Posts Categorized: People

Interview with Artist Ashley Dull

By Aryn Henning Nichols

Ashley Dull Lindeman’s enthusiasm is infectious. She bustles through the door of a downtown Decorah coffee shop with arms full of paintings, at least one still mildly wet. We hug – I’ve known Ashley since she was seven and her sister and I were best friends in the fourth grade – and we both speak at once.

“I haven’t seen you since that time we talked about changing the world,” I say.

She laughs, “I’m still trying to change the world…somehow.”

This earnest mission is at the root of what inspires Ashley in her art. She’s not jaded. And, no, there isn’t supposed to be a “yet” on the end of that sentence. Maybe she’s naïve. But who cares? She’s definitely not cocky, especially for a 26-year-old who is actually making a living at art in the Twin Cities, a place loaded with talented artists and creative folk. No, Ashley is willing to admit she’s got a lot to learn

“I’m still trying to figure out this world – I don’t know enough about anything, really,” she says humbly.

She does know a thing or two around a canvas. If it weren’t for the amazing texture created by the carefully molded piles of still-wet paint, her nature-inspired pieces could be photos. Really dimensional photos, almost like you could walk right in.

“I want people to say, ‘I wanna touch that. I wanna be there,’” she says. “I will be out walking in the woods, touching everything, enjoying the peace that nature brings – I want to put that in my paintings. I want to make people feel good.”

Ashley’s upbringing on a small farm in between Postville and Decorah was full of the big skies, beautiful trees, and picturesque landscapes of the Driftless Region. A walk in the woods could inspire as many as three-dozen future paintings. Perhaps this is where the passion she’s had for art “since forever” began.

Nurtured by teachers with good foresight – Postville High School’s Rose Schutte and Luther College’s Doug Eckheart being two major mentors – Ashley took the encouragement they gave her, “You really have something here,” and ran with it. She graduated from Luther College in 2005 with a double major in health and art. And like many recent graduates, she wasn’t sure what was next.

“I thought, ‘What am I doing? Where am I going?’” she says. “But I did feel that it was possible to really do it, to be an artist.”

It certainly wasn’t a straight shot to galleries and commissions from there though. She moved to the Twin Cities to work as a personal trainer, painting in her free time. In 2007 she finally applied for her first art fair in Edina. And got in. During that show Ashley met her now “art agent” Jack McCauley. McCauley helped her put together her first gallery show in Roseville and it was a huge success. This was the affirmation Ashley needed to paint more, train less. McCauley continues to represent her work today.

Her pieces have since been shown in seven galleries – along with four shows in the next two months alone – and she landed a lengthy internship with nationally known Twin Cities artist Pamela Sukhum. Now, just two short years since Ashley’s first show, she’s armed with a wealth of new skills and information for her life both as an artist and as a self-employed business owner.

“It is still a business, and I need to make money,” Ashley says. “If art takes me there, then okay.”

She has learned it’s a lot of paperwork. And marketing. And networking. And while it’s fun to envision a future of grandeur, she’s not expecting it – perhaps doesn’t even want it.

“You know, I think it crossed my mind what I was younger, ‘Maybe I want to be this famous artist,’ but now – I could care less about fame. I want to bring peace and beauty to people’s lives,” she says, earnest once again.

She also wants to bring hope to people’s lives, and attempts this through a “giving back promise.” Ashley donates a small percentage of sales at her shows to an organization she’d like to support. The exhibits in the Twin Cities have been tied with non-profit organizations mainly dedicated to helping at-risk youth. For her Decorah show, running from October 1 through 31at The Perfect Edge on Washington Street, Ashley has, we’re humbled to say, chosen Inspire(d) Media as the organization she’d like to support.

“I believe in what you’re doing and want to help if I can,” Ashley writes in an email after informing us of her choice. She’s also really excited to have her paintings in the town of her alma mater.

“I always hoped – and sort of knew – I’d do a Decorah show,” she says. “So many of my paintings are Decorah landscapes.”

