interpretations of light and noticeable brushwork to evoke mood. And while Carol doesn't use a brush, her mouse and the software it guides do very similar work.

Faber: And this particular piece is traditional prairie. Where this is the original image. And adding to that. And adding the depth and colors is one of the first steps I will do, and then I try to add in other parts of plants. And I kind of like some of the things where it breaks apart. It kind of makes you wonder about the edges or the surfaces. Or what those really are. So these are the final choices as I worked through that whole piece, and that gives it more of that fabric, if you will. Which isn't necessarily what you'd see, but maybe the beauty of what you'd feel seeing nature.


Kramer: For Carole's role in the twenty artists twenty parks program, she chose Sioux City Stone State Park. A perfect pairing, as Carol grew up in the Sioux City area, and her lifelong connection to the park provides an additional layer of subtext to her work.

Faber: School trips and picnics were the memories I had here. So, the summer images fit. So, this is all common area.

Kramer: Stone State Park is known for its unique placement at the northern edge of the Loess Hills. That terrain provides four beautiful overlooks, hidden groves and hillside expanses, much of which can be found by car. But even with its reputation as a drive-through park, Carol hit the trails for nearly all of her work. Mixing and matching characteristics of each environment.

Faber: One of the things I probably noticed the most is sky, in this area. You know good, a good line on the horizon. See how you feel like you're really part of the land. It almost makes you feel like you're just part of it. It reminds me of home.

Kramer: To create her layered style of mosaic, digital photos, Carol canvasses each area and takes a multitude of pictures. Looking for different elements of the landscape that help tell the story of each location. For the base photo, Carol takes a panoramic picture, giving her work a grand sense of scale. But, the most interesting part of her process is how all of this work is done with her smartphone.

Faber: Who'd ever thought I'd photograph with a phone in my life. I never thought of that. It's not a purist way to photograph that's for certain. Oh, I have great respect for photographers who can make that whole image work within the camera, and I've done that too. But there's a great deal of fun in the process of collecting. I just find that to be a better way to think about that response, after the fact. Because all those memories from past events come into the work then, and it gives me more time to reflect.

Kramer: Even with decades of experience in the Loess Hills, the twenty artists twenty parks project allowed Carol the opportunity to find time and share new treasures of Stone State Park. Now with the project complete, she's excited to know there are still plenty of wonderful experiences left to collect.

Faber: This isn't the most scenic, right. But, it was the best light and color and openness that I could find at the time I was photographing. Now, it's all over the place. I'm driving, and I'm thinking I want to stop here. I want to stop here. So, it just. It certainly is beautiful.


Faber: I'm always awestruck, and I wish I had more time to capture it all. But this was time given, and it's a. . . That's a great experience to have.


Siepker: Historic structures, stunning panoramic views of the rural Iowa landscape and hidden ecological treasures draw people to Pilot Knob State Park near Forest City.

Kramer: For Christopher Yanulis, professional musician turned artist and student, the park became his inspiration. He combined visual art with his musical talents to explore the contrasting beauty of the nature around him.


[Pilot Knob State Park]

Kramer: Pilot Knob State Park near Forest City is one of Iowa's oldest state parks. Early settlers and pioneers used Pilot Knob as a navigation point as they made their way west across the prairie.

Yanulis: I've been to many parks in Iowa, and I love them. But, that was one I'd never visit before. So, I was excited to to see a new park.


Kramer: Christopher Yanulis and his wife used to tour the country making music with their band. Now, he's a graduate student at Iowa State University, and part of the twenty artists twenty parks project commemorating the 100th anniversary of Iowa's state park system.


"Oh the things that you can see."
"The world of limbs beneath a living canopy."
"Paths of mystery."]

Yanulis: I decided on the spot that I would attempt to take my experience at the park, and kind of channel it into a song and a video to go along with that. And then I would create a physical piece of art, kind of inspired by the video itself. Rather than directly to park itself. So, one would influence the other. It was kind of my way of looking at it. This combines two different scenes. Its a scene of some natural areas of weeds, and things like that; which is on the hill near the tower, and then an area of water, when it was raining. Kind of is in the background. I have experiences like that. I'll sit, and I carry a notebook with me and I'll write down first thoughts about what I just experienced. And from that I went home, and I kind of pulled the most important things out of there. Maybe words that were lyrical to me. And I started writing lyrics for the song.

