Written by Kellye Carter Crocker
I’ve never been much of a cellphone girl, but I fell fast and hard for my new iPhone, for all the fun and practical things I can do with it. Less than a month after getting it, I was recommending must-have apps to friends who were iPhone veterans. So when I heard about the Greater Des Moines Public Art Foundation’s new app, called DSM Public Art, I was eager to take it for a test drive.
The free iPhone app highlights about 100 works in Des Moines (most are downtown) and the ‘burbs, conveniently displayed as color-coded “pins” on a Google map, with Global Positioning System (GPS) technology to help guide you to them. Tap a pin for the name of a piece and bare-bones info; press an arrow for a photo and more information.
One nice feature is the crosshairs icon. Tap it when you’re out to see what public art is nearby. Also, you can search by artist or by the name of a piece. The street sign icon lists works by geographic area, which I used to plan
three art crawls. The app includes perennials such as the John and Mary Pappajohn Sculpture Park, Claes Oldenburg’s Crusoe Umbrella and outdoor pieces at the Des Moines Art Center, but I skipped those to focus on new-to-me works. Despite a few glitches (see story, right), the app is a terrific resource for discovering and learning more about the metro area’s impressive collection of public art. Here are a few highlights:
Perhaps the new app will introduce more people to our area’s public art—those “familiar strangers” among us.
My art trek started on a sunny weekday morning, with me—represented by a moving blue dot on the app’s map—bopping along Sixth Avenue to American Republic Insurance Co. An open door in a stone wall led to a courtyard featuring Arnaldo Pomodoro’s 18,000-pound bronze Sphere Within a Sphere, a gleaming golden globe ripped to expose an intricate mechanical interior. Using the app, it was fascinating to read—on the spot—the artist’s words about his drive to create spheres, “perfect, magic forms,” and break them to reveal “internal ferment, mysterious and alive, monstrous and yet pure.”
At the company’s adjacent sculpture park (called American Enterprise Art Park), bounded by trees and Ivan Chermayeff’s colorful, iconic Untitled Sculptural Mural, I perused the contemporary abstracts—a dozen, including Pomodoro’s sphere—frequently checking the app for information.
Favorites included the cheeky Family at Corner, hidden in plain view on top of a wall (it’s made of steel but the app offered no more information, including the artist); Eric Jean-Marie’s Dephinus, another steel piece that brought to mind a sharp-toothed, limbless monster restrained by a thick chain disappearing into the earth; and Fletcher Benton’s intriguing, cherry-red Folded Circle Zig.
Although I’ve long been aware of American Republic’s reputation as a world-class art collector, I didn’t realize that so many pieces were on public display. Specifically, how did I work downtown for 11 years without knowing about this delightful place?
After a few other stops, I ended my tour at the Davis Brown Tower, where Des Moines Color Field pulses in the street-level lobby. The mesmerizing wall-size work by the Kansas City artist Stretch creates continually changing color patterns using LED lights inside glass domes (repurposed “irregular” washing machine windows).
Another day, I planned a quick rectangular tour. Because I’d seen it before, I was tempted to skip the untitled angular bronze at City Hall by renowned American artist Joel Shapiro, but I’m so glad I didn’t. Standing 20 feet tall and stretching 22 feet wide, the figure made of rectangular beams is a much different experience up close, as the app confirms. The app also quotes Shapiro saying: “You can really participate in the piece. It changes from different points of view and has a sort of celebratory balance.” Try lying on the brick patio and looking up at the piece—I did, when no one was looking.
Back across the river, Sally Pettus’ Quantum Leaf was another standout. It’s a fallen leaf, writ large (15 feet in diameter, 11 feet tall). The leaf’s curling edges add poignancy and a surprising fragility to a piece made of bronze. In warmer weather, the leaf is a fountain surrounded by a pool (pictured, left); without the water, it feels more solemn.
Greater Des Moines
My third art-app outing took a swing through the western suburbs. Three favorites are conveniently located near one another. Mac Hornecker’s 20-foot-tall Prairie Emergence rises at the entrance of a Clive strip mall on University Avenue just east of 128th Street (called 60th Street south of University), next to Peoples Trust & Savings Bank. According to the app, the piece represents prairie grasses sprouting from the earth. There’s something appealing about the curvy painted steel, the natural world it represents and the juxtaposition with its suburban site. But I couldn’t help wondering if the people zipping in and out of the parking lot noticed it at all.