In addition to the giving back promise, Ashley has a few other traditions tied to her work: She always picks a theme – the current show is entitled “From Darkness to Light,” inspired by the prayer of St. Francis ­– and she always hides a bible verse somewhere in each painting. Don’t get worked up – she isn’t really a beater of said bible – she just relates many of the verses to her experiences in nature: feelings of calm, peace, love, joy, beauty, change, and new life. It’s by translating these experiences to her paintings that she plans to change the world.

“If I can help someone feel a connection to the world around us and a sense of purpose in this life,” she writes, “then I know I have done right by my talent.”

Aryn Henning Nichols truly believes you can change the world with passion (the good kind) and positive actions. When she was 21, she said this to someone and they told her she’d just wasn’t jaded yet. It’s been a happy seven years in the so-called land of bunnies and unicorns. She’s not planning on leaving any time soon.

For more information and to check out some of Ashley’s art, visit artbyashleydull.com

 

Butter-to-Art: An Interview with Butter Sculptress Sarah Pratt

By Benji Nichols 

With roots dating as far back as the 1400s, butter has been used in various ways to create art – Monks even made deities out of yak butter! Here in Iowa we’ve been making butter art since the early 1900s with the Iowa State Fair “Butter Cow.” The list of the artists who have worked in this medium at the State Fair is surprisingly short, but Inspire(d) was lucky enough to catch up with the latest heir to the title “Butter Sculptor.”

It is worth noting that the construction of a butter figure is even more complex than you would already suspect. More than 600 pounds of low-moisture, pure-cream Iowa butter are used to cover a frame constructed of wood, metal, wire, and steel mesh. Inside a 40-degree cooler, Sarah Pratt applies layer upon layer of butter until an almost full size figure comes to life. It’s also worth noting that the butter is not wasted – in fact, it is often used to create sculptures for up to ten years – so no sneaking a taste! The Midwest Dairy Association has sponsored the attraction since 1960, and we are delighted to have had the chance to ask Pratt a few questions.


Name: Sarah Pratt

Age: 32 (in 2009)

Profession: Teacher at Phoenix Elementary Early Childhood Center in West Des Moines

I: Where did you grow up?

SP: Toledo, Iowa

I: How did you get involved with Norma ‘Duffy’ Lyon (Butter Sculptor for decades prior) helping to create the butter sculptures? 

SP:I grew up knowing Duffy and went to school with her grandkids. But it was actually a trip to the State Fair to help a friend of mine, Kari Lyon, who also happens to be the great-niece of Norma. She was showing dairy cattle and I went along to experience life in the Dairy Barn. While Kari was in the show ring I was put to work in the butter cooler, cleaning buckets and softening butter. The next year Norma called me and invited me to help again. I continued to help and Duffy trained me over the next 15 or so years.

I: What’s your favorite butter sculpture or cow that you have created? 

SP: I enjoyed sculpting Harry Potter. There were so many fun things to incorporate from the stories. But the sculpture that I was and am the most passionate about is the piece I sculpted last year honoring Norman Borlaug. So many are unaware of his accomplishments and the difference he has made in the world! It was a privilege to share Mr. Borlaug’s story with Fairgoers.

I: What else will you be carving besides the cow for the 2009 Fair? 

SP: I will be sculpting a scene from the Apollo 11 mission.  “One small step for man, a giant leap for mankind.”

I: How long does it take you to create the sculptures? 

SP: I work for about three weeks before the Fair begins.

I: Any comments about working with butter as a medium? Tricks of the trade?

SP: At the right temperature butter is very much like clay. The trick is to get the butter to that point and keep it there.

I: Anyone you’d like to acknowledge or thank?

SP: I want to thank Norma for all of her support! Without her confidence in my ability I would have never believed I could do it. And of course I need to thank my husband, Andy. He is a great sounding board for ideas and has spent many hours helping me plan and build the armatures.

The Iowa State Fair runs every summer in mid-August in Des Moines. And you can get in on the butter sculpting action! Submit your name for a chance to test your skills in the Butter Sculpting Competition at the fair. See you at the Fair!

