116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
CEDAR RAPIDS — A new mural flanking the 16th Avenue Bridge in the New Bohemia district celebrates immigrants who shaped the neighborhood into a vibrant arts and culture hub and helped the city as a whole flourish through hard work.
The mural, designed by artist Gary Kelley of Cedar Falls and painted by muralists Ali Hval and Thomas Agran, is called “Homage to Immigrants.” It is on the west side of Ideal Social Hall at 213 16th Ave. SE, facing Kickstand.
Monica Vernon, executive director of the Czech Village New Bohemia District, said the process of bringing this mural to life was different from usual. The neighborhoods’ Self-Supporting Municipal District, a group sustained by a tax on commercial properties that dedicates funds toward the beautification and enhancement of the Czech Village New Bohemia District, is the sponsoring organization for the mural.
“When something is going to grace a wall in The District for over 10 years, I want it to be something that will thrill or inspire or at least make people really think,” Vernon said. “So I kept thinking, ‘How can we do this?’”
Vernon said she decided to provide some written and visual inspiration, and put together a two-part request for proposals — one for a designer and the other for a muralist to put the art on the wall. This inspiration, approved by the SSMID’s public art committee, included some written words and pictures of art from the period that moved the group.
The call for artists noted that in this part of Cedar Rapids, “people of all ethnic backgrounds and nationalities toiled in the packinghouse, the steel and iron works, the grain processing plants and other places known for backbreaking labor” without modern conveniences that now simplify tasks such as cooking and washing clothes.
“We are inspired by the Czechs, Germans, Lebanese, Irish, Blacks, Italians, Latinos and many others who spent their working hours in backbreaking physical labor so their families could have better lives. It is upon their shoulders that we stand today,” the request for proposals stated. “This is the legacy of New Bohemia. And, as this neighborhood — now known for its creative arts, culture and entertainment scene — continues to flourish, it is only right that we remember the working class who built this neighborhood, this town and, really, this nation.”
For visual inspiration, the committee pointed to 1930s populist art, particularly the works of Marvin Cone, Grant Wood, Thomas Hart Benton, Edward Hopper, John Steuart Curry and others.
“Not wanting to leave the final product up to chance, we sent the artists an inspiration piece so they might understand the ‘roots’ of our historic neighborhood and the general message of the piece we desired with, of course, plenty of room for artistic expression,” Vernon said.
Kelley, known for his paintings of authors on the walls of Barnes and Nobles, won the first part of the process to design the mural. Hval and Agran both won the second part to paint it. Overall, the District bought two of the nine entries, with $1,000 given to the winners.
Hval said Kelley simplified his design into basic lines and flat colors, with a lot of shading and rendering so that the muralists could copy it onto the wall. She and Agran broke down the image Kelley provided into four parts and used a projector on a high surface to display the image and trace each segment.
Kelley created a style where it appears the darker parts are deeper on the wall and then the color portions are being printed on top of it, Hval said, “so it has the feel of a woodcut print” with sharp edges. From there, the two muralists filled in the colors using rollers in the larger areas and paint brushes on the detail work to give that “woodcut” style.
“There's very diverse groups in Cedar Rapids which are often not represented, so it was nice to be able to paint something that finally brought that to light — here are all these people who were working and maybe not represented, like women and people of color,” Hval said.
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