David Plowden, 'Bean Field & House, Grundy County, Iowa 2003'

Iowa is hardly renowned for dramatic landscape or architecture. One can drive for miles with no sign of life other than a road and a tilled field.

Bean Field & House, Grundy County, Iowa 2003 by photographer David Plowden dramatically depicts such a bare scene. Roughly 80 percent of the composition is sky, with sparse, fluffy clouds. At the bottom is a strip of dark land, with rows of crops running to the horizon. On the left side is a boxy house, which becomes an interesting subject when framed by the immense sky. The lines of beans bring the viewers' eyes upward, emphasizing the void. The tininess of the house in the picture makes the viewer feel diminutive.

Plowden's composition illustrates that the beauty of Midwestern scenery often lies in its grand simplicity, and how that alters the sense of scale. The stark flatness of the land, only occasionally punctuated by trees or farm buildings, shifts our field of vision; the sky begins to seems bigger, and everything on the ground becomes smaller.

David Plowden's Iowa (at the Figge Art Museum through August 26) masterfully captures the scale-warping effects of the landscape, and the photographer's 47 images of rural and small-town Iowa ably document the Midwestern agricultural aesthetic.

But he also manipulates and confuses viewers' perceptions - of size, distance, plainness, and even time - through artistic tools such as juxtaposition, viewing angle, and lack of context.

Stuart Morris, 'Lloyd's Trek.' Photo by Bruce Walters.

A large abstract sculpture, Lloyd's Trek, greets visitors to Schwiebert Riverfront Park in the District of Rock Island. Standing some 20 feet tall at the park's southwest corner, the sculpture seems to watch protectively over the many areas of activities: a fountain meant to be run through; a playground that combines digital game elements with contemporary slides, swings, and climbing structures; a checkerboard concrete beach; walkways; and a performance stage.

The artwork feels fresh and intuitive. Though the artist, Stuart Morris, said it is an abstraction of a walking figure, its playful balance and irregular shapes also suggest a precarious stack of blocks or a doorway to the park.

Works by Elizabeth Shriver and Diane Naylor

The phrase "the elephant in the room" is a metaphor for the obvious things we choose to ignore. In The Great White Elephant, Diane Naylor treats those words literally to explore our often contradictory, yet rarely acknowledged, relationship with the animal kingdom. Naylor's work presents our simultaneous tendency to idealize and dominate nature.

The painting is part of the current show - featuring 57 pieces by three local artists and running through April - at the Quad City Arts gallery inside the Quad City International Airport. Naylor's work is narrative and analytical, which creates a well-rounded exhibit when combined with the art of Elizabeth Shriver and Louise Rauh, who address nature with a focus on form rather than concept.

Irish memorial. Photo by Bruce Walters.

The Charles J. Wright Transit Center at 300 West River Drive in downtown Davenport has two very different works of art related to travel. One is a sculpture of an impoverished Irish family traveling by foot. It is traditionally figurative and meant to draw you in emotionally. The other - modern and emotionally cool - evokes a sense of speed on a highway.

Jessica Teckemeyer, 'Fawn or Foe'

Jessica Teckemeyer's Fawn or Foe is both a cuddly creature and a disturbing monster, with a lifelike aura that defies the porcelain from which it's formed. In this year's Rock Island Fine Arts Exhibition, the piece stands out as a strong marriage of technique and subtext.

Similarly, Kristin Quinn's Flyway offers a modern sensibility and expression that differentiate it from an exhibition full of technical skill yet often lacking stylistic flair, nuance, and ambiguity.

While those two works are exceptional, there's also a strong vein of realism in the show, and several artists conjure meaning through an abstract approach - but without quite reaching the resonant standard set by Teckemeyer and Quinn.

Featuring 51 pieces by 40 artists within a 150-mile radius of the Quad Cities, the 36th-annual exhibit is on display in Centennial Hall at Augustana College through April 22. Juror Joseph Mella, the director of the Vanderbilt University Fine Arts Gallery in Nashville, Tennessee, awarded prizes sponsored by the Rock Island Art Guild and Augustana College.

Leslie Bell in his office. Photo Corey Wieckhorst.

One minute, St. Ambrose art professor Leslie Bell is talking about his paintings - mostly allegorical scenes featuring women and girls. The next minute he's talking about his students - especially the female ones - without having shifted gears.

"On a really basic level, I'm trying to kindle a spark of quirky individuality in each person I paint," he said in an interview last week. "I don't want them to come across as generic. And ... through body language, environment, to a lesser extent facial expression - because my characters tend to be a little bit on the deadpan side - even fashion or dress ... I want to communicate a kind of self-made-ness."