Getting Our Hands Dirty: A Growing Interest in Community-Focused Gardening


Story and Photos by Kelly Larsen 

The disdain I once held for gardening still remains distinct in my memory. As a little kid, I dreaded being told to pick beans from the long, lush bushes beyond our back porch. With dirt-encrusted ice cream buckets in hand, my siblings and I would trudge out into the sunshine and complain our way down the never-ending rows, sweating and moaning.  Mission accomplished, bushes bare, we would trudge back inside, plopping the bucket onto the scarred kitchen table only to be greeted with a smile, a cutting board, and the task of trimming heads and tails from the beans before dinner. After considerable protest, we would sigh, resigned to our fate, and begin the monotonous chopping process. I hated gardening, my nine-year-old self decided. I liked beans, but definitely not gardening.

If only I had known.  A decade later, my college roommate and I found ourselves craving homegrown, flavorful produce after a semester of cafeteria food. In a surge of optimistic domesticity, we soon had our own little assortment of plastic cups and earthenware pots lined scraggily along the windowsill in our dorm room: carrots, marigolds, thyme, basil, parsley, oregano, and violets. Some were successful, some less so. But we treasured our little garden, watering it daily with drips from our Nalgenes, rejoicing together over little green sprouts in the early spring gloom of papers and exams. In our garden we found a return to home, the satisfaction of growth and development, and a little outlet from the stress and cares of college life. We loved our garden. It didn’t matter that our carrots were underdeveloped and the oregano never grew. We were trying it. Soon our curious friends came in to examine our attempts, some eventually planting their own flowers and veggies. Our puny plants quickly blossomed into a community garden of sorts, an assortment of pots worth much more than the sum of its parts.

Gardening – both community and home-based – is growing just like those scrawny plants in our dorm room window. According to a recent survey by the National Gardening Association, approximately 36 million American homes – 31% of US households – had a food garden in 2008. In 2009 that number was expected to increase dramatically, up to 43 million households (37%). Reasons for that upswing varied, with the desires for better tasting, cheaper, higher quality, and safely grown food topping the list.  Though the vast majority of food gardens are still found at individuals’ homes, more than a third of those surveyed said they would be at least somewhat interested in community gardening. The idea of gardening in community, a group of people sharing a plot of land, has been around for years, especially in urban communities where green space is scarce. In recent times the trend has spread into more rural areas, including Northeast Iowa.

Gardening has already proven itself a valuable pastime. The monetary return over one growing season from the average American’s $70 garden investment equals about $530.  With recession-frugality reigning and a generational trend towards organic, eco-friendly, and homegrown products, gardening – especially community gardening – has become a popular way to share, produce, and save. Even the White House has caught the bug: Michelle Obama’s food garden has made international news and the USDA’s People’s Garden is inspiring embassies around the world. Gardening has gone mainstream, appearing on such popular shows as Martha Stewart, where Decorah’s own Seed Savers Exchange was featured in February 2009.

Though Seed Savers Exchange’s focus is seeds, not produce, the organization plays an important role in area agriculture and gardening. Its lavish gardens, nestled among the Heritage Farm’s acres of woods and trails, certainly catch the eye of local and visiting gardening enthusiasts. It was misting gently when I visited, and my jaw dropped at the veritable Eden of growing plants. Notebook in hand, I strode quietly alongside Shannon Carmody – an Illinois native now interning at the heritage farm – as she pointed out highlights of the organization’s many on-site gardens. Vegetables and herbs nestled among flowers and themed mini-gardens within a broader tapestry of flora all provide beautiful examples of edible landscaping, companion planting, and organic gardening at their finest. But the Seed Savers gardens serve a greater purpose than just beautifying Northeast Iowa. The number of needy recipients of the organization’s Herman’s Garden program – a seed donation program designed to help non-profit community gardens and educational programs around the country – jumped more than 30 percent in 2009. Seed Savers has seen huge growth in public interest in gardening over the past year and membership has also increased 47 percent.

