CEDAR RAPIDS — When floodwaters swallowed the city in 2008, Sonya Darrow — a Czech-American artist splitting her time between her native Cedar Rapids and the Czech Republic — watched as the waves washed away precious Czech heritage.
After the water receded, Darrow stood outside a Czech Village garage with other volunteers as they picked through damaged artifacts. She was devastated to see so much destruction, but in the same moment saw an opportunity.
“It was a moment forever marked in my memory because I realized I needed to help preserve and cultivate Czech culture,” she said. “It made me realize I wanted to be a keeper of tradition.”
From there, Darrow developed the identity “319 Czech” with an idea to connect Czech culture in the community and explore her own “Czechness,” she said.
She began collecting stories from Czech community members and found objects symbolizing Czech heritage to be repurposed into folk art.
“I like to tell stories through things you might not think of,” Darrow said.
In December, Darrow received a $10,000 grant from the Iowa Arts Council — a division of the Iowa Department of Cultural Affairs — funded by the National Endowment for the Arts to begin working on “Stezky/Pathways,” a project in which she used her “319 Czech” identity to explore the “pathways across Iowa inspired by Czech settlements,” according to her website.
The project kicked off this spring and concludes with an exhibition at the National Czech & Slovak Museum and Library through July 13.
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“We’re a national museum and we feel very strongly that Iowa’s Czech history extends far beyond Cedar Rapids,” said museum Vice President Leah Wilson. “There are many stories in these smaller Iowa communities, and we want to do more to tell them,” she said, describing Darrow’s project as a “great way to connect rural communities with Czech heritage.”
For the past three months, Darrow has traveled across Iowa to engage with rural Czech settlement communities including Vining, Clutier and Protivin. She gave presentations about herself and her project in each community and collected audio recordings of people’s stories, soundscapes of the area and objects from people willing to donate or lend them to the exhibition.
Wilson said one of the project’s strengths was the way it “involved these communities in the production of art.”
“She’s not just taking an exhibit into a community. It’s really an active and participatory process,” Wilson said. “When she goes into a community and talks about herself and her artistic journey, it brings all kind of emotions, ideas and memories to the surface. What you end up with is a treasure trove of new information and stories that you didn’t have before.”
In conversations with community members, Darrow said she often heard people say it had been a long time since they’d talked about their heritage. They were excited to see someone trying to preserve it.
Wilson described Darrow as a “rare find” who uses her “own brand of magic” to join people, places and cultures.
“They definitely trust her,” she said. “They see her as this person with whom they can share everything about their culture — even the quirky things. I don’t know how else to describe it. It’s just hard to find somebody like her who can connect to people like that. ... She’s been telling me stories that bring tears to my eyes. Stories about people who we might describe as founders of our museum, people who are deeply connected to the culture.”
“They understand I’m wanting to keep culture alive,” Darrow said. “Culture doesn’t have to die with people or buildings being demolished.”
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