My neighbor, Dustin, said I should write about the big corn sculpture. For a moment, I was a little confused.
But then I recalled going for a walk with my wife on Christmas Day and seeing it in the distance — a cluster of massive metal stalks in the middle of a roundabout on 35th Street in Marion. That’s just a scone’s throw from my English Glen neighborhood, where such change is greeted with a raised eyebrow and a stiff upper lip. I consider it to be the Downton Abbey of subdivisions.
So I called my City Council member, Joe Spinks, who happens to live down the street.
Spinks explained that the $1.5 million, federal stimulus-funded 35th Street extension, including a roundabout at its future intersection with Tower Terrace Road, ate up a fair slice of farmland. The roundabout’s middle also presented the city with a blank canvass for public art.
The Vaughn family, which contributed land for the road project, backed the art idea and wanted to chip in. They also hoped that whatever art was picked for the spot would reflect the heritage of the land. The family, now scattered in several states, once homesteaded on adjoining land to the south.
There was a call for proposals, whittled down to a final four concepts by a selection committee. The winning design was turned in by Dale Merrill of Liberty Iron Works in Mount Vernon — a patch of thick, steel cornstalks rising up with polished stainless steel tassels on top. It cost $100,000, with the Vaughns chipping in $20,000 and the city covering the rest.
The sculpture is lighted at night and will be surrounded by a stand of native grasses when warmth returns. The stalks are designed to oxidize over time, while the tassels will remain polished. Spinks and Merrill said the early reviews have been positive.
“It was rewarding. People would drive through the roundabout as we were working and would often make two or three laps around, then would stop and take photos. It was pretty fun,” Merrill said. “We’ve got a ton of great feedback.”
Spinks said he expected complaints about spending public money on art. “It’s been the opposite. People say ‘That is really, really nice,'" Spinks said.
Now, I know some of you out there are probably feeling a little snarky about Iowa, corn and stereotypes. Your inner Stephen Bloom is itching to pounce. One online commenter referred to the sculpture as “cornhenge.” Snort. I've been known to peddle some snark myself.
But I like it, mainly because I envision it within the context of the big planned development Marion has slated for the land surrounding the roundabout. Houses, parks and retail will sprout from those farm fields in the coming years and decades. The rolling rural landscape will be unrecognizable.And in the midst of all that, Merrill’s sculpture will stand. It will likely be the only Iowa corn visible for miles — a steel kernel of Iowa heritage in all our sprawling progress.