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Art and Identity: Rose Frantzen’s Visual Representation of Iowa State

Published onJan 15, 2021
Art and Identity: Rose Frantzen’s Visual Representation of Iowa State
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Art and Identity: Rose Frantzen’s Visual Representation of Iowa State

by Sydney Marshall, 2021

The multifaceted identity of Iowa State University has been constructed by many individual contributions throughout the years. In countless public spaces across campus, the Art on Campus Collection engages with individuals on campus to provide a visual identity to the university, and to represent the ever-growing institution. The Art on Campus Collection, administered by University Museums at Iowa State University, is one of the largest campus public art collections in the country with over 2,500 works of art across 1,813 acres. The collection combines Iowa State’s tradition of formal portraiture, sculpture, murals and fountains, to preparatory maquettes and drawings, as well as committee-guided site-specific commissions of accessible public art. These collection areas converge to create a lasting visual, expressive, intellectual and educational legacy for Iowa State. Over the last six years, artist Rose Frantzen (American, b. 1965), contributed in many ways to the University Museums’ Art on Campus Collection. A significant Iowa-based and nationally recognized artist, Frantzen has been featured in exhibitions at the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery and is part of notable museum collections across the country. Frantzen’s skill in unifying formal traditional portraiture with visual allegory has greatly enhanced the University Museums’ collection while adding new dimensions and ways of visual storytelling to the Art on Campus Collection since 2015. With each additional commission Frantzen has received, her effort to better understand the Art on Campus Collection has resulted in intellectually relevant works of art for the campus that can be utilized in curricula, complementing the Art on Campus Collection’s mission.

The Artist and the Subject

Frantzen is academically trained in watercolor, figure drawing, oil painting, alla prima painting, and continuously expands her skillset by studying with others. Her technical skills are impressive and allow Frantzen to effectively capture a likeness and the individual character of her subjects. She is a frequent teacher and lecturer of portraiture and oil painting, and has the ability to connect deeply with people, especially those she paints. This connection allows her to understand her subjects’ identity and translate those qualities to a canvas. Her talent to hold an intense conversation while working gives her subjects intimate access to the process of having their portrait painted – inevitably, a relationship is quickly formed. Her subjects often leave a portrait session with a new appreciation for the arts confident that Frantzen has not only understood and captured their physical likeness, but their inner essence as well.

Her thoughtful approach to understanding the unique needs of a project and the requirements of a public commission has enabled Frantzen to be successful within University Museums’ Art on Campus Collection. Her contributions include the commission of a large landscape mural, the recently unveiled Ivy College of Business murals, formal portraits of deans and influential members of departments, as well as the Faces of Iowa State series of portraits. Frantzen’s thoughtfully applied talent and dedicated research enlightens the individuality of a landscape, a college, or people, and is what makes her works of art treasured additions to the Iowa State campus.

The First Commission

Rose Frantzen’s first interaction with Iowa State was when she was selected as the artist to honor two influential figures in Iowa State’s legacy for the College of Agriculture and Life Science. Iowa State has long cultivated a portraiture tradition dating back to the 1930s in which colleges honored deans or department chairs with formal portraits. These portraits secure the visual historical record as well as commemorate the significant milestones of the college and its people. In 2015, Dr. Wendy Wintersteen, then holder of the Endowed Dean’s Chair of the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences (2006–2017), contributed to discussions about additions to the portrait collection and how these portraits can influence the public record of a college. Now as Iowa State University’s President (2017–present), Wintersteen continues to be a driving force in the project to memorialize figures who were not deans or department chairs, but have made significant impacts on Iowa State, as well as the entire nation.

Do You Know What's Inside This Flower? George Washington Carver Mentors a Young Henry A. Wallace, 2015. Commissioned by the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences and University Museums with funds generously provided by Jim and Marcia Henderson Borel (class of 1978). In the Art on Campus Collection, University Museums, Iowa State University, Ames, Iowa. U2015.2

The first portrait in this project is the 2015 dual portrait, Do You Know What’s Inside This Flower? George Washington Carver Mentors a Young Henry A. Wallace.”