Kramer: His wife joins with him on the chorus of the song he wrote for the video, titled All of the Green


"So much in the natural world we are."
"Part of it here."
"All of the green that surrounds us. It is serine."]

Kramer: Yanulis visited Pilot Knob twice. The first time it was raining and overcast. The second trip was sunny and beautiful. He plays off the contrasts in his work. Yanulis shot the video with his smartphone following his general desire to keep things simple.

Yanulis: And my technique for the video is much like my technique when I make art. Which is a layering process. So in the video itself, I try to focus on a contrasting movements plants, moving in different directions, different areas of the park. And the contrast, maybe water with the the weeds growing in the corners of the park. You know, and things like that. Just see if I could create interest with that alone. Kind of with the idea that, if I took away the music would it still be interesting to look at? So, hopefully it is.


"Summer rain means sun on the way."
"Summer rain means sun on the way."
"Summer rain means sun on the way."
"Summer rain means sun on the way."]

Kramer: In the early 1930s about a decade after Pilot Knob was dedicated, the Civilian Conservation Corps constructed an open-air, amphitheater surrounded by woods. The most notable CCC project here might be the stone tower that sits on Pilot Knob. From the top of the tower, visitors have an impressive scenic view of the surrounding park in landscape. Many of Pilot Knob structures are listed on the National Register of Historic Places. There are hidden treasures too. Making all of it worth a visit of your own to see and discover.

Yanulis: I'd liken it in some way to spark some interest to go visit Pilot Knob and visit any of the parks. Just to maybe look and see that looking at nature in a different way can be rewarding as well. Just being in nature rather than having an activity you specifically have to do, you know. Just enjoying the atmosphere can be rewarding in itself.

[Lyrics: "All of the green that surrounds us."]

Kramer: Our state parks provide all of us with many opportunities to interact with nature, connect with our environment and appreciate both the power and fragility of the world around us.

Siepker: a Kite Choir is a way to experience all those things and channel the atmosphere into performance art. Firat Erdim shows us his collaborative work at beautiful Lake Macbride State Park.

[Lake Macbride State Park]

[Sounds of the Kite Choir as it flies over the lake at Lake Macbride State Park.]

Siepker: Firat Erdim guides his kite through the air above the waters of Lake Macbride. This isn't your average kite. It dances in the wind, attached through the line to a device Erdim holds that produces sound.

Erdim: It starts to vibrate in some really beautiful ways the longer, the longer the line is.

[Sounds made by the Kite Choir.}

Siepker: A professor in the Department of Architecture at Iowa State University. Erdim has had drawings and installations exhibited across the country and internationally.

Erdim: It's really. . . Sound is about that tether between the kite and myself, and I need to pay attention to that. Like, that's the. . . That's the dialogue that I'm really engaged in, you know. So it's. . . There's no correct way to do this in a sense, right. Because there's no. . .There's no music that you have to replicate. Each variable is producing something, something new.

[Sounds of the Kite Choir as it flies over the lake at Lake Macbride State Park.]

Siepker: There are old traditions of singing kites in many other countries. Those often feature the sound making instruments or voice boxes flying in the air with the kites, but Erdim created and built his own hurdy-gurdy style instrument. It gives him more of a physical connection with the sound and the experience.

Erdim: The kite isn't flying like an airplane or like a bird. It's, it's, it's trying to find this moment between, like, flying and falling. Sort of trying to find that moment of suspension in the air. And with that, I get this suspension in the sound as well.

Siepker: Lake Macbride is just outside of Solon between Iowa City and Cedar Rapids. It's named after Thomas Macbride, a former professor and president of the University of Iowa, who is known as the father of conservation in Iowa. Erdim says he's explored parts of Lake Macbride that he wouldn't normally have gone, in order to find the right conditions for flying.

