New ISU professor helps Iowa towns build community, identity and economy through art

Jennifer Drinkwater

Jennifer Drinkwater's expansive definition of art will serve Iowa well. Downloadable photo by Christopher Gannon.

AMES, Iowa -- From colorful quilts in Main Street shops to gilded oil paintings in big city museums, Jennifer Drinkwater sees it all as art. There are no hierarchies, she says, because all art is a creative expression of culture. And as Drinkwater assumes a newly created position at Iowa State University, her expansive definition of art is serving the people of Iowa well.

This summer, Drinkwater was named assistant professor of art and visual culture and community art extension specialist. The outreach-oriented position was created under the ISU president's high-impact hire initiative and is one of only a handful nationwide. It places Drinkwater on a mission to help Iowa communities apply art in ways that "improve the fabric" of their towns.

Already she is coordinating art camps for small-town teens, nudging community arts projects off starting blocks, spearheading knit-bombing in Ames, establishing a local artist residency at Design West in Sioux City and assisting ISU Extension and Outreach with a Latino migration cultural project in Perry.

"Art and the act of making can be powerful tools in building a community's brand identity and local economy," Drinkwater said.

"But art can't thrive and be a potential problem solver if people aren't comfortable talking about it, or if they think it's something that people 'up there' do," she said. "Art should be accessible. It's about objects being made."

Making connections

Drinkwater has taught painting and illustration in ISU's College of Design for the past eight years, and was appointed director of the university's Design on Main Gallery in Ames in 2014. She will continue to teach one or two visual design courses each semester and direct Design on Main, where she mentors undergraduate interns on the ins and outs of running a local gallery.

Despite Drinkwater's lingering Southern drawl (born and bred in Mississippi), she has become a fan of her adopted state (even completing RAGBRAI this year). Drinkwater studied studio art, art history and anthropology at Tulane, graduating summa cum laude. After teaching environmental education and leading trail crews on the Appalachian Trail in western Massachusetts, she earned her Master of Fine Arts in painting at East Carolina University.

"At Tulane, I always compartmentalized art and anthropology. Anthro was the study of culture and art was a really fun thing I got to do in the studio," Drinkwater said. "I loved making, but it always felt so self indulgent. With all the problems in the world, it didn't seem right to go into art. It didn't seem helpful at all."

An art history professor at East Carolina "literally changed my life by exposing me to artists whose practice was dealing with the nitty gritty of how art can help," she said. "Rather than just being objects of beauty, art basically exposes our value system as a culture."

Her personal art became political and interactive — getting people to touch her paintings. Eventually, her work grew more community focused.

"How can I enable people to build community in the act of making? How does someone who is not the artist interact with the object? How can we help someone who doesn't consider him or herself to be an artist to make art? How does art make you act in your larger community?

"The easy answer is that if you have art in a community, you'll have people who want to live there. Galleries, theater and music venues attract young people to a town because there's stuff to do," she said. "Art provides a foray into creative living and gives people a more freeing environment which opens up opportunities and conversations. The act of collaboration is an art in itself."

The perfect example

When it comes to applying art to community building, branding and economic vitality, the town of Perry is Drinkwater's model.

"Two amazing women who are art enthusiasts and makers started an arts festival in Perry a few years ago," she said. She's referring to Jenny Eklund and Mary Rose Nichols.

"After the first Art on the Prairie drew a couple of thousand people, city administrators took notice. They started to invest in art in various ways because they saw the festival as an economic pull," Drinkwater said.

Since the first festival (now an annual event), the community has invested in public art downtown, including a gateway sculpture by Albert Paley and a streetscape sculpture by Ogden artists Pam Dennis and Ryk Weiss. The old post office building has been brought back to life as La Poste,  a gathering place for art, music and community, featuring Handlebar Happy Hour, which attracts 80 to 90 people Thursday nights. Drinkwater and ISU design students led a class there on steamroll printmaking last spring, and a one-day Poste Print Festival will be held there in October. An additional Perry project on the horizon will add art to the popular bike trails in the area.

"This little railroad town has reinvigorated itself into an art and bicycling community. It's amazing," Drinkwater said.

Drinkwater is working with Jon Wolseth, a community extension specialist based in Perry, to help build cultural projects around a PBS video series about Latino migration into the United States. They're working with the community to develop a mural on the Carnegie Library that will illustrate migration into Perry.

More ideas than time

Drinkwater is bursting with enthusiasm and ideas for ways art can add value to Iowa towns.

"One of the goals I have for the next year is to design a community arts toolkit that can be turned into a workshop or taken into a community. It would help them assess what they have in their culture. Each town is different. I want to get people to look at where they live in a different way and identify assets rather than just challenges," Drinkwater said.

And eventually, she would like to start an artist-in-residence program for ISU students. She envisions placing students in storefronts in small towns for a summer. They would be armed with the skills to listen and engage the public in building community through art.

"There is a place for teas at museums, but I'm more interested in engaging people who don't think of themselves as artists, makers or creators," she said. "There are tons of possibilities, probably because I'm thinking so broadly."