“It’s trendy,” Shannon laughs.  “Especially with people in our younger generation, there’s a do-it-yourself trend.  Knitting, home brewing… even gardening.  It’s vogue; it’s hip now. It’s hip environmentalism.”  Of course, she adds, the increased interest in gardening isn’t solely due to the garden projects of celebrities like Martha Stewart and Michelle Obama. “It goes mainstream, and then it’s accessible. I hope people actually see that it’s important. It’s important to have your own food, to understand where it’s coming from.”

Seed Savers Editor John Torgrimson agrees. “I think the growth is due to a lot of different things,” he says. “You could say that the economic times are such that people are looking for ways to control costs, and gardening is something you can actually do. A lot of people do it for recreation. It’s a great pastime. And the benefits are obvious.”

John and his wife Pat enjoy a large garden at home, while Shannon maintains a plot in Decorah’s community garden, located in the floodplain by the Upper Iowa River.

That community garden, Shannon adds, has been a joy, and enables inexperienced gardeners to learn from others. “It’s hard to be the pioneer when you don’t know what you’re doing,” she explains. “But when you see your neighbor doing it, it becomes accessible.”

Rick Edwards, Decorah Parks and Recreation director, was instrumental in bringing the Decorah community garden to fruition in the spring of 2008. Though a massive flood wiped out the first year’s efforts, this summer there has been a resurgence of interest, with different families and individuals maintaining about 20 gardens. The 20-by-20-foot plots cost $25, with water and mulch provided. The soil is good, Rick adds, though the deer can be bad.  But that’s part of the gamble of gardening.

The beauty of the community garden aspect, he says, is in the collaboration and creativity. “Everybody gets together and talks, you know, about how stuff is growing, how the deer are eating it… some people are having pretty good success,” he explains.  “We have everything from very experienced gardeners to some gardeners that are giving it their first shot. But they’re all in one spot, so the novice gardeners can get advice, see how the experts do it, help each other out.”

The sense of community, however, isn’t the only thing that drew Edwards and residents of Decorah’s neighborhoods to gardening. For Rick, like many others, it comes back to knowing where his food comes from and what’s in it. “There’s something great about having a tomato and knowing you’re the only one who’s touched it,” he says.

Not surprisingly, that desire for healthy, local food is also part of what inspired Decorah’s Jenni Werners and Deborah Bishop to organize other volunteers and plant a garden specifically designated for the Decorah Area Food Pantry.

“Most people at the food pantry can’t afford to garden themselves, or housing is the issue, or even transportation to get down to the community garden,” Jenni explains.

Surrounded by fencing draped with clanking, deer-dissuading tin pie plates, the plot is full of a variety of well-tended vegetables, from the conventional potato to the mysterious rutabaga. Jenni and Deborah also know of many other groups that have collaborated on garden projects for donation to the community. Theirs is just a small patch in what they hope to see grow into a larger movement. Though the struggling economy has probably bolstered the growth in gardening, both women agree that the revitalized interest is a good thing.

“It’s got people excited,” says Jenni. “And it’s really a lot of fun,” Deborah adds.

Gardeners like Jenni and Deborah are an enthusiastic lot, and that enthusiasm seems contagious. Luther College has a large community garden for faculty and staff flourishing on Pole Line Road; Waukon boasts a community garden which was planted to improve access to locally grown food; the Northeast Iowa Food and Fitness initiative maintains a heavy emphasis on fresh, healthy, and local food; the Decorah Community School District has begun working to add garden-grown produce to its cafeteria options; and even college students like myself, stereotypically both busy and cheap, are forgetting their childhood disdain and digging in.

Perhaps the pendulum is swinging in a new direction. Gardening is chic again, and the generational trend of re-learning our grandparents’ habits is inspiring. Maybe next year my roommate and I will be able to find a patch of ground on campus where we can dirty our hands and grow a few herbs and veggies. If not, the windowsill will work fine. After all, the carrots are only part of the joy. Growing them together is the real fun.

Kelly Larsen is a student of international relations, journalism, and Spanish at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan.  Next year she dreams of growing a watermelon in her dorm room “garden.”