As a social practice artist who encourages a community to learn together, share experiences, skills, traditions and stories in the name of art, Graceland University Assistant Professor of Art Karen Gergely will soon bring her enthusiasm to downtown Lamoni, Iowa. Not too long ago, Gergely approached Pat Hoffman, who coordinates Graceland's service learning activities, with the concept of painting a mural in Lamoni that would reflect the community using the talents of students from the university and Lamoni schools. From there, the idea began to come to life.
Mayor Doug Foster and City Hall administration offered positive encouragement to take the idea from a concept to a reality with a DEKKO grant to underwrite funds for expenses. “It only took a few moments listening to Karen’s idea of a mural to know it was a good one,” Foster said. “The next step is to determine the location to place it – and we are zeroing in on a site where it will be most visible, now.”
Gergely became familiar with what mural art could bring to a community while attending the University of Cincinnati, where she received her Masters in Fine Arts. “I have friends in Cincinnati who have done murals around the city,” she said. “It’s amazing how art can revitalize a community. It creates a vibrancy and brings a sense of pride to residents.”
Gergely is a native of West Virginia and, as a young person, spent a year in Debrecen, Hungary, as a Rotary exchange student and also studied art in Mali, West Africa. Before coming to Graceland University, Gergely was the Gallery Director of Phaze 2 Gallery at Shepherd University in Shepherdstown, West Virginia, and is one of three founding members of collabAttack, an artist collective that works to create art in partnership with small communities creating and facilitating a force for positive action. “I consider myself a practicing social artist, teacher and designer,” she said. “A social artist attempts to take her art out of the gallery and into the community – with community involvement.”
The next phase of the project will be to recruit volunteers from Graceland and the local public schools. Gergely expects volunteers will come from art majors, art classes, and from working with teachers in the Lamoni high school. “I want to work with young people because I think it will give them a chance to be invested in their town. Whether it’s where they are growing up or attending college,” Gergley said, “it helps the better understand where they live and its history. And they will be able to look back and see what they accomplished – like a legacy.”
Gergely and her volunteers will begin researching Lamoni and its history, emphasizing the Jefferson Highway, along which Lamoni is located, as they develop the project. The group will sketch their final idea and then project it on the chosen site. “We’re going to invite the entire community to come out and help us outline the mural,” Gergley said. “We want to make it a citywide event so that everyone is involved and a part of it.” Once the image has been sketched on the building, the student artist will complete it. “We won’t finish it all at one time – we want to develop it over the season so that people can go by and watch it progress,” she said. “We hope to complete the mural before the end of the school year.”
“We’re really excited about this new mural,” Foster said. “Just think about what it accomplishes: it’s a wonderful way for the Graceland and Lamoni communities to work together, and it will bring outdoor artwork that will make a positive statement for decades.
Written by Gary Rees originally for publication in the Lamoni Chronicle.