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Grinnell Professor Lee Running’s artwork installed in Iowa Capitol building

In December of 2018, the Governor’s Office in the Iowa Capitol building was made the site of a new artistic piece: a five-by-six-and-a-half-foot mural created from colorful vinyl layered on the glass of the waiting-room window. The creator of the piece is Professor Lee Running, art.

Running said that the piece is now a member of a larger group of artwork commissioned by Iowa Governor Kim Reynolds in 2018.

“Governor Reynolds has decided that for her term, she wants to have [art made by] women artists from Iowa in her office … Up until now it’s all been framed works, like canvases or photographs, that are on easels in the space,” Running said.

The first woman governor of Iowa, Reynolds won election in 2018 after succeeding Terry Branstad in 2017. With this win, she also became the first woman to be elected governor of Iowa in her own right.

“I was contacted because she was [officially elected] and she wanted to do something for that first event, and I’ve been doing a lot of site-specific work on glass, and so I proposed putting something specific onto the [window] in the office,” Running. said She was first contacted by the Iowa Arts Council, an organization that previously awarded her a fellowship and grant in 2017.

The piece in the Governor’s office depicts a magnified western prairie fringed orchid, an endangered plant native to the Midwest.

“It was really important to me to put something on the [window] that used to be very common but now is very rare,” Running said. “This beautiful fringed botanical specimen that’s very small, that’s very easy to overlook — I wanted to make it really massive.”

The western prairie fringed orchid has been on the endangered species list in the United States since 2008, and is experiencing dangerous decreases in population in the wild. Running used specimen samples from the College herbarium as drawing guides. The samples were from 1860 and 1920, when the plant was still a common feature of the Iowa landscape.

Running x-rayed the samples and projected the images onto sheets of adhesive vinyl, which she then cut out and layered on the window to create the final image. Under the x-ray and magnification, she said, “You can see the veins inside every one of them, all of the details.”

Running said that she draws inspiration from nature when creating artwork.

“I think I’m happiest when I’m outside. … I’m a collector of small things, and I think that interest sort of moved directly into sculpture for me, and into drawing.”

Running was born in Minnesota but grew up in Colorado and did her undergraduate degree in New York. She says that moving to the Midwest has given her a new perspective on the world. “Moving here, I had to learn to look differently … Iowa [has] taught me a lot about learning how to see,” she said.

Running has created other large site-specific works in Iowa in the past as well. One, a permanent installation, is located in the auxiliary chemotherapy suite of Grinnell Regional Medical Center, and is comprised of botanical etchings on window glass and murals on the walls. In addition, Running has done a two-story piece at the Upper Iowa University atrium, which is also a botanicals-on-glass project.

Professor Emma Lee Running installed this artwork in the waiting room to the Governor’s office in December. The project was sponsored by the Governor’s Office and the Iowa Arts Council. Photo contributed by the Iowa Arts Council.
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