The Winterset Arts Center is not your typical community art center.
It has everything a typical art center should have — an active presence in the community, classes in various disciplines for both adults and children, opportunities for its members to hang and sell their work, etc. But what makes the Winterset Art Center so unique is its strong connection with history. It capitalizes, rightfully so, on a connection with one of the foremost experts in agriculture this country has ever produced, George Washington Carver.
And the Winterset Art Center is located in a house that was used as a stop in the Underground Railroad.
In essence, the Winterset Art Center is both historic and artistic.
“I think it does surprise people about our building’s history with the Underground Railroad and the community’s connection with George Washington Carver and the arts,” says Jerry Narland, a former chairman of the Winterset Art Center board of directors. “Those things are highlights of our art center. The backbone comes from the interest of the community itself. Art has always been a big part of Winterset.”
George Washington Carver
Few people would associate George Washington Carver with art. The “father of peanut butter” is better known as a botanist and inventor.
Carver found himself in Winterset after being denied admittance to a college in Kansas because of his race.
“George wanted to pursue his interest in art, and it took nearly every penny George had saved to make his way to Kansas,” says Narland. “He had heard about Simpson College in Indianola and was told he would be accepted there since there was another African-American already enrolled. By the time he hit Winterset, however, George ran out of money.”
Narland says Carver would make ends meet by trading art lessons for the various other things he needed.
“Every bit of money George earned went to his tuition at Simpson,” says Narland. “When he had earned enough, George made his way over to Indianola, carrying a couple of handfuls of corn meal and some lard.”
It was at Simpson where an art teacher encouraged Carver to pursue his interest in agriculture and enroll in the botany program at Iowa State Agricultural College in Ames.
“It was more of a pragmatic suggestion,” says Narland. “George was a talented artist, but the instructor knew he would make a better living in botany because there were very few African-American artists.”
In the fall of 1958, several Winterset residents wanted to find a permanent location to house their evening painting class. This was the beginning of the formation of the Winterset Arts Center.
The painting class met in various places during the next three years, including in the basement of the K&K Laundromat. By 1961, the Art Center had grown to 56 members.
In 1961, an old home in town didn’t bring enough at a public auction to be sold, so Art Center members Dorothy Good and June Kaser began a campaign of trying to purchase the structure to be used as the Winterset Art Center permanent home.
Members negotiated with the bankers and lawyers to raise $1,500 in 60 days for a down payment and pay the balance off within five years. With diligent work, the group transformed the building from a crumbling eyesore into a permanent home for the Art Center.
“The building was in such disrepair that the floors had missing slates, and members could see the dirt ground under their feet,” says Narland.
Not only did members of the Winterset Art Center get a permanent home, they also preserved a bit of history. The structure, located at 224 S. John Wayne Drive, was used as a stopping place for the Underground Railroad for runaway slaves heading north for freedom.
“There were residents who remembered playing in tunnels throughout Winterset that connected houses and government buildings,” says Narland. “There were rumors that there was a tunnel that led from the Art Center building to a house right across the street.”
Narland says he doesn’t know how many people or families used the Winterset stop.
“The route through Iowa was not the easiest,” he says.
Still going strong
More than 50 years later, the cracks in the floor have been fixed and renovations to the center have included a room for pottery classes and a separate room for painting and drawing classes.
“We always want to improve on building maintenance,” says Maggie Ripperger, co-chairman of the Art Center Board of Directors. “We also want to expand the pottery area. But we have come a long ways from where we started more than 50 years ago.”
With nearly 200 members strong, the Art Center is known for its many fundraising and community events, the biggest of which is the annual Summer Art Festival in June. The festival is an opportunity for artists of all types to showcase their work, with the only requirement being that the work has to be original and created by the vendor. Registration deadline for this year’s event is April 30.
Another popular event is the Art Center’s five-week Summer Art Program for students in grades three through eight.
The center also offers programs once a week for grade school children in addition to water color, oil painting and pottery classes for adults throughout the week.
“We’ve also offered creative writing classes as well,” says Ripperger.
Members are allowed to display and sell their work there, with a percentage of the sale going to the Art Center.
Funds are also raised during the annual Potato Day, chili and spaghetti suppers and an annual Pancake Day.
“We also participated in the annual community Holiday Bazaar and held a wine and cheese gathering the night before the event,” says Ripperger. “We are always trying to come up with ways to draw more interest to the Art Center.”
Four competitions are held each year for local artists with themes such as “Art of Farming,” “Look at Winterset” and “Small Treasures.”
Ken Smith Collection
Another source of fundraising is the sale of art pieces from the Ken Smith Collection.
Smith was an educator from Des Moines who was also a Winterset Art Center member and water color instructor for many years. In his will, Smith left a number of his art pieces to the Art Center.
“I am still cataloguing the pieces he left to us,” says Ripperger. “He had an extensive collection.”
William M. Lemos
One of the more unique pieces hanging in the Winterset Art Center is a painting by William M. Lemos.
Lemos was born in New York City in 1861 and learned to paint as a boy. He earned money by wandering the streets of New York and painting on request.
He eventually moved to San Francisco in 1887 and settled in Santa Cruz where he continued to paint for tourists until his eyesight failed in the late 1930s. He passed away on Aug. 8, 1942.
Ripperger found a Lemos painting by accident while sorting through a stack of donated frames. Under the dirt and grime was an original painting in a hand-molded frame.
“I took some Mother’s Magic surface cleaner and rubbed some of the grime away to reveal Lemos’ signature,” says Ripperger.
Re-capturing some history
The Art Center is currently involved in a project commemorating George Washington Carver.
“We are working on a memorial wall for his 150th birthday,” says Ripperger.
The wall will consist of eight 3-foot by 4-foot panels that will be filled by 4-inch-squared ceramic tiles made by the children in Winterset schools and 4-H projects.
“It is a massive undertaking,” says Ripperger. “We are shooting to have the project completed by Oct. 11 or 12.”
Ripperger says members have worked hard to attract more interest in the facility and will continue to do so.
“I think the key is getting the younger people more interested in art,” he says. “If we can get them interested in art at an early age, we will have patrons for many years to come.”
While attracting young people to the arts is a priority, another is to expand the love of art to adult members of the community.
“You would be surprised at the number of adults who signed up for a class not knowing anything about art and have done incredible work,” says Ripperger. “Some have even taken what they have learned and started selling their work.
“We always say there is a little artist in all of us. We are here to help bring that artist out.”