Category Archives: THE ARTS

Grant Wood Studio, Cedar Rapids Art Museum, Newbo//Cedar Rapids; Bargain burgers at Shine and backroads drive home from Iowa City

We drove right past the Grant Wood Studio in downtown Cedar Rapids. Who knew it was tucked above a carriage house behind a former funeral home? But very glad we found it because it was really interesting. We watched a short  film about Woods’ life in and around Cedar Rapids and then walked up an outdoor staircase to a small second-floor loft above the carriage house where Grant lived with his mother (and sometimes his sister) and painted some of his most famous paintings, reproductions of which were propped up on an easel in the middle of the main room, a white-walled room with heavy wood beams and lots of natural light flooding in from big windows and a cupola.

We walked a few blocks to the Cedar Rapids Art Museum where we saw some of the paintings Wood painted in the loft – which was pretty cool. We also sawother interesting work including paintings by Wood’s friend/lesser-known artist Marvin Cone and an interesting exhibit of World War I themed paintings done by a 21st century painter.

Cedar Rapids’ indoor public market, Newbo seems to still be doing well (at least it was full of tenants and shoppers/eaters, and it proved to be a good place to pick up a quick bite t before we hit the museum/studio tour).

Dirck was craving a burger so we stopped in Iowa City at Shine’s at about 4 p.m. and found out there’s a Sunday special – until 5 p.m. We each had burgers and fries for $12.73 total. Cheapest dinner we’ve had in a very long time. Maybe ever. The weather was so pretty that we decided to take backroads home, following F52 and a few other remote roller-coaster roads south of Interstate 80. They often struck us as “RAGBRAI roads.” We sometimes lost our way but found cool things including an unusually grant Romanesque church (St. Michael’s Catholic)  in the small unincorporated town of Holbrook, circa 1867 (according to the National Historic Register plaque nearby.) Several old gravestones dated back to the 1880’s and most are  Irish settlers. More details here.

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Figge Museum, Hotel Blackhawk, Fred at Up, Faithful Pilot – Davenport/LeClaire

15CEA6D8-3D11-4E3A-9766-C4DE0606B41EFinally made it to the Figge Museum, thanks to the Des Moines Art Center’s Docent program. I enjoyed the French Moderns show, a traveling exhibit from the Brooklyn Museum, but also enjoyed the fabulous outsider art of William Hawkins, an exhibit of John Bloom (liked his rural scenes much more than the work of his known wife Isobel.) The Figge building, the first new major U.S. commission for English architect David  Chipperfield (whose latest commission is an addition to the Met in NYC) is stunning. It’s clad in white  see-through glass with huge windows looking out to the Mississippi and high white ceilings inside.

3E64C07B-6271-4860-BBCF-03065F476E1F.jpegWe stayed at the renovated historic Hotel Blackhawk which was organized by the tour, otherwise I would stick with a much less expensive Airbnb, although the hotel had some charming features including an old-fashioned   atrium lobby and a funky bowling alley /bar in the basement. I’m also curious about the artsy Current Hotel, which has a fantastic rooftop bar called Up, with an outdoor patio with stupendous views of the river and lock and dam. We bumped into the Democratic Gubernatorial candidate Fred Hubbell who was preparing for a debate today. We wished him well!

4F3675E7-EA61-435F-9E75-58B0DF593684.jpegDinner was very good at The Faithful Pilot, about  a half  hour drive north in LeClaire. Three others joined us and we were all happy with our meals and each other. We all had small plates. Dirck and I had excellent pork belly with potatoes plus mussels in a light tomato sauce. Glad we booked ahead. Small place and busy. It has a cool view of the old riverboat beached behind a glass wall in the local history museum and a  cozy atmosphere, with an occasional train rumbling past, near the riverbank.

We had a mediocre lunch at Lagomarcino’s Confectionery in East Davenport.  Better to stick with their specialties – -candy and ice cream. We did have a good chocolate milk shake. Also went to a nonprofit art gallery in rock island. Other Davenport restaurants to try: Me and Billy Cafe, Front Street Brewery and Duck City bistro.

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Volstead’s speakeasy, Sculpture garden, LynnLake Brewery – Minneapolis

90329B12-EBEC-4EC7-9743-77F9ACCD89CFBusy weekend visiting Noah in the Twin Cities. This trip we spent more time than we have in ages in St. Paul because Noah has moved there from Minneapolis. But we still made it back to our old stomping ground in Uptown, in part because we stayed again at a great Airbnb in south Minneapolis, in a 1917 stucco house a block from the bike trail along Minehaha parkway.