“This painting captures both the historical and life story of our alums and their special relationship that occurred at Iowa State University. As they walked on the grounds of Iowa State University’s campus, the college educated Carver explains important features of plants to the young Wallace, just as our current faculty today build relationships with students that last a lifetime… Carver and Wallace were very special individuals, with extraordinary accomplishments and impacts in their own life.  But at ISU, they found each other and influenced each other throughout their careers.  So I think that having such a beautiful painting that highlights this relationship and these connections is important to this collection.”
-Wendy Wintersteen, Iowa State University President, January 2021

George Washington Carver (1860s–1943), studied botany and horticulture at Iowa State College as the first African American student and later became its first African American faculty member. In his early student years, (1891–94), Carver took walks around the Iowa State campus and Ames studying the plant life. At times he was joined by a young Henry A. Wallace (1888–1965), whom Carver took the time to mentor and whom he would impact greatly. Carver would then move on to the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama in 1896 where he became a renowned researcher educating farmers across the nation about crop diversity and rotation, and invent of hundreds of uses for peanuts, sweet potatoes, and soybeans. His dedication to making his research accessible to the everyday farmer led to a lasting legacy. 

“I would describe them as kindred spirits interested in nature, driven to figure it out. They connected in that way… I think of [Carver] as more of a teacher, a patient kindly man that was understanding of that little boy’s interest in something he was also working to understand.”
-Marcia Borel, Art on Campus Committee member

From the early mentoring by Carver, Henry A. Wallace continued to cultivating his interest in agriculture for the rest of his life, graduating from Iowa State in 1910, then founding the Hi-Bred Corn Company in 1935 which would later become Pioneer Hi-Bred International. Wallace also served as U.S. Secretary of Agriculture (1933–1940) and Vice President to Franklin Delano Roosevelt (1941–1945). Wallace’s early relationship with Carver, and the extraordinary contributions of the two distinguished men, was the first commission to Rose Frantzen in 2014—a chance to memorialize in oil the two alumni as a complement to the existing portraiture tradition while contributing to the historical legacy of the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. 

In order to place these men and their work in context with the present-day college’s character and vision, Frantzen was tasked with understanding the significance of Carver’s scientific work and visually demonstrating his influence on Wallace and Iowa State. There was no question that Frantzen had the technical ability to complete the commission. She met with the public art committee, who included Dr. Wendy Wintersteen; Deb Lewis, curator of the ISU Herbarium; Mary DeBaca, director of diversity programs in CALS; Dr. Gerald Miller, professor of agronomy and associate dean emeritus; and Jim and Marcia Henderson Borel, ISU alumni (‘78). Marcia Borel stated, “I had been limiting my vision of portraits of these two men as paintings of just their face, or busts on a wall. It was Rose [Frantzen] who completely took it and ran a different direction. She researched and was teaching us… Rose was the one who lifted it all beyond what any of us had anticipated.” By researching Carver and Wallace, and speaking to alumni about the lasting legacy they created at Iowa State, Frantzen took incredible care to ensure the visual information portrayed in the painting would illuminate the story of both men’s time at Iowa State and the larger influence to the nation they each would have.

After months of research and intentional design, Frantzen was prepared to present her proposal to the committee. University Museums’ director and chief curator Lynette Pohlman, who was present for the proposal meeting, said, “She blew us out of the water. It was like magic happened in that room.… She knew her facts and had even read Carver’s thesis.” Frantzen’s immersive research into Carver’s work while at Iowa State enabled her to draw from imagery found in Carver’s master’s thesis “Plants as Modified by Man” (1894).  Marcia Borel states, “Rose [Frantzen], her process, in addition to her incredible skill and artistry, is incredible. Her energy, her curiosity, her research and her engagement with everyone around her with whatever she’s doing is magical.” Pages of information, reams of records and many hours of research resulted in one impactful image, refined to the essential message.