He then says he doesn't want to be cheesy - the simplistic idea that girls can be carpenters or play chess: "I want it to be more what we deal with everyday in the studio, which is following what you're interested in, sort out the 'should' voice in you ... , acknowledge that there is peer pressure and that there are societal pressures and that there are laws, but then make as much use of the freedoms that you have to cultivate your interests, develop your interests, don't be ashamed to be an intellectual, fight me as a professor ... ."

One can see that shift happening even more quickly here, in a single sentence: "I want my work to be really affirmative of women's and girls' abilities to create themselves, to stick to their own ideals, to find ways of proving to whoever might be skeptical of what it is to be a woman artist or just a woman that there are as many paths to maturity as there are people attempting to mature."

This conflation is illuminating, as Bell's artistic interest in female experience and identity seems inseparable from his teaching responsibility to help young artists develop their own voices. He notes that well over half of the students in the St. Ambrose art department are women, and it's easy to infer that his painting is akin to homework, a way to develop empathy and connections with his female students. They're also a way of leading by example, of showing through art a path to authenticity.

'Freedom.' Photo by Bruce Walters.

Karoly Veress' sculpture Freedom is paradoxical: Its wing-like forms are ascending and graceful from some vantage points, yet they look like ax blades from others. Delving into the lives of the artist and the humanitarian who inspired this work, though, we can begin to understand that these elements aren't as contradictory as they first seem.

Dedicated in 2000, Freedom is located on the Augustana College campus, near the Denkmann Memorial Building at 3520 Seventh Avenue in Rock Island. Cast in bronze from a plaster model, it rises from a cylindrical concrete base to an overall height of about 10 feet.

The dynamic upper portion of the sculpture unfurls boldly into two fluid forms - giving the work its sense of motion. Veress explained: "In this design I symbolize freedom in wings, partly protecting, and sheltering, but foremost enabling us to rise above the daily confusions. These wings sometimes lift us up out of the monstrous historic context into a state where all that remains is just one commitment: to human values, to the dignity of all human beings."

Veress' words stem, in part, from his own experiences. The artist was a student at the University of Budapest while the city was still in postwar ruins and under Soviet occupation. When the 1956 Hungarian Revolution failed, he fled to safety in the Netherlands, where he would discover his love for sculpting.

Our winter photo contest - the first such reader competition we've held since 2008 - brought 80 submissions over three categories: attraction, resistance, and ambivalence. Thanks to all who entered!

In these pages are the top five finishers in each category as judged by the River Cities' Reader staff. We considered both the technical merits of the photograph as well as how well it fit or played off the category in which it was entered. Accompanying each photo is a short statement from the photographer. Click on the photo for a larger version.

While we restricted photographers to three entries, some entrants placed more than one photo among these top 15.

Ambivalence, First Place, Aric Keil


"This was taken along a fence line outside of Lost Nation, Iowa, in 2011. All of the goats (except one) seemed timid yet curious when I stopped to take the photo. They did not approach me or run away from me; they just stared ambivalently."

Photo by Bruce Walters.

In the Heritage Court on the Palmer College of Chiropractic campus (at 1000 Brady Street in Davenport) are four large bronze busts. Sculptures of D.D. Palmer, his son B.J. Palmer, and his grandson David Palmer are placed symmetrically on a curved brick and stone wall with the incised words "The Foundation of Chiropractic." These men collectively presided over the Palmer College of Chiropractic for its first 81 years, beginning with its founding in 1897.

Slightly to the north is a bust of Mabel Heath Palmer, who is recognized as the "First Lady of Chiropractic" and was B.J.'s wife and David's mother.

Created by three different artists over a period of nearly 70 years, the sculptures are stylistically distinct. They are unified, however, by their consistency in height. Each bust is approximately five feet tall. Positioned on the two walls, they each reach a total height of about 12 feet. They also work together because of the consistent use of materials and conformity to a sculptural form from antiquity - the bust. During the Roman Empire, important families celebrated their achievements and honored their deceased relatives by displaying these sculpted portraits prominently and publicly.

Photo by Bruce Walters

Photo by Bruce WaltersThe entrance to the First National Bank Building (now U.S. Bank) at 201 West Second Street in Davenport tells the story of commerce and banking through classical images and symbols. The ancient Greek and Roman references and high artistic level of the entrance tell us, in effect, that banking is an important institution - one of the cornerstones of Western civilization and a pillar of the community.

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