University of Iowa filmmakers traveled from Los Angeles to Venice, Italy, to document the journey of Jackson Pollock’s landmark “Mural.” The massive 8-by-20 foot painting, commissioned by Peggy Guggenheim in 1943 and donated to the university, arrived in Iowa City in 1951. In a dramatic race to beat rising floodwaters in 2008, the painting was taken from the campus to the Figge Museum in Davenport, and has been on the move ever since.
Work on the hourlong, $30,000 film began in earnest in May 2014 and was finished in June 2015. It also has been on the move, with showings around the state, on 23 public television stations across the region, and at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City, where “Mural” was on display until October.
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“Jackson Pollock’s Mural: The Story of a Modern Masterpiece” has moved to the head of its class, winning an Emmy Award in the Documentary-Cultural field from the Mid-America Chapter of the National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences.
Just being among the nominees was celebration enough for filmmaker Kevin Kelley of Iowa City.
“We had a lot of submissions in our category,” he said, and in mid-July, the UI team found out the project made the final five cut.
Next came an invitation to the black-tie awards gala, held Sept. 9 in St. Louis.
Joining director Kelley were project videographer Kirk Murray and effects specialist Dana Telsrow, all from the UI Office of Strategic Communication; friend Gary Shea, and their wives. All donned their formal attire for the red-carpet festivities, with no inkling they would take home the gold.
“It really was exciting,” said Kelley, who also was part of a UI team that won a 1999 Emmy for a 30-minute television program on spirituality.
“It’s a great honor that doesn’t happen every day,” he said. “It’s one thing to have the quality, it’s another to qualify.” (The Mid-America Chapter’s website contains six pages of eligibility guidelines and rules.)
Winning brings home more than a statuette.
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“It gets people interested in the film again,” Kelley said. “And it gets people interested in the University of Iowa, as far as their art museum, because we don’t have an art museum because of the flood.
“One of the things that I was really passionate about, was to get the film out in the Iowa community (to) bring awareness to the art museum so they can get that building put up,” he said. “They have a place, but they haven’t broken ground yet.
“That’s my hope for that film, and the recognition’s great that comes with it.”
The award-winning film also holds personal prestige for Kelley.
“I’m going out in a blaze of glory, because I’m going to retiring in December from the university after 30 years,” he said. “It’s kind of a nice way to go out.”
Now 62, he plans to pursue his independent filmmaking career.
As for the film, it lives online at Uiowa.edu/mural-film/film and at the UI, available for viewing in classes there and beyond.
“The university wants to make it available to everyone, especially in education,” he said.
The film is one way people can know the history of the painting and understand the importance of its place in the UI’s art department.
“It’s an outstanding art program, and that symbolizes it,” Kelley said. He drove that point home in his awards acceptance speech.
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“Basically, I told the story of the painting and how important it was, and how it came to Iowa,” he said. “It’s an important piece that really defined American modern art, and that’s why Peggy Guggenheim was so excited about commissioning this work. She wanted it to come to Iowa because we were on the forefront of that movement at that time — we were one of few universities that were supporting this crazy abstract expressionist art that you see everywhere now. It’s all over the place, and it all came from that painting.”
Since the floods, the painting went to California in 2012 for two years of painstaking restoration and conservation work, and then has been on exhibition in galleries at home and abroad.
The final legs of its journey will take it to the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., for 11 months starting in November, then to the Columbia Museum of Art in Columbia, S.C., from November 2018 to May 2019.
It is expected to return home in late 2019, upon completion of the new UI Museum of Art, projected to cost $50 million. In August, the Board of Regents gave approval for construction south of the UI Main Library.
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