Community

Flags for Iowa City art project moves from public workshops to in-home work

This 2016 flag-raising ceremony is part of Peter Haakon Thompson's #x201c;Flag Services for South Minneapolis#x201d; pro
This 2016 flag-raising ceremony is part of Peter Haakon Thompson’s “Flag Services for South Minneapolis” project. Inspired by the empty flagpoles he saw in his neighborhood, he knocked on neighbors’ doors, offering to create a house flag with an abstract design reflecting their lives. The finished flags flew all together on a pole in front of their neighborhood association building, then were dispersed to the individual homes. Thompson has created a similar public art project titled “Flags for Iowa City,” in which area residents will choose symbols that reflect what Iowa City means to them. The flags will then fly above Black Hawk Mini Park on the Ped Mall downtown. (Bruce Silcox)
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Peter Haakon Thompson’s artistic visions will be riding the winds above the Ped Mall in downtown Iowa City. But first, he needs a little help from the locals.

The Minneapolis artist, 49, has been blending his love of sailing and fascination with flags for years, merging in earnest in his basement workshop seven years ago when his twins were born. Since then, he’s been hoisting flags near and far, around his neighborhood and in St. Petersburg, Russia, during a 2016 street festival.

He’d love to see 500 flags flying above Black Hawk Mini Park, at the Ped Mall’s north end. Project organizer Thomas Agran, director of public art for the Iowa City Downtown District, is hoping for 1,000 flags.

Since Thompson specializes in public art engagement, Agran invited him to come to town last December, meet with civic leaders and artists, and formulate a community art project. “Flags for Iowa City” is the result.

“As an artist, my mediums are conversation and participation,” Thompson said, “and a lot of what I do is make these opportunities or projects or tools that facilitate that.”

And sailing flags are all about conversation. The Iowa City project will reflect that, with participants ordering a free kit, and selecting and placing up to three abstract symbols that represent what the city means to them. Among the 10 choices are “university,” “coming and going,” “history,” “river/natural places” and “diverse/eclectic.”

Flags are well-suited to public art displays, Thompson added, since any flagpole holds the opportunity to let artistic expressions soar.

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“To me, there’s something extra-special and beautiful about something that actually flies — that has this motion. It’s not a static object out there, but it’s something that moves with the wind and has these other ways that respond to the environment,” said Thompson, who has family ties to Iowa City and has visited his cousins there over the years.

“Even just the fact that after time being outside, they start to fade and have a different patina than when they’re brand-new. It’s pretty easy to display a flag in front of your house or your business, because it doesn’t require a whole lot of equipment to make it happen.”

Conversation starters

In the St. Petersburg project, Thompson made code flags and an accompanying communication system, based on the nautical code flags that ships use to communicate with one another. A lifelong sailor, his family keeps a small boat at Lake Nokomis near his home.

“There’s a flag for each letter of alphabet and then 0 through 9. On the ship, if they hoist up an A and the Z and the P flag, that might mean a particular thing to the ship that’s reading that — a code, essentially,” he said.

“So I came up with a code in a series of nine flags, and there were these two flagpoles across the park from one another. People could hoist up flags on their side and then people at the other flagpole would look at this code sheet, decipher what question they were being asked, and then they could raise different flags in response to that question. It was a way for people to be able to communicate with one another.”

The code was in English and Russian, and the questions were as simple as “vodka or whiskey,” with two different flags that could be raised in response.

The concept is similar for the Iowa City project, except these flags will span the Ped Mall horizontally. Public engagement and conversation still are the goals.

Before the coronavirus hit home, Iowa City residents were going to be invited to create their flags during public workshops, getting to know some of their neighbors in the process.

“I think there’s something cool that happens when people are making together,” Thompson said. “(When) people are sitting around a table doing something together, it makes it easier to have conversations with folks that you might not know. There’s not an awkwardness if you’re not talking, because you’re doing something with your hands. It makes it easier for folks to talk to one another and have some sort of connection.

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“That’s really what we were hoping would happen with the flag-making workshops,” he said. “There’d be this opportunity for people to talk to one another, and they would sit down with someone while that person was sewing their flag. They’d get to meet that person and have a little conversation.”

But COVID-19 physical distancing protocols have turned this communal happening into home work. Conversations still can happen between people who are sheltering together, or even for people flying solo.

“If you’re living by yourself, you can have a Zoom call with someone,” Thompson suggested. “You can remain socially distant but still have a conversation about the symbols and your feelings about Iowa City.”

The flag project also can be an educational tool for home schooling households, like Thompson’s.

“The exercise of thinking about your place thinking about where you live and what are the things that you find are important about it — and reflecting on that,” he said. “And for sure, the visual design and thinking about colors and shapes together.”

Practical matters

The flags are made from a woven polyester fabric designed for boat covers, so they’ll withstand the elements, Thompson said. Sewing skills are not necessary, but participants who have a sewing machine can order free a bobbin of specialized thread, then attach their symbols with a zigzag stitch. The flags won’t fray, so the edges do not need to be hemmed.

Those who don’t sew can trace where they’d like their symbols to be placed or ask for a glue stick, apply a dab in the center of the symbols, and attach them to the flag. Then mail them back to Thompson, and he’ll sew them in place and return them to you to take to designated drop-off points, which are still to be determined.

For details, instructions and how-to videos, go to Flagsforiowacity.com.

Participants are free to order more than one flag kit, and with public gatherings still on pause, Agran said no firm deadline has been set for ordering and completing the flags.

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“We are really happy to have been able to re-engineer it in a way that can work for the moment we are all occupying,” he added.

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

To participate

• What: “Flags for Iowa City” free public art project

• Who: Open to anyone living in Iowa City

• Instructions: Flagsforiowacity.com

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