Prairie comes to life
Just over a month after the August derecho left grain bins and silos decimated all across Central and Eastern Iowa, one farm in rural Dysart is transforming one of their silos into a work of art.
Cathy Irvine lives on a small farm five and a half miles northeast of Dysart. She and her late husband David took over the family farm in the ’70s and have been living and farming here ever since.
Inspiration came last year from the Iowa Land & Sky program on Iowa PBS. The show featured a public mural that was created on the outside of an abandoned grain silo in Fort Dodge.
Irvine’s brother saw the program and, knowing Irvine had her own vacant silo on the farm in Dysart, immediately gave her a call.
“Cathy, I know what you can you do,” her brother said.
The 60-foot concrete structure once held corn and soybeans but has been out of use for some time in favor of more modern and efficient grain storage options.
Silos like this one punctuate the landscape in much of Iowa’s farming territory and stand as simple monuments to an earlier era.
In 2018 Irvine donated 77 acres of land to the Iowa Tallgrass Prairie Center at the University of Northern Iowa to rebuild as a natural prairie habitat.
Much like the re-proposing of the Irvine’s land from farm ground into prairie, Irvine set to re-proposing her silo from a storage utility to a colorful piece of art.
The effort got underway last year when Irvine had a contractor come out and lay down a coat of primer and a blue base coat on the south side of the silo that would serve as the sky now visible in the upper half of the mural.
Irvine was then introduced to Adam Eikamp in the summer of 2019. Eikamp is a professional artist and craftsman from Dubuque who grew up in Dysart and has family still living in the area.
Eikamp had experience in painting and working with murals and large form pieces; and Irvine jumped at the chance to connect her prairie mural project to an artist with ties to the Dysart community.
Although Eikamp has lived away from Dysart for several years he still maintains a connection with his hometown given that much of his family still lives and works in the area and even some of his artwork is located here. He’s commissioned a few works for local residents and around 2013 completed a painting for Zion Lutheran Church that is still on display at the church in Dysart.
Eikamp always enjoyed drawing as a young student and after graduating from Union High School pursued a degree at Iowa State University in Arts and Design.
As a professional, he travelled to Florida and got his first job working in the studio of artist Michelle Woolley who he credits as a major influence. After a stint working in St. Paul, Minn., Eikamp went out on his own and has been working for himself as a professional artist and craftsman since 2006.
He is one half of the Eikamp Arts business which he runs with his wife Dawn. The partnership allows Eikamp’s skills in painting, woodworking, and mural design to work with Dawn’s experience with interior design.
A Work of Progress
Initially Irvine and Eikamp hoped to complete the mural in early fall of last year, but weather and scheduling challenges pushed the project into 2020.
The process for Eikamp began with in depth research, before any sketching or painting took place.
Irvine’s goal was to create a mural that depicted the beauty of Iowa’s natural prairies.
“I told Adam that I wanted cumulus clouds, monarch butterflies, and native flowers,” Irvine said. “He took it from there and ran with the idea.”
Eikamp spent the last year researching Iowa’s native plants and animals, taking almost a scientific approach to planning out the painting.
Everything in the mural would have been in the natural prairie from years and years ago. For that reason you won’t find things like pheasants or other invasive species.
Irvine then took Eikamp’s list of native plants and animals and prioritized what she absolutely wanted to see included and what could be omitted if need be. He then used Google to find visual references of each subject to help determine how to form and color every flower, bird, or insect that would come together to make up the landscape.
Next, Eikamp sketched out the mural on paper and prepared to bring the concept into large-scale reality.
“The more you have planned out on paper beforehand, the better you are because you’re talking two pennies for a piece of paper versus making adjustments on a huge canvas like this silo,” Eikamp said.
The mural features popular prairie species including Black-eyed Susans, Pale purple cone flowers, Monarch butterflies, Asters, a Red-tailed hawk, Wild roses, the American goldfinch, among many others.
A Prairie Home
As the mural takes shape on the farm, the Irvine Prairie next door, on what used to be the Irvine’s land, is being reshaped and restored.
The Tallgrass Prairie Center is currently in the midst of a five-year planting process that, once complete, will reintroduce around 100 species of native prairie plants into the Irvine Prairie.
It will be a home for Iowa’s natural organisms but place where learning opportunities can be found.
As a retired teacher, Irvine is eager to speak about the educational component the prairie provides not only to the University of Northern Iowa but also to nearby grade schools.
“We all have the prairie in our soul, whether we know it or not,” Irvine said.
Last November Union High School science teacher Craig Hemesath brought one of his classes out to the prairie to help broadcast and plant a variety of seeds in a freshly turned prairie parcel. At the time Hemesath remarked on the lasting connection the students were able to gain during their short visit to the Irvine Prairie.
“Although a fall planting like this week’s work won’t instill this in them especially, they do gain the experiential understanding of how land can be transformed,” Hemesath said. “Having them take part in what could be the last human led planting on those two acres is a significance I hope they don’t forget.”
The newly constructed prairie mural will add an interactive element for visitors to the Irvine Prairie to enjoy.
“It has been a thrill to see Adam Eikamp’s amazing Prairie Mural emerge, overlooking Irvine Prairie across the road,” Tallgrass Prairie Center Director Laura Jackson said. “The image of sky, birds, flowers, and especially the monarch butterfly, can be seen on all the trails. I think this mural will help Irvine Prairie visitors to imagine the vastness and beauty of the original tallgrass prairie ecosystem. I hope it gives them a reason to return again and again, to enjoy the prairie in every season.”
Eikamp arrived to the Irvine farm last week Monday and over six consecutive days traveled up and down a rented boom lift bringing the Iowa prairie scene to life. Eikamp said he hasn’t painted for this many days straight in more than a decade and has not taken as many painting jobs this year as he’s been used to.
“One thing I’ve noticed this week is that since I haven’t done a lot of painting this year, I’ve been able to tackle this project with a lot of enthusiasm,” Eikamp said.
Eikamp enjoys the process the most and describes it as being in a constant state of critique. A lot of times when projects like this one near their end Eikamp says he often experiences lingering sadness as the journey between the start and finish of a piece can be the most invigorating aspect.
“As I’ve come out to watch Eikamp work this past week, the mural has given me endless joy,” Irvine said. “It’s been a total pleasure. I’ve gained a new appreciation of a talented artist. It is just amazing how he understands color and crafts his work.”
As the seasons change the mural, much like the prairie itself, can take on a variety of appearances depending on the direction people encounter it on the road and how the sunlight and landscape change throughout days and months.
Irvine encourages visitors to stop by and view the mural from the roadside or next door at the Irvine Prairie which features a walking trail. The painting covers one half of the silo and can best be seen at a distance where the perspective comes into play.
You can see rural Dysart’s newest art installation by heading north of Dysart on Highway 21/Y Avenue and turning right past the golf course driving east on 55th St. The address for the Irvine Prairie is 1173 55th St. and it is open year round, sun up to sun down while the gravel road is passable.
As the Irvine Prairie evolves, the 60-foot tall prairie mural will be there to greet visitors and provide colorful inspiration just as the land itself inspired Cathy and David.