116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
If you wander through the Mississippi River town of Clinton, Iowa, you might stumble upon something unexpected: a cluster of colorful paintings in a tucked-away park.
Local artist Gabi Torres has created the outdoor art exhibit, called The Grove, in a pocket park near the river on 4th Avenue South, across from the Clinton Post Office. The exhibit opened on June 9 and will be on display through October.
The inspiration for The Grove grew from Torres’ desire to bring more art to her hometown.
“I was thinking of how important the creative arts are to a community,” Torres said. “It can be difficult for people to go and see art in Chicago, the Quad Cities, or even Iowa City. So that started a mission for me to bring more art and culture to Clinton. The Grove is me trying to make good on my dream.”
The public art exhibit features 12 abstract paintings in free-standing wood frames that range from 4 feet to 10 feet tall. The canvases are suspended in the middle of the frames using metal clasps so the paintings can move with the breeze.
“I wanted to create an immersive experience, a forest of art,” Torres said. “I also wanted to utilize underused spaces.”
Her vision was made possible in part thanks to funding from the Iowa Arts Council, which it received through the federal American Rescue Plan Act.
Torres also received support from other creative people in the community, including Tim Fuller of local woodworking shop Retired with Wood, who created the frames, and Steve Pearson, the owner of Upholstery Unlimited, who supplied the canvas. Her assistant, Connie Vulich, was instrumental in coordinating the exhibit and making sure everything came together.
“There are a lot of talented makers and creators here,” Torres said. “I think what’s cool about The Grove was the opportunity to connect with them.”
Fuller, who has been a woodworker for more than 45 years, didn’t have much experience with making art frames before he met Torres. At Retired with Wood he mostly makes sculpted rocking chairs, desks, tabletops and bar tops, which are made from local salvaged wood. “I like to think of it as giving the lumber its second life,” Fuller said.
A client who had purchased one of Torres’ paintings asked Fuller to make a custom frame for it, and later introduced the two. That connection led to Fuller building many more custom frames for Torres.
When Torres came to him with her idea for The Grove, there were a few problems to solve – namely, how to build the frames so that they could withstand the elements but also embody a kind of whimsy that would enhance the paintings.
“The challenge was how to make the frames look like they are just standing there,” Fuller said, without using guide wires or other supports that would detract from the art and could create tripping hazards.
The solution was to make hollow spaces within the frames that would slide over the top of steel T stakes, which are commonly used for farm fencing.
Each frame is unique and made from a different type of wood to represent different trees.
“We tried to make the frame subtle, so it’s not the focal point,” Fuller said. “But when you see one of those abstract paintings on a wall, and then see one in a frame, it really makes it pop.”
Fuller applied a few coats of exterior wood finish to the frames to give them durability.
The paintings themselves were made with exterior paint and custom sheets of convertible top canvas – the same material you might find on a Ford Mustang or Chevy Camaro – which was provided by Pearson.
Coming home again
Torres was born and raised in Clinton, but admits she didn’t always appreciate her hometown when she was younger.
“When I was a teenager, I couldn’t wait to get out of Clinton and see the world,” Torres said. “I’m glad I did, because it taught me how much I loved my home. I can’t imagine living anywhere else.”
Her artistic interests began not with painting, but with poetry.
After high school Torres studied literature at the University of Iowa and received her MFA in poetry from The New School in New York City. After six years in Seoul, South Korea, and a little more adventuring, Torres returned to Clinton in 2016.
Around that time she began painting as well, which eventually became her passion. Now she has her own art studio and a successful career as a visual artist. Her paintings have been shown in Madrid, Paris and Milan.
Torres takes a similar approach to painting and writing poetry, working in stages and searching for the right form and shape to express herself.
“I need a lot of time to stare at it, think, and then, ‘Oh, I think we need an accent here, or this needs some balance,” Torres said. “When I create my paintings, I’m intentional about finding balance.”
Though her art is abstract, she takes inspiration from the natural world, which Clinton has in abundance. “There’s a wildness about it,” she said. “You’ll see turkey, deer, foxes. I love how green everything is.” She often utilizes natural tools like tree branches, bark and corn husks to apply paint and create texture.
Support from the community
In addition to Torres’ creative partners, making The Grove happen required help from the City of Clinton, including Parks and Recreation Director Josh Eggers and Public Works Director Brian Lemke. They were more than happy to help.
“It was awesome to be part of it,” Lemke said. Staff were glad to participate in a project that was different from their day-to-day jobs in getting the park ready. “Anything she needed, we took care of it.” That included pressure washing the concrete, putting in new landscaping, and getting electricity hooked up for strings of Edison bulbs that illuminate the exhibit at night.
“Clinton needs more of this, and hopefully more people in the surrounding area come and check it out,” Lemke said.
That is exactly what Torres hopes The Grove will do for Clinton: to offer residents more exposure to art, and to grow and connect the community’s artists and creators.
Torres said she would like to see the pocket park become a permanent outdoor gallery space, displaying work by a new artist each year.
As for the paintings themselves, Torres isn’t sure what she will do with them at the end of the exhibit. Some people have already asked her if they are for sale, though that was not part of her plan. “Hopefully they will find a good home,” she said.
“Ultimately I’m grateful for the opportunity to be an artist in Clinton, and grateful for the opportunities Clinton has afforded me to make and create,” Torres said. “I think art is a transformative thing for a town — it’s my hope to see that grow and develop, and just keep making paintings.”