From there, I threaded through a maze of back parking lots (aim for the water tower) toward the familiar steel palm trees along the north side of University Avenue at the Mercy Wellness Campus entrance. There’s no easy way to experience Jesse Small’s Leap of Faith up close. Feeling like an urban explorer, I parked in the closest lot, jogged across the busy campus entrance road and squished through rain-soaked grass. The lacy leaves shimmered slightly in the wind, and, again, I was struck by how much more I enjoyed this work when I moved in close and spent time with it.
Next, I drove to the YMCA Healthy Living Center at the northern part of the campus to see Harmony Line by local artists TJ Moberg and Dennis Reynolds. The sprawling, complex piece features native limestone, early 1900s Iowa barn timbers, repurposed agricultural equipment, recycled colored glass, tree groves and undulating landforms.
I approached timidly, trying to get a good look but unsure where I was allowed to be. Soon I realized that the piece was much bigger than I’d thought, with paths that encourage viewers to explore from all angles. When I came upon a pile of small black stones at one end, I felt a surge of emotion—almost similar to grief—and as I moved back through, a keen sense of gratitude.
It was a powerful experience, yet I doubt I would have spent as much time—or given the work such attention—if I hadn’t been writing this article. As people rushed past, eager to get to their workouts, I couldn’t help pondering the role public art plays in our lives.
After all, we’re all busy. Diane Hyler works in Pleasant Hill but stops to exercise at the YMCA in Clive on her way home to Winterset. I asked if she’d ever spent time exploring Harmony Line. She said no, but added, “It’s interesting to look at. I’m not sure what it means, but it’s pretty.”
I wonder: Maybe even a glimpse of art enriches us, lifts our spirits, enlivens our community. Perhaps the new app will introduce more people to our area’s public art—those “familiar strangers” among us.
Public Art iPhone app
Get it: Free in the iTunes store; search for “Des Moines Public Art.”
Creator: Greater Des Moines Public Art Foundation (GDMPAF).
Downloads: 89 in the first two weeks after debuting Jan. 6. As expected, the majority of downloads came from Des Moines and elsewhere in Iowa, but art lovers from Alaska to New York and in China, Russia, Colombia, Denmark, Taiwan, the Netherlands, Germany, Italy and France have installed the app.
Connect: GDMPAF welcomes feedback on its app, especially if someone encounters a problem or has suggestions for pieces to include in updates. Visit dsmpublicartfoundation.org.
Editor’s Note: Readers should keep in mind that the GDMPAF app—and public art exhibits—may have changed since this story was reported.
A Few Glitches
Overall, I found the DSM Public Art app a handy tool. Still, I experienced a few snags while using it:
No entrance. Two Principal Financial Group works—Maya Lin’s A Shift in Stream and James Turrell’s Last Breath—were included in the app but unavailable to the public. Greater Des Moines Public Art Foundation Director M. Jessica Rowe was surprised and disappointed to hear this. “Things do change,” she said, adding that she would contact the company to see if something could be worked out. A mural by Harry Donald Jones in the World Food Prize Hall of Laureates also wasn’t publicly accessible. Rowe said World Food Prize Foundation officials had changed their schedule for opening to the public.
Navigation trouble. The app’s GPS generally worked well, but it insisted the Lin piece was farther north that it is.
Some wrong and inconsistent information. On the Riverwalk, Kerry James Marshall’s A Monumental Journey features a red “on view” pin instead of a green “future or in progress” pin. Adding to the confusion: The app includes a photo of the planned work, which could be mistaken for the real thing if you didn’t know there wasn’t anything there yet.
Also, available information for each piece varies widely and sometimes is incomplete.
Missing art. Don’t expect a definitive guide—at least not yet. In some cases, pieces weren’t included in the app, Rowe said, because she didn’t have adequate information about them. Still, some exclusions seemed odd. For example, Sarah Grant’s What We Love About Clive, a playful tile piece at an 86th Street bus shelter, is included, but Clive’s other major works, such as Marc Moulton’s towering Prairie Engine a couple of blocks south, are not. You’ll probably pass jd hansen’s 10-foot bronze, Monumental Yesterday, outside the Davis Brown Tower on your way to see Des Moines Color Field, but the app includes the latter and not the former.
The Public Art Foundation still is locating public art in the metro area and plans regular app updates, Rowe said. “It’s a process,” she said. “That’s the great thing about it.”