“[Frantzen] expressed that interconnectivity of a child and adult, a student and faculty, visually funneling down into the cornfield. She showed the place-making of Iowa State. Education makes a difference, in this case it changed the world. Beginning with Carver’s research contributing wide-reaching impacts on hybridization, to his dedication in communicating his work with the public and a young Wallace, a lasting influence was created. You never know who’s going to grow up to be Vice President of the United States and make a movement that began on three acres at Iowa State.”
-Lynette Pohlman, University Museums Director and Chief Curator

Frantzen’s Formal Portraiture

From the initial commission of the dual portrait in 2015, Rose Frantzen has been consistently creating additional works of art for Iowa State’s Art on Campus Collection. Adding to the legacy of formal portraiture at Iowa State University, Frantzen has painted the portraits of college deans and department chairs including: Dean David Spalding, Ivy College of Business; Sarah Rajala, former dean of the College of Engineering; and Sue Blodgett, former department chair of Entomology and Natural Resource Ecology and Management. Although these portraits are typically seen as adding to the historical record of a department or college, with Frantzen there is the continued effort to add a personal touch to each portrait. “She was very determined to capture an essence and express a feeling of who I was in the portrait.  The portrait wasn’t just about a physical resemblance, but rather an essence,” said Sue Blodgett, who was painted by Frantzen in 2019. The multiple hours of conversation and observation by Frantzen helped her to understand the essence of the subject, from their facial expressions and how they speak, to their core identity. Frantzen is then able to translate those qualities seamlessly in oil onto her canvas.

Sue Blodgett, 2019. Commissioned by University Museums. Funded by the Natural Resource Ecology Management Department. In the Art on Campus Collection, University Museums, Iowa State University, Ames, IA. U2020.18

After viewing her portrait, Sue Blodgett remarked, “It goes far beyond a resemblance but portrays me as I think I must have appeared to students, staff and faculty.  The painting looks like I could just step from the canvas.” This ability to connect deeply with her portraiture subjects and Frantzen’s past inspirational storytelling from her Portrait of Maquoketa series (painted in 2005–2006) ultimately led to a project that significantly and uniquely broadens the portraiture collection at Iowa State, the Faces of Iowa State series.

Faces of Iowa State

Frantzen has an understanding of the importance of community engagement within the public art process. By democratizing and allowing access to the creation and development of art, those who are witnesses or participants to the project gain long lasting engagement and meaningfulness. The Faces of Iowa State series was an opportunity for Frantzen to connect with a large group of people who may be unfamiliar with the fine arts when she set up her studio at the 2016 Iowa State Fair (Des Moines, IA) to paint the initial set of commissioned Faces portraits. Building upon the Iowa State institutional tradition of formal portraiture, the Faces project was undertaken to demonstrate the essence and mission of a Land-Grant University.

“[Frantzen] fulfilled the land-grant idea of we aren’t an ivory tower, we respect people of all ages, all ethnicities, and all kinds of cultural backgrounds. Her paintings communicate just how important people are to the university. We are not just an institute of higher learning, but contribute to the wellbeing of our citizens in the state.”

-Carole Custer, Director of University Marketing

Historically, the portraits in the Art on Campus Collection were mostly commissioned for deans, major professors, department chairs, and University Presidents. The Faces of Iowa State project aims to allow greater access to this tradition and reflect the diverse range of leadership throughout the Iowa State community. When tasked with selecting individuals to be painted, University Museum Director Lynette Pohlman remarked, “The only requirement was the subject had to be living. It was more of a reflection of who we were as an institution... Students, faculty, young, old, the gamut of the Iowa State family.” Each individual selected for a portrait was painted over a four-hour session at the 2016 Iowa State Fair, with hundreds to thousands of fairgoers watching every brushstroke on canvas. Over the few short hours for each portrait Frantzen was able to build relationships, many lasting well past the paint drying, and capture each sitter’s personality. Thousands of passersby witnessed the visual rendering of Iowa State’s influential members and the value placed on its community. The Faces of Iowa State project enables the portraiture collection at ISU to be more representative, and the series has continued to grow over the past five years.

