Arts & Culture

Painting with a flourish in Czech Village

Iowa City artist creating Mucha-inspired mural in Cedar Rapids

Ali Hval works on a new mural Aug. 7 in Czech Village in Cedar Rapids. The mural is based on a public domain work by Alp
Ali Hval works on a new mural Aug. 7 in Czech Village in Cedar Rapids. The mural is based on a public domain work by Alphonse Mucha, with added references to Iowa and Cedar Rapids, such as wildflowers, a goldfinch and bicycle wheels. (Liz Martin/The Gazette)
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CEDAR RAPIDS — A bright spot in the decimated Cedar Rapids landscape is emerging in Czech Village, thanks to the artistry of Alphonse Mucha, interpreted by Iowa City mural artist Ali Hval — with Iowa twists.

Some of Mucha’s “The Slav Epic” paintings from the early 1900s measure 26 feet by 19 feet. One of the celebrated Czech artist’s posters from the late 1800s, now in the public domain, is springing to life on an even larger canvas — a blank wall facing the Cedar River, along Inspiration Place SW.

That road leads to the National Czech & Slovak Museum & Library, which moved to higher ground after the 2008 flood and reopened in July 2012 with a massive exhibition of Mucha’s work.

If you look closely at the female figure in this new mural, created in Mucha’s signature fluid style, you’ll see Iowa wildflowers in her hair and in the arches behind her; native prairie grasses; Iowa’s state bird and flower, the goldfinch and the wild rose; corn; and morel mushrooms, the centerpiece of the annual Czech Village Houby Days festival each May.

The project is the result of the Czech Village New Bohemia Self-Supported Municipal Improvement District working together with the Czech Village New Bo District, said Monica Vernon, executive director of strategic development for the Czech Village New Bohemia Main Street District.

“Both wanted to create a long-term piece of public art in Czech Village and both brought their abilities and assets to the table.”

Vernon estimated the finished work will be about 22 feet high by 60 feet wide, on the northeast side of the Novak building now housing Graham Construction.

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The concept grew out of discussions with Czech Village shopkeepers and business owners, Cecilia Rokusek from the National Czech & Slovak Museum & Library, and artist/consultant Janelle McClain, who owns the Lion Bridge building. Murals & More awarded the project to Hval (a Norwegian name pronounced “vawl” — the H is silent).

She is being paid $20,000, covering six weeks of the design process, as well as the actual painting, financed through the municipal improvement district and private donations, Vernon said.

In-kind contributions are helping, as well. A Diamond Vogel Paint donation and a grant from Keeping Iowa Beautiful have covered the paint. The Hawkeye Area Labor Council, the CR/IC Building Trades Council and DA Bunch Painting primed the wall, which is “on loan” from building owners Sue and Jim Novak, and Altorfer donated the lift that gives Hval access to the heights, Vernon noted.

“It has truly taken a village,” Vernon said.

Painting’s evolution on display

The project is attracting its own village of viewers along Inspiration Place SW, including a “regular.”

“There is one lady who comes to visit every day, and tells me I’m doing awesome, which is great because I love little supportive comments like that,” Hval said, adding that all the positive comments help keep her spirits up during her typical eight to 10 hours a day on the job.

“People really like seeing it evolve,” she said. “I think people like being involved in the process of a mural, even if they’re not actually painting it. They feel like a part of their community a little bit more, by seeing something go up compared to not seeing when it starts or when it stops. If there’s suddenly a mirror on the wall, you don’t feel as invested in it, compared to if you see the stages of it.”

The stages have been progressing by leaps and bounds since Hval’s design was finalized at the end of June and her painting began in late July. Originally thinking it might take all of August and even a slice of early September to complete the work, she anticipated finishing earlier. Then the storm hit, slowing her down this past week, working just a couple hours at a time. (She’ll coat the finished mural in varnish to protect it from the elements.)

She already has begun the detail work, bringing life to the artistry her grandmother with Czech heritage instantly recognized.

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“My dad sent a picture of this mural to her, and she immediately knew the artist, and was really excited about it,” said Hval, 27, who grew up in Hoover, Ala.

Learning process for the artist

Now entering her fifth year in Iowa City, she came there for a three-year MFA program in painting and drawing at the University of Iowa, and decided to stay. She’s been out of school a little more than a year, and has been leaving her mark all around the state as a full-time mural artist. She’s completed “upward of 10” murals, including the one on the parking ramp next to Greene Square in downtown Cedar Rapids, one next to Elray’s Live and Dive in downtown Iowa City, two in Clinton, others in Webster City and Corydon, and a recent work for a private residence.

Each project is a learning experience for her.

“I learn more about the area — definitely more about the history of the place that I live — so doing all these murals around Iowa, I learned more about the area where the mural was,” Hval said. “With this one, I definitely learned more about Art Nouveau, even from what I have initially learned, just because of the amount of research I did beforehand — and learning about the style and learning about where it came from and learning about everything that came along with Art Nouveau and what was happening in that time period.

“It just helps me gain more knowledge going forward. ... You’re always learning something new with every mural, so you’re always bringing something new to the table.”

It’s a learning opportunity for viewers of her art, as well.

“The thing about murals is you’re not necessarily in a gallery space,” she said. “Murals are made for all audiences, not just the privileged audiences who are able to go to gallery spaces.”

By viewing this mural, she said “people can learn about Art Nouveau and Alphonse Mucha and other Czech artists, and the history of Czech Village and that area.”

Comments: (319) 368-8508; diana.nollen@thegazette.com

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