Arts & Culture

Marion's Uptown Artway: From boring alley to gathering space

Karen Hoyt lauded for her work on city's blank canvases

Liz Martin/The Gazette

Karen Hoyt, seen Wednesday, was instrumental in the development of the Marion Uptown Artway, which features art installations including “Prime Commonality: Marion, Iowa,” by Owens + Crawley. Hoyt received a 2018 Governor’s Arts Legacy Award from the Iowa Arts Council.
Liz Martin/The Gazette Karen Hoyt, seen Wednesday, was instrumental in the development of the Marion Uptown Artway, which features art installations including “Prime Commonality: Marion, Iowa,” by Owens + Crawley. Hoyt received a 2018 Governor’s Arts Legacy Award from the Iowa Arts Council.
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MARION — Karen Hoyt was thrilled to receive a congratulatory email, thinking the city of Marion had won a Governor’s Arts Award for its various public arts and beautification projects.

Little did she know, her colleagues had recommended her for an individual award. So during the Iowa Arts Summit in Ankeny on Aug. 3, Hoyt, 68, a retired art teacher in the Marion and Linn-Mar districts, received the Governor’s Arts Legacy Award in honor of her work behind the scenes bringing art to Marion’s public spaces.

“People deserve to have a high quality of life here. They deserve that everywhere,” she said. “Art speaks volumes to the public that this place is loved. And if you don’t have art, then your community lacks some of its soul. It communicates to people and just tells people that they’re valued.”

With the sun peeking out from the clouds Wednesday afternoon, she strolled through one of her most proud achievements, Marion’s Uptown Artway. It’s a project that transformed a run-of-the-mill alley lined with Dumpsters and cars into a gathering space full of beauty and whimsy.

It’s lively during the day, as sunlight dances off a tall starburst tree and other multicolored sculptures and murals created by nine artists, including five Iowans. It’s even more spectacular at night when lights dance through the art, beckoning visitors to stop, shop and dine in this oasis between 10th and 11th streets and Seventh and Eighth avenues.

Hoyt helped secure a $350,000 ArtPlace America grant in July 2014, which set the wheels in motion. Several surrounding buildings were renovated and turned into restaurants, sports bars and creative spaces, with patios opening to the alley. Bands sometimes play on the stage, and a wedding, class reunions, selfies and senior pictures have been staged there since the ribbon-cutting ceremony May 20, 2017.

While most of the art has a contemporary vibe, and modern touches frame some of the businesses and their patios, preserving the city’s history also was paramount in the project. Utility lines now run under the alley instead of overhead, but original brickwork still is visible on most buildings, and old-fashioned streetlamps light the way.

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The centerpiece underfoot is a tile compass medallion where the alleys intersect, proudly proclaiming “CITY OF MARION EST. 1839.”

“It shows that Marion’s actually older than Cedar Rapids. I think a lot of people don’t realize that we were on the map before they were. So this is an old community,” she said, a fact hidden by its progressive streak.

“It just keeps changing with the times. We’re no longer a railroad community — now the arts are playing an important part in who we are. It’s one reason I love it here.”

Her own public arts efforts stretch back to collaborative works and group projects in the schools, as well as to the Marion Arts Festival, which she helped launch in 1992.

“My help with the festival, from Day One, was to wrangle the student art program,” she said, “so it gave people of all ages opportunities for hands-on engagement on festival day.”

She switched her focus in 2007 to devote more time to the emerging Uptown Marion District board and design committee.

“I could see that the festival had grown legs of its own,” she said, proud that a mosaic she helped facilitate in the festival’s Art in the Depot community art project is on permanent display at the Marion Heritage Center. Other festival pieces created over the years “can be found all over town,” she said, including the Marion Public Library and City Hall.

Hoyt also had a role in creating the Klopfenstein Amphitheatre at the 180-acre Lowe Park off North 10th Street. She and former Marion Mayor Vic Klopfenstein raised funds for the $1.7 million functional art structure and outdoor stage, and Hoyt planted the seeds for the amphitheater’s striking oak leaf steel canopy.

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“I am a prairie nut,” she said. “I love our native Iowa landscapes, and the oak tree is our state and national tree, so I did suggest that they use oak leaves as part of the canopy. And I think they ran with that idea. Because this amphitheater is sited in a prairie, it only made sense. The stage has tall prairie grasses for a windscreen and then in the front of the stage there’s a mosaic that looks like a prairie fire. So it all kind of fit together and is perfect for the site.”

Hoyt is thrilled to see the city’s beautification projects win awards and attention at the state and national levels.

“We don’t do it for that, but it’s really gratifying to know that our hard work is recognized,” she said.

The accolades also will open doors to new funding streams. But she isn’t ready to rest on any laurels.

More than 3,000 ideas poured in for the city’s Chamber of Commerce ImagiNEXT visioning project. Those suggestions have been winnowed down to the Future Four:

l The Heart Of It All, developing year-round use and upgrades in the center of town, including expanding the Uptown Artway to the east and west;

l Just Keep Swimming, creating a new pool and water park complex;

l Creekside Pride, developing recreation opportunities around Indian Creek;

l It’s the Little Things, offering smaller projects to enhance the city, from expanding curbside recycling to staging city fireworks on the Fourth of July.

Those projects will be part of an application to Iowa Great Places, and are detailed at http://web.marioncc.org/news/newsarticledisplay.aspx?ArticleID=142

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“We’re looking at those Future Four initiatives and all the components of each one, and then looking for funding sources,” Hoyt said. “They’re out there. It just takes some work and love to put all the pieces together on behalf of the community, but we’re the town to do it.”

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

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