CC52C40B-D86A-405A-A32F-7519E188F07A.jpegWe checked out the revamped Sculpture Garden next to the Walker which looks a little shaggier and less manicured, thanks to the prairie plantings. I’m still a fan although I did notice that the spoon of the Oldenburg Spoonbridge and Cherry has a yellow water stain. I particularly liked the giant blue rooster sculpture. Noah did note, accurately, that several sculpture parks around the country seem to have work by the same sculptors and sometimes almost the same work. The McDonaldization of sculpture parks?

15BB400B-5BEC-4AF0-86AD-01FF6177B954.jpegIt took two tries (I botched the first one by failing to have my ID, believe it or not) we finally were admitted into Volstead’s Emporium, my first visit to a retro speakeasy, which I gather is a thing. To enter, we walked down a nondescript alley and stood in a short line in front of an unmarked industrial looking metal door where a guy occasionally looked out at us through a peep window he slid open and closed. After a suitable wait to make sure we felt we were entering some exclusive club (shades of Studio 54) he let various parties trickle in after others trickled out.

The atmosphere was very atmospheric – cozy little quasi-private booths, dim lighting, low ceiling, lots of old wood, vintage brass light fixtures and art nouveau wallpaper. We sat at a high top table by the bar and had pricey cocktails and shared some good desserts (key lime pie, a chocolate brownie with banana chip ice cream.) There were clever touches, like gilt-framed mirrors in the booths that opened, with an arm extending to serve people their drinks and food. This being Minnesota most people were wearing denim, plaid and/or flannel (including us) and the wait staff were friendly rather than haughty. We also noticed a few empty tables as we left, even though a few people were kept waiting out in the cold.

The previous night, when this 59-year-old did not have an ID to prove she is over 21 (why thank you)  we ended up at a much louder bar nearby, the LynLake Brewery.

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Road trip to Waterville – Colby college art museum, Lebanese cuisine, Johns ice cream, lost kitchen, driveby, wander around Camden town (not the London one) Long grain/Camden

I am glad it rained this morning because it led us to drive backroads through the wood about an hour west to Waterville where we thoroughly enjoyed the Colby College Art Museum, Maine’s largest art museum with a really nice collection of American art from flat folk art portraits to abstract Jackson Pollack, plus rooms full of giant portraits by Alex Katz (who lives in nearby Lincolnville, I happened to read last week in a New Yorker profile.)

It was fun to ride on narrow winding roads thru the wood past the occasional shingled farmhouse, organic farm stand, brightly painted hippie VW van, charming general store and world famous restaurant (The virtually hidden Lost Kitchen in the out-of-the-way village of Freedom, Me.)

Camden harbor

We also made sure to stop 15 miles south in the little town of Liberty, Me.  at John’s Ice cream, which was as good as we’d heard. Nearby, the fog and mist from the rain was rising above Lake George and the surrounding hills, making the place look like a Hudson River School painting or one like we saw at the Colby museum…

We ate a light lunch earlier at a tiny Lebanese place in downtown Waterville, a town with that quixotic feel of a faded factory town with a fancy private college. Back in Camden, we finally walked around the town which has lots of interesting shops and boutiques in well-tended old buildings. The harbor is full of boats, from small pleasure boats to tall schooners. We learned that our Airbnb hosts used to make their living taking tourists out into Penobscot Bay on their 50 foot sailboat (which they also sailed to the Caribbean). I am so glad we came to Camden in particular and mid coast Maine in general.

Dinner was at a superb Thai place in Camden called Long Grain. Imagine your typical Thai dishes, then think of  those dishes made with the best ingredients possible – the best meat, vegetables, homemade noodles, rice: that was what this place managed to do.

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Shakey Graves @Brenton/Black Cat Ice Cream/Harbinger – DSM

1shake.jpgWe got very lucky with the weather Sunday night — it’s been raining off and on (mostly on, it seems) all weekend but the sky cleared for an outdoor concert by Shakey Graves, an Austin singer/guitarist, at the Brenton Skating Rink in downtown Des Moines. The rink — with stage and standing-room only area — is covered by a tarp but for those of us who needed seats, we had to sit outside the rink in the plein air, which had me nervous at first since I cannot get the cast on my arm wet. (I also couldn’t join the standing crowd, for fear of being jostled, with said cast.)


