NORTH LIBERTY – There was just something about the nearly 100-foot white concrete wall outside the memory unit at Keystone Place at Forevergreen that was unsettling to executive director Mary Jo Pipkin.
“It just felt really institutional and drab,” she said. “We’d done some landscaping out on the patio, but the wall just wasn’t working.”
The more she and her staff looked at the wall, they more they saw it as something more.
“We started to see it as a canvas,” Pipkin said. “We saw that white wall and what it could be with the right artist.”
With board approval, Pipkin started an online search for that artist, searching Iowa murals and their creators. It didn’t take long to find the one she wanted for the job.
Blake Ross, an artist from Bettendorf, has built his artistic career doing billboards and commercial art, and had only done three murals before he was contacted by Pipkin. But he was intrigued and visited the North Liberty senior care facility in the spring.
One look at the wall — which starts tall by the building and gradually descends as it turns a corner of the patio — and Ross knew what he wanted to do.
“One of the other murals I did represented Moline, and I wanted to do something similar here,” he said. Plus, he said, Pipkin “wanted something that had some history to it, things the residents might remember and be able to talk about.”
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The result is a combination of cartoon and culture, formal and frivolous: The cliffs at Palisades Park line the edge where the wall meets building, then the wall flows into various rural and farm scenes, a young look at Grant Wood’s “American Gothic,” lakes, rivers, fish, one of the Madison County covered bridges — even a classic Winnebago camper.
“This is all about the residents (of Keystone) and helping them remember their past, their history,” Ross said. “It will help the memory staff cue some of the memories in these residents.”
The mural has been a summer project for Ross — he spent two six-hour evenings drawing the images on the wall, then another nine days painting over the lines with a sepia color. The rest of the summer was spent adding color.
“Mary Jo said to just have fun with it, so I did,” said Ross, 54. “It’s been a blast.”
To make the job easier — and travel less costly — Ross has been staying in a room at the facility while he’s worked on the mural. He travels back to Bettendorf occasionally but spends most of his time in North Liberty.
Neither Pipkin nor Ross wanted to say what the mural cost, but both agree it was fair.
“He’s very grateful, and so are we,” Pipkin said. “I think he’s on a journey he never expected to be on.”
“She’s paying me well, and they’re taking care of me,” Ross said. “The friends I’ve made here are worth more to me than any dollar amount, to be sure.”