Posts Categorized: Artist Features

Bluff Country Studio Art Tour

The Bluff Country Studio Art Tour is coming up soon! We thought now would be a perfect time to remind you about our Art Tour Tips and Primer! Click on the infographic above for a closer look at some fun art-on-the-go road trip tips! Have fun!

Bluff Country Studio Art Tour
Where: Winona, Minnesota, extending into Northeast Iowa and Southwest Wisconsin
When: April 24–26, 2015
For more information: visit

Looking to learn about some of the art and artists in or related to the region? Check out our artist features here!

New to self-guided studio art tour? Here are some tips:

  1. It’s okay not to buy anything! Don’t feel guilty, just enjoy the art and let the artist know that you’ve enjoyed it. But if you DO want to buy something, don’t hesitate! This art is the most “local” you’re ever going to get: You’re standing in the artist’s studio!
  1. PLEASE don’t be afraid to ask questions! You won’t look silly, we promise. In general, artists love to have folks interested in their work, processes, and studio. Everyone has a story, and – boy – stories are fun to hear (that’s why we started this magazine in the first place)!
  1. Printed material is expensive! If an artist has cards, publications, or pamphlets out and you’re not seriously interested in putting it on your fridge/giving it to a friend/calling for more information, just pass on taking them – you’ll be doing the artist a favor!
  1. Negotiations: In general, we don’t live in an area that encourages negotiations on pricing. That said, if you’re looking at a piece but can’t afford to pay the price, be up front about it. See if there are any options for payment plans or if the seller might be willing to budge a smidge on the price. You’ll know quickly enough if they will. If not, move on and know you tried everything you could to bring the piece home. Make sure you are clear that you meant no offense, quite the opposite: you loved their work!

All Recipes Are Home


By Benji Nichols • Above photo by Aryn Henning Nichols

Chocolate chip cookies. Mac and cheese. Betty Crocker. Ten Layer Cake.

Recipes are – in theory ­­– mathematical equations. But in reality, each recipe – tucked in an old box or church cookbook, scribbled to the edges with notes and names – is a story, sometimes handed down from generation to generation, place to place, family to family. Just a whiff of a favorite dish can transport you to another time and place. Home.

SeanHeadshot“Irish Stew,” says Sean Lewis, writer and director of ‘All Recipes are Home.’ “It’s the meal I remember smelling in my grandmother’s house whenever we would visit her.”

But as anyone who has tried to recreate a dish “just like grandma” knows, a recipe will only get you part way there.

“At its simplest a recipe is just measurements and ingredients, but at its best it is like a potion,” says Lewis. “Mundane things that when put together remind of us of who we are and where we came from.” (Photo at right courtesy Sean Lewis.)

Commissioned by Luther College, The University of Iowa, and Grinnell College, “All Recipes Are Home” is a new theatrical piece by Iowa City’s Working Group Theatre. Following a young man’s epic journey across the state, and his sister’s journey to find him, a beautiful story is woven through words and music, including new songs from Iowa City’s own Awful Purdies. The work explores and celebrates the rich ties of food, farming, and recipes to Midwestern culture, and the comforts of “Home.”

“This is our fourth major play in Iowa,” says Lewis, the lead of Working Group Theatre. Founded in 2009 by three MFA graduates from the University of Iowa, Working Group has created more than 30 new plays and theatrical works, many centered around timely social issues. “We have done some heavy material in the past including race and class, the support for caregivers of loved ones suffering from Alzheimer’s, cyber bullying, etc. It was clear after coming to Decorah and meeting farmers across the state that this piece would need to be different. This show needed to be joyful. A celebration. We really wanted to make a show that collected this identifying quality of the state, this ‘look at how we are brought together despite our differences.’”

Lewis, an award winning director, actor, and playwright in his own right (including being heard as a commentator on NPR’s This American Life), visited Northeast Iowa extensively in preparation for the production.

Sheep(Photo courtesy Luther College.)

“The local commitment to food is amazing,” he says. “Young people deciding to come back to the farm and living from the land juxtaposed with children leaving the family farm, the shared interests and concerns of farmers who are neighbors but also their differences regarding the type of farm; family vs. commercial; organic vs. non. I loved how excited people were with their work. No one is in farming for the easy money. But there is a true honor in growing something and nurturing it – a joy in providing for others.”

BluePotatoesSpecific stops for Lewis included The Pepperfield Project Farm, Foresight Farms, WW Homestead Dairy, The Seed Saver’s Exchange Heritage Farm, The Oneota Co-op, multiple local vegetable farmers, as well as the Decorah School District and Luther College Kitchens.

“I loved working in the Decorah Middle School cafeteria,” said Lewis. “The food they provide local and fresh prepared is worlds removed from my cafeteria experience. We served purple French fries that day – I served them – and never felt less popular in a middle school!” (Photo at right courtesy Luther College.)

Iowa City-based folk band Awful Purdies also collected stories from around the state and visited Decorah in in preparation for the production.