Anyway, we got lucky (and lucky is not what I have been feeling lately): the weather was perfect. Not rainy, muggy or buggy. We could see surprisingly well from our seats near the stage (if we stood) and the band put on a great show, more psychedelic Pink Floyd-esque than expected but still some good ole knee-stomping guitar playing, which is what first drew me to Shakey. The opening band, Twin Peaks – some very young energetic guys from Chicago – was good too.

During another break in the rain, we finally tried some Black Cat ice cream, served out of a window on the side of the Gaslamp bar downtown, across from the sculpture park. not sure its better than Bauders but darned good. especially liked the very fresh tasting peacch sorbet. mint chocolate chip creamy and good too (although Coneflower in Omaha was more garden mint fresh).

1shake3.jpgMeant to mention a recent visit to Harbinger, the James Beard Foundation-acknowledged  restaurant on ingersoll in Des Moines. We went during restaurant week and enjoyed various small plates – the ribs and zucchini/squash flowers stuffed with cheese were my favorites.

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Garden of Eden/Grassroots art – Lucas, Kansas

Here’s a story I wrote about the Grassroots art Capital of Kansas for the Minneapolis Star Tribune.

Midwest Traveler: Kansas boasts quirky ‘grass-roots art’ capital

Small-town Lucas attracts artists from way, way off the beaten path.

“Thanks for being interested,” he said. “I’ve got to go to work now.” Off he drove, onto the empty blacktop and into open ranch land.

It was a fitting start to my latest exploration in and around the town of Lucas, pop. about 400, the state’s capital of “grass-roots art.” Also known as “outsider art,” this is the creative outpouring of self-taught artists located far from the mainstream art world (geographically, commercially, aesthetically), using unconventional materials and techniques.

They are often retired farmers, mechanics, newspaper editors, funeral home directors (you name it) making stuff with whatever’s around — car bumpers, light bulbs, barbed wire, gum, horseshoes, tree trunks (you name it). Prolific (some might say compulsive), they might not call themselves artists or even seek viewers for their work, which is typically found on their property.

In Lucas, it all started with Samuel Perry “S.P.” Dinsmoor, an eccentric Civil War veteran, farmer and teacher who in the early 1900s, at age 64, began building a fantastical sculpture garden in the backyard of his cabin home, located on an otherwise ordinary small-town residential block — which is part of its charm and shock value. The sculpture garden took 22 years, 113 tons of cement and many tons of native rust-stained golden limestone.

Now known as the Garden of Eden, and listed on the National Register of Historic Places, it includes the unique cabin — also made by Dinsmoor, out of limestone “logs” — and the garden, with sculptures representing biblical figures (most notably Adam and Eve) and populist themes (most memorably, labor being crucified by the lawyer, doctor, preacher and banker).

A macabre highlight is the 40-foot ziggurat-shaped mausoleum that Dinsmoor built, also with limestone. Inside, as Dinsmoor wished, visitors on a tour can see what remains of his face — he died in 1932 at age 89 — through a glass-lidded coffin. Nearby, unseen, is his first wife. At age 81, Dinsmoor married his second wife — his 20-year-old housekeeper. They had two children.

Since Dinsmoor’s day, locals and transplants — including grass-roots artists and aficionados — have helped cement Lucas’ claim to fame. It now attracts more than 10,000 visitors a year. I’ve visited several times since the late 1980s and each time, I’ve found more to see in an area that still feels refreshingly off-the-beaten-path, making it a perfect outsider art outpost.

Post Rock Country

Returning this spring with my Kansas-born husband, eight years after our last visit, we found more art dotting the highways, near where the art was made, offering fresh views and insights.

In addition to Jim Dickerman’s metal and bones work found along Hwy. 14 (mile markers 181 and 182), California artist and retired dentist Fred Whitman’s facial portraits of local residents are carved into limestone posts along Hwy. 232 (mile markers 12 and 13, east side; 14 and 15, west side; and 16 and 17, east side).

In Lucas, along the sleepy, two-block downtown bordered by a water tower and a grain elevator, we found a spectacular public bathroom/art installation. Opened in 2012, “Bowl Plaza” is shaped like a giant toilet tank with a raised lid and adorned with mosaics made with repurposed bottles, license plates, pottery and more. (Don’t miss the toy cars in the men’s room.)

