116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
Specializing in hand-drawn, whimsical designs that grace greeting cards, valentines and coloring pages, Laura Palmer’s artwork tends toward small-scale pieces meant to be enjoyed one person at a time.
Until she was asked to design a water tower.
“I’m drawing things the size of my hand most of the time, so doing something on that scale was pretty crazy,” said Palmer, 38, of Des Moines.
Palmer created the design painted on the Muscatine water tower in 2020 after the city of 23,700 won a contest sponsored by the Iowa Finance Authority.
The authority and the Iowa Department of Natural Resources renewed the contest in 2021, offering a one-of-a-kind water tower design and installation to another Iowa community. The contest recognizes the State Revolving Fund, which helps cities pay for water quality improvements.
Fourteen Iowa towns submitted video entries, and Runnells, a Polk County town of 481, won with the most online votes.
As the daughter of two artists, Palmer grew up making her own art. She graduated from the University of Iowa and in 2009 started her business, XO-LP, in Des Moines.
Palmer had met Debi Durham, director of the Iowa Finance Authority and Iowa Economic Development Authority, several years ago and occasionally sent Durham cards to recognize milestones for Durham or her work. In 2019, Palmer got a call from Ashley Jared, Finance Authority communications director.
“I thought Director Durham was going to want me to make some stationary,” Palmer said. “She (Jared) said ‘I want to talk with you about doing a water tower.’”
Palmer’s first question was whether she would be the one suspended 180 feet in the air to paint on the water tower.
The answer was no, so Palmer said yes.
More than 20 communities entered the first water tower contest, but Muscatine had a unique motivation to win. Palmer’s father, Dennis Palmer, designed the logo that was painted on the Muscatine water tower 25 years before. The city clinched the win with more than 9,000 votes.
“My drawing was going to replace my father’s drawing, which is pretty incredible,” Palmer said. “It couldn’t not be personal to me.”
Capturing a town’s essence
Water towers are the most recognizable water storage option for a city. An elevated tank, sometimes put on a hill, uses gravity to create pressure that serves as an indirect pumping system to distribute water over a wide distance.
These towers serve as landmarks and branding opportunities.
So Palmer met with Muscatine leaders about what images they’d like to see on their revamped tower.
The wraparound design features the Muscatine bridge over the Mississippi River; the Muscatine County Courthouse; a muskmelon; pearl buttons representing the Boepple Button Company, opened in 1881 in Muscatine; and the Mississippi Harvest statue, which shows a man using long poles to fish for mussels, among other design elements.
The design was purple to match the Muscatine Muskies school color.
Palmer does all her art with Paper Mate Flair pens, and she drew the water tower design the same way. She scanned the final design into a computer and sent the file to J.R. Stelzer Co., an Omaha-based water tower painting company founded in 1983.
“I was climbing towers as a kid,” said Mike Stelzer, son of the company’s founder and project manager for the Muscatine project.
Stelzer Co. enlarged Palmer’s design to make a pattern 15 feet tall and 175 feet long printed on large rolls of paper, Stelzer said. Once the old paint was sandblasted off and four layers of fresh white base color was applied, Esequiel Bocanegra and Theodoro Martinez — veteran tower painters — traced the design and filled it in with paint.
The hands-on part of the project took 12 days.
“Anytime we do big projects like this, there’s a lot of attention,” Stelzer said. In Muscatine, “we had people who would stop out almost every day and want to take a picture.”
Tower featured in calendar
The tower, dedicated in August 2020, was included among 12 water towers in the Tnemec water tower calendar for 2021. That company manufactures the ultra-durable paint used on towers, which endure sun, rain, snow and hail.
The Muscatine project went so well, the Finance Authority and DNR again chose Palmer to create the art to go on the 2021 contest winner’s tower.
“Our plan is to have the water tower contest annually, and we’re happy with the work and style of Laura. At this time we do not plan to use a different artist,” Jared said. “We view part of the charm of the contest as having water towers across the state with the same look that can be easily recognized as contest winners.”
In coming weeks, the Finance Authority and Palmer will meet with Runnells officials to begin the design process for their water tower, which will be painted in the summer.
“It’s a great opportunity to collaborate with Runnells,” Palmer said. “They’re able to see their hometown pride in this new way.”
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