(Photo courtesy Seed Savers Exchange.)

“At first the idea of writing songs about food seemed completely lacking in sexiness,” says Katie Roche, the official accordion, xylophone, penny whistle, recorder, and washboard player for the group. “But now that we are deep in this subject, the band has realized that it is dripping with politics, love stories, empowerment, and complete loss.”

They performed at Seed Saver’s Exchange Heritage Farm during their stay in Northeast Iowa, and held story circles to collect personal experiences for the project.

“We could have easily continued to listen through that gourd labeled food and wrote nothing but food songs for the rest of our lives,” says Roche, “Because lyrically, food is really about survival and quality of life. That subject is a ten layer cake.”


Benji Nichols has long believed that recipes are merely rough guides to follow. Much as in life, the monumental failures and successes are often found by deviation – but finding them again is the real magic!

All Recipes are Home premiers as the final show of the 2014-15 Center Stage Series in Decorah on April 11, with additional performances at Grinnell College April 13, and the University of Iowa / Hancher on April 17-18.

Find out more at:

The new Awful Purdies album, also entitled “All Recipes Are Home” is available for pre-order now on Maximum Ames Records with a delivery date of Summer 2015. The “physical” album will actually be sent as a packet of Seed Saver’s vegetable Seeds with a download card – plant and play, and eat your way through the summer!

Tiny Circus!


by Sara Friedl-Putnam • photos courtesy Tiny Circus unless noted

Lights! Camera! Action!


It’s a typical chilly winter day in Northeast Iowa, but there’s some pretty atypical movie magic happening in Decorah ­– even if the trappings of a Hollywood film set are nowhere to be found.

In this case the lights are, well, those of the Depot Outlet on Montgomery Street. The camera is a Canon digital SLR. And the action involves directing a group of lively eighth-graders as they move women’s shirts around a circular display rack, then quickly stop. They do the same thing again…and again…and again ­– which might be a bit boring were it not all part of the fun of something called Tiny Circus.


Before you get ahead of yourself, it’s not actually a tiny circus…well, not exactly. Any elephants would probably be made of paper, tightropes crafted out of string, and big tops hand-drawn. This Tiny Circus is a stop-motion animation film workshop (think “Gumby” or “Wallace and Gromit”), and the young teens at the Depot would be hard pressed to find two more enthusiastic proponents of the technique than facilitators Carlos Ferguson and Katie In.

Formed in 2008, Tiny Circus holds stop-motion animation workshops around the country, traveling in a vintage Airstream trailer rigged with two screens (one five-foot, the other twice that size) for showing the movies it helps groups produce. The troupe also hosts residencies each summer (in Grinnell, Iowa) and winter (in New Orleans) where circus “members” ­– anyone who participates in one of its projects ­– live and work together to produce animated shorts. They’ve made more than 70 such films to date.

KatieCarlosIt all started six years ago with a small group of artists, the Ferguson family farm in Grinnell, and a big dream of creating Tiny Circus. This informal retreat brought artists together to envision a future where they engaged communities through stop-motion animation, creating fanciful, animated “Histories of the World” on almost any topic imaginable.

The fact that they had never made a film using this technique – one that dates back to “The Humpty Dumpty Circus” in 1897 ­– didn’t deter them in the least. (Remember that infinitely cool chess sequence in “Star Wars”? That was stop-motion animation too.) Experimentation produced the group’s first film, “The History of Rain,” as well as a deep conviction that stop-motion animation was the ideal tool for exploring more democratic communication.

In other words, traditional “leader and follower” roles have no part in this circus. “We’re all about breaking down the very meaning of those roles and questioning the hierarchical structures of school, work, and play,” says In. “Every one of our projects is completed by a group, so collaboration is absolutely central to our process.”

How, exactly, does that process work? It starts with unleashing the imagination and brainstorming the topic. Then it’s storyboard time. What will the animation look like? How can sound be used to help convey the story? And what materials will be needed to build the sets and characters? (Colored paper and glue always come in handy!) Shooting inevitably takes the most time. “Every single frame of a stop-motion animation film is a photograph,” explains In, who joined Tiny Circus in 2012. “Objects are moved by hand very slightly before the next photograph is taken, and then when those photographs are put together, they make a movie. It’s really quite magical.”

This magical process has helped young boys and girls in North Carolina convey the (imaginary!) history of vampires. It’s allowed teachers in Iowa to communicate creatively the importance of art education. It’s helped teens in New York explore the hot-button issue of racial profiling in the wake of the Ferguson riots. (In and Ferguson cite that experience as one of the most impactful experiences they have had to date.) And it has provided college students in Tennessee with a less scary way to face their fears.


While that may sound like pretty heavy stuff, Tiny Circus, just like any circus worth its salt, also knows how to have fun. They dance. They play games. And they blast music. Loud.

In other words, says In, “Tiny Circus rocks.”