Joining several others on a guided tour of the Grassroots Art Center, opened in 1995, we marveled at painstaking work of Kansans, including Herman Divers’ full-size car made from vintage soda can pulltabs and John Woods’ elaborate collages made from toys, keys and even handguns found in the muck of a drained lake.

In the outdoor courtyard, an exhibit opened in 2002 showcases the region’s “post rock” limestone masonry. Lucas is Post Rock Country, where stone masons during the turn of the 20th century made fence posts — and many buildings — out of the limestone because the treeless prairie ruled out wooden posts.

As for the Garden of Eden, it looks better than ever, thanks to a major 2012 restoration of the garden and cabin supported by the Wisconsin-based Kohler Foundation. Sculptures once darkened by age are now cement-colored, with dabs of pink that even some tour guides didn’t know were there.

Getting there

From the Twin Cities, Lucas, Kan., is 672 miles southwest, via Interstates 35 and 70 to Exit 206 and Kansas Hwy. 232.

Other attractions

Florence Deeble Rock Garden/The Garden of Isis: The rock garden is the handiwork of a Lucas teacher, inspired by S.P. Dinsmoor to create her own backyard masterwork in the 1930s, using colored concrete to fashion “postcard scenes” from her travels. In 2002, Lucas artist Mri-Pilar transformed the 1906 Deeble House into a recycled art installation, lining the walls with foil, salvaged dolls and toy slinkys.

Roy and Clara Miller’s Park: Relocated beside the Garden of Eden, this mid-1900s creation is a miniature town built with rocks, minerals and shells by a local couple in their yard.

World’s Largest Collection of the World’s Smallest Versions of the World’s Largest Things: Artist Erika Nelson’s tiny versions of giant things — including Minnesota’s big lutefisk and ball of twine — are on view, by appointment, at 214 S. Main St. Text ahead of arrival (1-785-760-0826; worldslargest­things.com).

Post Rock Scenic Byway: This 18-mile stretch of Kansas Hwy. 232 connects the towns of Lucas and Wilson, running past Wilson Lake and Wilson State Park, with hiking and mountain bike trails, swimming beaches, boating and camping. Also drive Hwy. 18 east from Lucas to Lincoln and Hwy. 14 south from Lincoln to I-70. Take time to admire the imposing limestone buildings in windswept Lincoln and Wilson.

Where to eat and sleep

Brant’s Market on Main Street in Lucas has made bologna and sausages since 1922.

Garden View Lodge (1-785-658-6607; airbnb.com), across from the Garden of Eden, is run by a Garden tour guide and Dinsmoor descendant.

Midland Railroad Hotel (1-785-658-2284; midlandrailroadhotel.com) in Wilson was a film set for the 1973 movie “Paper Moon.” Open for dinner, the 1899 hotel’s Sample Room Tavern serves regional fare including chicken-fried steak.

More information

Garden of Eden: 1-785-525-6395; garden-of-eden-lucas-kansas.com.

Grassroots Art Center1-785-525-6118; grassrootsart.net.

Betsy Rubiner, a Des Moines-based travel writer, writes the travel blog TakeBetsyWithYou.

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Saarinen House/Cranbrook academy of art – Bloomfield hills 

We got lucky and at the last minute were able to join a previously sold out walking tour of the Art Deco Saarinen house at cranbrook. The 70-minute tour was a great introduction to the entire cranbrook campus but then we got to enter the house that eliel Saarinen designed and lived in with his family in 1930. When I was a high school student at Kingswood/Cranbrook, the House was still the residence of the art academy president (the father of a school friend) but in the 1990s it underwent a major renovation and was opened for tours. There were only 12 of us and an excellent guide. It was my second tour but I still loved it, especially after seeing Saarinen’s train station in Helsinki. (I must return so I can visit Saarinen ‘s summer Home outside Helsinki.)

In the art museum, I found a catalogue of a retrospective of work by ceramicist John Glick, whose work my parents sold at their gallery. Sadly we missed the show which was in 2017 shortly before he died. I was particularly thrilled to find a page about the dinnerware that we recently inherited from my dad and now treasure.

in Bloomfield Hills, must remember to visit Smith House, a flwright House now owned by Cranbrook and open occasionally for tours.

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