AMES, Iowa – Jennifer Drinkwater and Clark Colby are artists with Iowa State University Extension and Outreach. Their outreach as extension program specialists is a result of professional training paired with artistic thinking and talents. Drinkwater works with Iowa communities and Colby with Iowa 4-H youth.
Drinkwater, an extension community arts specialist, has a background in painting and anthropology. Her charge working with communities is to use art for community and economic development. The past few years, the Mississippi native has partnered with communities in Iowa and Mississippi in various community art projects and programming.
“Being southern, I like to ask people questions; I’m a little bit nosy and my job allows for that,” said Drinkwater. “My favorite thing to do is go to a new place and talk to as many people as possible and learn about a place from their perspective.”
Drinkwater says artists are trained to see possibilities. Her strength going into communities as an extension specialist is having an artist’s perspective, what she describes as the ability to naturally see assets and what communities could possibly do with art, the process of art, or creatively.
Iowa native Clark Colby is the first arts, communication and design specialist for the Iowa 4-H Youth Development Program, possibly one of the first in the nation. Originally trained as an architect, Colby has always done photography and ceramics as meditative outlets, which led him to careers in architectural photography and ceramics instruction.
“Doing those two roles allowed me to see the creative and the professional side of the arts world,” said Colby. “It’s at the intersection of my training in architecture, professional experience and fine arts where I find my nontraditional approach to addressing different challenges.”
Whether the challenge is developing a new curriculum, creating a new 4-H project, or planning an arts program or interesting camps for youth, he draws from those different perspectives.
Commonalities between Drinkwater and Colby go beyond the artistic approaches they bring to their extension roles. Both are faculty members of the Art and Visual Culture Department in the College of Design at Iowa State University.
Both artists also are participants in the 20 Artists, 20 Parks Project, a joint effort of Iowa Department of Natural Resources, the Iowa Arts Council and Iowa State University in anticipation of the 100th anniversary of Iowa state parks in 2020. They are two of 20 Iowa State faculty and graduate students matched with a state park to create artwork reflective of the park and prepare to share a program about their park experience.
Colby and Drinkwater share how the approach they are taking to accomplish the parks assignment bears a strong resemblance to their extension work.
Drinkwater and Pine Lake State Park
Drinkwater went to Pine Lake State Park for the first time in May, walking trails around the lake and into the woods with Park Ranger Andrew Place, asking questions and hearing the park’s stories. The first question Drinkwater asked was a question she commonly asks residents of communities that she works with.
“She asked me, ‘What is good about Pine Lake State Park?’ That sort of freaked me out, because everything is good,” said Place. “But I guess the best thing about Pine Lake State Park, and all our parks, is there is so much to offer. There are different aspects for different people. Whether you are into studying natural resources, exercising or connecting with nature, there are unlimited ways to do that. If you’re an artist it’s a place for inspiration.”
Walking the park trails near Eldora, Place shared stories of Louis Pammel, an Iowa State University botanist, who worked to preserve the groves of native white pine and birch trees that grow no place else in Iowa. He told of the Civilian Conservation Corps working to develop structures in the state parks and a local woman’s efforts to restore the pine grove after a devastating hail storm.
The paintings Drinkwater created for the parks project connect images of the park today with stories deep within its history, and illustrate her view of the park’s assets.
Colby and Stephens State Forest
Clark Colby did not know Iowa had state forests when he first went to Stephens State Forest near Lucas for his 20 Artists, 20 Parks assignment. He was awed by the limited development and undisturbed nature of the forest.
His first visit, hiking trails with the forest ranger and learning about the state forest system, gave him the lay of the land. He returned a few weeks later with photography equipment, an intention to really listen and observe, and a desire to see and hear the world around him.
On a later visit, he invited 4-H members to the forest, along with a team of experts – those who teach about water quality, challenges of pollinators, tree species and forest management, and photography – to give the young people an in-depth exploration of the location.
Colby selected 360-degree and traditional photography to capture the essence of the park for the parks project.
“I worked with 360-degree video footage and still images to create a tiny world or tiny planet image,” Colby said. “The purpose of that is to challenge people to think about the immediate landscape and the species of plants and trees. I want the viewer to see the artwork from the exact spot and moment that it was created, to experience that perspective of Stephens State Forest.”
What Colby wants for those who view his work in the parks exhibition is what he wants for young people in his 4-H youth programs: that the wonder and beauty of a place or event can be captured by those who look deeply, make time to observe details, and incorporate their findings into the creation of art, communication and design.
Drinkwater said it is a great time in this country to be an artist. “There is more room and acceptance than ever of how artists can work with different disciplines to help improve communities,” she said. “I tell young people that as an artist they are a valuable part of problem solving, wherever they decide to live.”
It is Iowa’s incredible state park system that Colby wants people to know of and share in. “Our state parks are like little hidden gems. It is important to get out and explore them, but also share what we have learned there and encourage others to get out and explore them.”
Drinkwater and Colby’s art will be on display with the 20 Artists, 20 Parks project exhibition that will travel to at least three Iowa venues during 2020. The DNR is planning a yearlong celebration highlighting the importance state parks have on the quality of life in Iowa. Parks selected for the arts project represent diverse ecological, geological and cultural experiences that make Iowa unique.