116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
CEDAR RAPIDS — For most of the Czech Village’s history, a kolache was a tasty Czech pastry — until now.
Thanks to the creativity and determination of several Iowa BIG students, it’s now a giant steel and netting concoction that serves as an artistic feast for the eyes of Czech Village visitors, too.
The new pieces of art, constructed with blowtorches, sawed off knitting needles, Amsteel netting and auto body paint, will serve a slightly different purpose than other forms of art seen around the neighborhood. The three kolaches, eight feet in diameter, also will serve as a whimsical spot to take a seat and soak in some sunshine at the Czech Village’s pocket park on 16th Avenue SW, right next to the Mucha mural across from Lion Bridge Brewing Co.
“What captured me (about the idea) was just the sense of play with these. You can get that sense of … when you’re 5 years old and someone picks you up and throws you in the air,” said Cara Briggs Farmer, the Marion metalwork artist who helped bring the student project to fruition. “That’s an experience that adults don’t get anymore.”
The kolaches are so big that Briggs Farmer has dedicated her sole attention and the entirety of her studio space to finishing them since February. The artist started installation of the project before dawn Thursday morning ahead of the project’s Friday ribbon cutting.
But more than just a place to sit, the placemakers are a new type of art designed to reinforce a neighborhood’s mission to be a place where both residents and visitors want to spend time.
“It’s kind of always (been) part of our mission, to add placemaking,” said Abby Huff, executive director of the Czech Village/New Bohemia Main Street District. “Placemaking really is about creating an atmosphere where people want to come, hang out.”
And while the Czech Village has always been a Cedar Rapids destination for tourists and locals thanks to its public art, museum, specialty shops, brewery and restaurants, visitors now have one more reason to spend a few extra minutes along 16th Avenue SW.
In addition to enhancing the quality of a visit, those involved are hoping the unique art will serve as an attention generator that brings folks together in real life through social media as they take selfies for Instagram, Facebook, Snapchat and Twitter.
(Students) wanted something that teenagers and kids would sit on and take pictures,“ said Nikki Wilcox, Iowa BIG teacher.
The project involving eight high school students started in August 2019 not as an art project, but as an English project for many of the students involved.
“That’s what’s cool about Iowa BIG. People don’t realize … English comes out of everything,” said Wilcox.
Through the program, students complete real-world projects for school credit. Through this project, students carried out tedious planning through research, public presentations to solicit donations, grant writing and fundraising. Working through the artistic process involved gathering sketches, brainstorming materials and construction with the artist.
“Every component of this was thoughtfully fabricated for the project,” Briggs Farmer said.
As students learned how to weld steel squared into circles, she formulated a hand-spliced netting that would be comfortable to sit on, wouldn’t stretch and would be difficult to cut.
After Huff pitched the idea, students ran with it. Two students, Callie Brown and Hailey Cooper, were involved from start to finish.
“(They) wanted to keep it historical. They didn’t want it to be so obscure that people didn’t know what it (was),” said Wilcox. “Something fun. And you know high school kids, their brain always thinks about food.”
To appeal to people their own age, the students decided on apricot, grape and cherry as the “flavors” for the kolaches.
But raising the dough took a bit longer than it does for the traditional, edible kolache. Interrupted by the pandemic, the students raised the last $14,000 of the project’s $16,000 cost within two months earlier this year.
“They got a lot of rejections. … One thing they learned is persistence is key — the art of not giving up,” Wilcox said. “If you believe in something, just keep believing in it and keep pushing for it. No one’s going to want your dream more than you.”
The project was made possible by donors Mary Kay McGrath, New Leader Manufacturing, ImOn Communications and the Czech Village/New Bohemia Self-Supported Municipal Improvement District.
“I love the Czech Village, and I thought the idea of kolache art pieces of furniture was a fun idea,” said Mary Kay McGrath, who also helped fund the adjacent Mucha mural.
After growing up on the southwest side of Cedar Rapids, she said her investment in this kind of art has been “a labor of love” to make the vibrancy she’s known all her life apparent to everyone.
Another piece of art nearby in the pocket park that she commissioned is a tree stump that a chain saw artist turned into a morel mushroom, another Czech staple. The tree was brought down by the derecho.
“With this park, it’ll be a nice little green space. It’s been overlooked in the past,” McGrath said.
The kolaches, originally considered for placement off the roundabout near the National Czech & Slovak Museum & Library, found their home in the artsy hot spot after consideration of other tree planting and flood protection plans.
“We’re constantly working on what else we can do, what else we can add,” Huff said. “This project just fit it perfectly.”
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