One glimpse of what’s transpiring at the Depot Outlet more than proves her point. The teens are engaged, inquisitive, and clearly having a blast making a movie. The topic for this one? Reusing and recycling in Winneshiek County.

“All right, we’re ready to take our first shot,” says Ferguson in an assured voice that quickly cuts through the (organized) chaos. “Does everyone have it? Is everyone clear which direction they’re moving the shirts?”

The students respond “yes” in unison, move the shirts ever so slightly in a clockwise motion, and then do the exact same thing several more times.

These newly minted circus members – and, the day before, a class of local fifth-graders ­– orchestrated this scene to give viewers a better sense of the second-hand wares sold by the Depot. They also moved shoes on a rack, books on a shelf, and plates on a table to provide “visual candy” (Ferguson’s words) to the film, which will include audio interviews as well as video of the county recycling plant and landfill.

Nancy Sojka, a retired art educator and current president of the Oneota Film Festival, immediately felt the Tiny Circus magic when she saw the group in action at an Art Educators of Iowa conference in 2013. After approaching In and Ferguson about the possibility of collaborating with folks in Decorah, she got to work contacting organizations that had the resources to make it happen.

The Iowa Arts Council answered the call last November, awarding OFF a $3,350 grant to bring the Tiny Circus to town.

AtTheDepotThe Depot Outlet and Winneshiek County Recycling quickly followed suit, each contributing $1,000 to the project. Their goal? To raise community consciousness about how the two organizations work hand-in-hand to ensure that only items that belong in the county landfill go to the county landfill. A quick glance at the Depot’s diverse wares – need a baby swing, vintage jewelry, or a sturdy chair, anyone? – makes crystal clear that one person’s “trash” could indeed be another’s treasure.

“The Depot is all about reuse, but we are so much more than just a thrift shop,” says Emily Hackman, Depot Outlet manager. “We want to give the community possibilities other than the landfill for discarding items they may no longer want, and hopefully this film will help spread that message.”

Terry Buenzow, who has overseen the county’s recycling operations for well over a decade, shares that hope.

“Everyone has a vested interest in how they dispose of their unwanted personal stuff, and they can often pick a better path for it than the landfill,” he says. “I’ve searched dumpsters from Novia Scotia to Oregon, and I can tell you no one else comes close to the system we have here.”

That kind of teamwork fits perfectly with the mission of Tiny Circus. “This project is ideal for us because there’s such great collaboration already happening between entities here,” says Ferguson. “Our goal is to create art as a community-based endeavor.”

Sojka believes that’s exactly what this troupe achieved during their time in Northeast Iowa. The animated film premieres March 7, 2015, at the Oneota Film Festival. (It will also run before almost every film set at the festival that weekend.) In the interim, Tiny Circus will be hard at work paring the hours of film shot in Decorah down to just three minutes – no tiny feat. “We will have 100 times the material that we will be able to use,” says Ferguson, hinting at the editing work ahead.

After its OFF premiere, the short will join the growing catalog of Tiny Circus films. If the troupe’s previous work is any indication – its videos have tallied more than 100,000 hits on YouTube and garnered countless comments like “rad” and “cool” – the end product promises to delight festival-goers, especially those proud to call this environmentally conscious county home.

“Most children and adults love watching animated films,” Sojka muses with a smile, “but how often do they get to watch one created in their own backyard?”

For more information on Tiny Circus, visit


Sara Friedl-Putnam has been under the “real” big top before and found the Tiny Circus experience just as fun­ – even if there weren’t peanuts and popcorn on hand for consumption at the Depot Outlet.

Sixth-Annual Oneota Film Festival to be held March 6­–8, 2015
Do you dig films?

3ce0a0_86a8da1a33164ee6b8f6c10de7fbddee.jpg_srz_432_432_85_22_0.50_1.20_0Then be sure not to miss the Sixth-Annual Oneota Film Festival (OFF), set to feature a compelling array of notable and award-winning independent films March 6­–8 on the Luther College campus and downtown Decorah, Iowa.

“Expect a fun, engaging event,” says Nancy Sojka, OFF board chair. “This year’s schedule includes 50 independent full-length films and shorts exploring everything from adventure and environmental sustainability to the arts and culture.”

Each set of weekend films will be preceded by the animated short about reusing and recycling created by Tiny Circus and local residents. Other films of local interest include “Our Eagles,” a short about the world-famous Decorah Eagles, and “Seeds of Time,” a full-length documentary that follows agricultural pioneer Cary Fowler, a former board member of the Decorah-based Seed Savers Exchange, as he races against time to protect the future of the world’s food supply.

Since its 2010 inception, OFF has brought together hundreds of film enthusiasts in scenic Northeast Iowa to enjoy award-winning films, converse with filmmakers, and celebrate film as a way to engage and explore some of the most critical issues facing our communities. Attendance at all films is free of charge.

Visit to learn more about the festival and its 2015 lineup.