Iowa Alumni Magazine | June 2008 | Features

Work of Art

By Leah Klevar

All it takes is a glimpse of morning light, or of Koi fish flashing in water. It might even be as simple as hands stroking an old quilt, or the curving lines of a guitar. This is what inspires art. And thanks to one of Pablo Picasso's many such moments of inspiration, students and faculty in the School of Art and Art History at the University of Iowa get to go to work every day in a work of art.

against a river bluff, keeping company with whispering trees and a quiet pond, is Art Building West, an internationally lauded UI art facility that grew from a guitar. Steven Holl, the world-renowned architect and artist commissioned to design Art Building West, found his inspiration in the planes and open spaces of Picasso's Guitar, a sculpture of sheet metal and wire that, according to the Museum of Modern Art in New York, opened up the central core of sculpture, allowing us to see into and through it.

Paying homage to this spirit of transparency is Holl's "horizontal porosity," a design aesthetic that saturates Art Building West with varying shades of light throughout the day. "Natural light permeates from one end to the other," says Dorothy Johnson, Roy J. Carver professor and director of the School of Art and Art History, which is a unit of the UI College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. "Holl basically used light as the metaphor for the whole building—and the artistic process itself."

The light filtering through the windows of the third-floor painting studio in Art Building West illuminates Megan Fuhrman, an undergraduate painting and photography major from Estherville, as she sets up her easel. The room is open and airy, with lockers for storing paints and palette knives. It is plenty big enough to contain students' oversized canvases—and ideas.

"I find no other happiness like the one that comes when I make art," says Fuhrman, who recently collaborated with a UI graduate student, as part of a class project, to create a painting on a large crazy-quilt canvas made from pieces of fabric. "There's just a passion that comes out in me when I paint."

When Johnson raised the idea of a new space for the UI arts, she intended it to serve as a home for artistic passion like Fuhrman's. "It was extremely important for such a prominent art school—we're ranked in the top seven among the nation's public universities—to have a signature building that would be an inspirational work of art, in and of itself," says Johnson.

Steven Holl

Steven Holl is an internationally respected scholar and architect who teaches at Columbia University. He has written extensively on the theory of architecture, and his designs blend art, architecture, and philosophy.

In July 2001, Time magazine named him "America's Best" architect, for "buildings that satisfy the spirit as well as the eye," and the Smithsonian Institution honored him with the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Award in Architecture in 2002.

His buildings include the Kiasma Museum of Contemporary Art in Helsinki, Finland, the Chapel of St. Ignatius in Seattle, and the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City.


Thanks to her vision; support from university leaders and the Board of Regents, State of Iowa; and gifts from generous alumni and friends—made through the University of Iowa Foundation—Art Building West opened in September 2006. It is the avant-garde sibling to the school's original 1935 brick building, which sits on the banks of the Iowa River and soon will undergo a renovation.

"When I became director in 1995, we were suffering from the 1993 flood," Johnson says. "We'd had six feet of water in our classrooms, and it brought to the forefront our need for adequate facilities. We had no room."

This is no longer a problem. Art Building West—with its high-tech classrooms, stunning art library, media theater, impressive exhibition spaces, bright offices, and interactive studio spaces—is a 69,000-square-foot pièce de résistance. Its award-winning features have appeared in numerous international publications and top architecture magazines. However, as Pulitzer Prize-winning critic Blair Kamin noted, in the January 2007 issue of Architectural Record, "Holl hasn't just made a knock-your-eyes-out building . . . he's made a real place, one that painters carting around their canvases actually seem to like."

It's not only canvas-toting painters who thrive here. Kara Fellows, 88BA, a full-time freelance illustrator from Iowa City who is pursuing her M.F.A. degree in design, finds her muse in the building as well: "As an artist, you need to make your studio the best room in the house, and in this building, every space is that room. Everything—the light, the lines, the view—is inspiring, but for me, the integration of the building and the pond with the Koi fish is really magical."

Art Building West is a magical gift—in a postmodern package—not only for students and faculty, but also for the broader community. Connoisseurs of art and architecture come from far and wide to admire the oxidizing steel façade, ascend the Escher-like staircase, and traverse the library's cantilevered hall. "People from all over the world visit us," says Johnson. "We're a stop on the itinerary for tours of the greatest buildings."

The UI's Art Building West

Eric Dean agrees. He is both chief curator for the school's Office of Visual Materials and a contributor to the building (he and his partner donated a collection of bright-orange Eames chairs for a seminar room). "Being in the new building is like working inside of a sculpture," he says. "Artists must learn how to see, and I can't imagine a more visually stimulating and sophisticated environment for students to do that."

Back in the painting studio, Fuhrman studies her canvas. She sees exactly what to do, as she picks up her brush and begins. With bold strokes of magenta and cadmium lemon, Fuhrman encircles a brown-skinned figure, arms lifted, with colorful shapes resembling feathers. The room is quiet as she paints beneath the skylights, bringing to life a work of art within a work of art.

Our "Support" section examines ways that UI students, faculty, and staff are transforming the university, our communities, and our world thanks to private gifts from alumni and friends through the UI Foundation.