Erdim: This practice is about, also like, understanding. It makes you look at the landscape differently, the terrain, what's around you and read that, read that differently. Because, you know, you guys say okay so if it's coming from the trees over there, like from over here. The winds gonna have a certain texture. It's gonna at a certain height. It's gonna have a change, right. It's not just about the atmosphere. It's about also understanding the the territory. Also sounds, you know, ambient sounds.

Siepker: Musicians who learn to play instruments generally have control of the sound, and given a sheet of music that score can be played as it's written. A kite choir isn't nearly as predictable. There's limited human control, and the atmospheric conditions take care of the rest.

Erdim: You have some degree of control, right. You have some agency, but that agency is shared with the agency of the wind, as well as what you listen to. So it's really a kind of dance, an entanglement. It's not one. It's not having almost full control, and it's not having almost no control. And I think the entanglement is. . . That's kind of the point of the project, of the kite choir, is that it's a kind of. . . I call it an aesthetic practice of attunements with the atmosphere. At that moment you kind of . . . And when you're playing these things you're kind of attached to it.

Siepker: A lot of people get a kite up in the air by running with it. Erdim says you shouldn't have to do that. He likes the pier like Macbride because it gives him limited space to move, and he has to really focus on what the kite is doing.

Erdim: Sometimes, I've been on piers and there have been fishermen fishing off of them as well. So, you know, I'm kind of doing the same thing. They're, they're kind of, they're doing this underwater. And, I'm up in the atmosphere. You're trying to sense what's out there at the tip of the line, right. At the end of the line. Same thing with the kite line, you know. So when the kite is up there. It's a, it's a way. It becomes a way to. I'm, I'm trying to sense both through touch; but also, through sounds what's happening up there. Out there. Yeah, and in the air.

Siepker: Erdim electric, hurdy-gurdy wheel works a little bit like a piano and a guitar. The kite line has rosin on it. The line bows the steel strings and there are guitar picks that pickup the strings that help produce the sound that you hear. You can easily build a kite choir of your own. Erdim says you can find a variety of different examples and instructions online, or invent one yourself. And, whether you fly at Lake Macbride or park near you. Open your mind and body to what's possible. You may develop a greater awareness and appreciation for nature and the atmosphere around you.

[Sounds of the Kite Choir as it flies over the lake at Lake Macbride State Park.]

Erdim: It's important to have these practices today, I think. You know, to care for, to hear inanimate and non-human things more, more clearly.


Kramer: That wraps up this special twenty artists twenty parks episode of Iowa Outdoors. We encourage you to take part in the Iowa State Parks Centennial Celebration, and create your own artistic interpretation of what the parks have to offer. If you need any inspiration, check out our extensive video archive of adventures at Iowa PBS dot org slash Iowa Outdoors.

Siepker: As our episodes continue to bring you outdoor adventures over the Iowa airwaves, be sure to follow us on Facebook, Instagram and YouTube for extended features and extra content. We'll leave you now with one last look at the artistic work we've showcased today, and encourage all of you to get out and experience the Iowa State parks for yourself.


[Entrance to Lacey Keosauqua State Park.]

[Picture of trees and under brush in the spring digitally enhanced with colorful flowers overlayed on the computer screen.)

[Nancy Thompson at her easel touching up a pastel of a park parking area at sunset.]

[A walking path with green trees waving in the wind on either side and a canopy of green overhead.]

[Firat Erdim flying his kit choir over Lake Macbride on a wind filled sunny day.]

[A pastel creek scene in blues and greens.]

[Stone bridge constructed by the CCC at Lacey Keosauqua State Park.]

Funding for this program was provided by Friends, the Iowa PBS Foundation, as well as generations of families and friends who feel passionate about the programs they watch on Iowa PBS.


Funding for this program was provided by the Claude P. Small, Kathryn Small Cousins and William Carl Cousins Fund at the Quad Cities Community Foundation to support nature programming on Iowa PBS.


And by the Alliant Energy Foundation.

Many of Iowa's natural wonders you'll find on Iowa PBS can be found in Iowa Outdoors magazine, the Iowa DNR's premier resource for conservation, education and recreation activities.

Subscription information can be found online at