Iowa City author/illustrator connects with nature at home
Katie Mills Giorgio
Iowa City author/illustrator Claudia McGehee is well known for her nature-inspired scratch board art. Whether it’s in one of her several children’s books or on the coffee cups at Java House, her art work evokes the beauty of the natural world.
After a visit to her home in Iowa’s City Bluffwood neighborhood, it’s easy to see where she gets her inspiration.
From the fox door knocker on the front door, to the lovely garden space near the garage — where you might see a humming bird or a praying mantis or a monarch caterpillar — the creatures that make their way into McGehee’s art have also made their way into her yard and home.
McGehee and her family — husband Dan, teenage daughter Lucy and their two cats Bea and Fauve — have lived in “the house on the hill” for the past nine years, having purchased it from an elderly woman who had the home built for herself in 1994.
The home — which is perched square in the middle of a nearly one acre lot — is situated on a quiet dead end street. “I like it when we get snowed in,” she said. “With our sloping drive, sometimes the mail can’t even get to us. So we can feel cut off, but in a good way.”
A medley of farm house style and arts and craft style, the home is a cozy two story, bathed in natural light. “This is the biggest little house we know,” McGehee said, noting that the rooms although portioned off, have a natural connection to one another. “We’ve referred to it as a Jane Austen house. There are all these teeny rooms that flow into each other.”
One of McGehee’s favorite spaces in the home is the front living room that looks out over the sloping front yard. “It faces north and you get this very surreal light in there sometimes,” she said. “We’ve got a lot of windows and light is so important for artists, humans really. There’s a fireplace in the living room that we use spring through fall. And if I’ve got serious reading to do, I do it there. It’s surprising that if you don’t have a TV in a room how quiet it can remain.”
The kitchen is another hub of family activity with its large eat in space and an adjacent small screened in porch, which is a coveted summer nap spot, McGehee said.
“Dan loves to cook and we do entertain,” McGehee said. “And this is the 100 square feet,” she said, referring to the home’s family room. “All three of us plus the cats are most often all plugged in right here. This home is not palatial; there’s just enough room for everything.”
Upstairs are the home’s three bedrooms, all a reflection of their inhabitants’ personalities. “Your house is a reflection of your tastes and interests,” McGehee said. “It’s like your personal museum.”
To continue the theme of connecting with nature, the long master bedroom at the back of the house has a walk out door to a small balcony. “Lucy loves to sit and write in the small space between the couch in our room and the patio door,” said McGehee. “Kids always like those little nooks.”
Down in the home’s basement — or lower level as McGehee calls it — you’ll find McGehee’s wonderfully eclectic art studio. The space was unfinished when they bought the home and so she had a say in plotting the layout. Big bookshelves — now bursting at the seams — line one wall. There’s a computer station and then McGehee’s drawing board (spaces she thinks of as very separate) facing the yard and garden just beyond the windows.
“Even when I’m inside, I can look right out and see the things I am creating,” she said. “And it’s cool to be able to step out onto the patio and sketch right there. It helps make my pieces authentic. The house helps me in that way and I help the house become it’s own self.”
McGehee also operates an Etsy store to sell her artwork and so she recently created space in the basement to help her manage that element of her business. “It’s like a gallery, but also functional.” All said, her studio takes up about 600 square feet in the home.
“Even though this space is on it’s own in the house, it’s still a main thoroughfare for the family,” she said. “Lucy comes down here with her friends because I’ve taken over what would have been the teenage space. And it’s not pristine. My studio works around the house, not the house working around my studio.”
The property the home sits on was a major selling point for the family and remains one of the things they love most about their home.
“We try to bring in the outdoors as much as possible. And I do love that it’s an almost park like setting in the middle of the city,” she said, noting that she loves to garden. “That feeds my creativity. We have deer as neighbors, which is a blessing and a curse. But I do like to share my yard with them.” McGehee said they also get good bird traffic.
In the nine years the McGehee’s have lived in the home, she said the trees and yard itself have really matured. Inspired by one of her favorite children’s books, “The Little House,” McGehee’s also planted fruit trees in the front yard. “I wanted a little orchard,” she said. “I planted six trees and three have survived. I had a great plum crop this year.”
McGehee said their home was built for all seasons. “In the winter I can cross-country ski right out the patio door from my studio,” she said. “We aren’t far from Hickory Hill Park which I’ve made my own little inspiration place. I feel very lucky about that.”