Sarah Bartlett, 2019 for the Faces of Iowa State series. Commissioned by University Museums. Funded by University Museums. In the Art on Campus Collection, University Museums, Iowa State University, Ames, Iowa. U2020.3

In conjunction with the 2021 exhibition Perceptions of Identity: Paintings by Rose Frantzen in the Christian Petersen Art Museum, six more portraits are commissioned to add to the Faces of Iowa State series to commemorate impactful students during the COVID-19 pandemic. Once completed, the portraits will be exhibited with the rest of the Faces series of other influential members of the Iowa State community in the ISU Parks Library.

“I hope viewers see each beautiful portrait and read a little of that student’s story. It will give them a greater understanding of what it must have been like to be a student at Iowa State in the fall of 2020. Art brings understanding, perspective, and gives historical context… Faces of Iowa State will always be part of Iowa State University now, and part of our legacy. A hundred years from now, people will look back and learn about the history of ISU from these individuals.”

-Wendy Wintersteen, Iowa State University President, January 2021

Recent Campus Public Art Commissions

Frantzen’s keen ability to engage with a committee, and put into practice the requirements of public art, led to mural commissions with the Advanced Teaching and Research Building (ATRB) and the Ivy College of Business in the Gerdin Business Building. For the Advanced Teaching and Research Building, Frantzen spent two growing seasons studying soybean fields in Northeast Iowa in order to honor the Soybean Association with a painting depicting Iowa agriculture. Frantzen’s commitment to research and the process of understanding the distinctive landscape informed the resulting two-panel painting. Once her foundation of knowledge and familiarity with the landscape was honed, Frantzen worked to incorporate imagery to reference no-tillage practices, and to examine the water quality of the area she was depicting in the landscape mural.

Rhythms - Bean Fields at Sunset, 2018. Commissioned by the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences and the University Museums for the Advanced Teaching and Research Building. In the Art on Campus Collection, University Museums, Iowa State University, Ames, Iowa. U2018.220

“Rose patiently researched all the different issues associated with that field -- how do farmers decide what their tillage practices are, how do they select this type of variety and so on. Again, her willingness to have this depth of understanding about what she is painting is demonstrated in that beautiful painting of a field of soybeans that now graces the entrance to the ATRB Building.”

–Wendy Wintersteen, Iowa State University President, January 2021

Frantzen’s 2020 mural commission for the Gerdin Business Building combines her proficiency in depicting the human figure with her efforts to portray the changing identity of a college. By speaking with the Debbie and Jerry Ivy College of Business Public Art Committee and researching the significant values of the college and its unique programs, Frantzen created a triptych mural depicting the sophistication and professionalism of a business education that links theory to practice. In preparation, Frantzen worked with the public art committee to understand the identity of the college. Dean David Spalding, Ivy College of Business commented that, “We wanted [the artist] to capture the energy and forward momentum of the Ivy College of Business. We also wanted to capture the centrality of our students to everything that we do. Knowledge creation is another important activity. From what I have seen so far, I think she has captured all of that.”

A Lasting Impact

Through her multiple projects adding to the Art on Campus Collection, Frantzen meets the needs and goals of each individual project head-on while bringing her own unique vision into the process. Ultimately, her careful research and profound understanding of her subjects has transformed each project into a more meaningful and thought-provoking work of art. The Art on Campus Collection has benefitted greatly from her talent while over time a great trust has been established in her ability to effectively represent Iowa State’s identity through visual mediums. 

“[Frantzen] continues to refine who she is. She’s a thoughtful person and a listening person. Rose is listening to us, and that’s what is capturing the tradition. The end product is worth waiting for.”
– Lynette Pohlman, University Museums Director and Chief Curator

The opportunity to exhibit Rose Frantzen’s studio works of art is an exciting view into her artistic practice when she is not working as a commissioned public artist and for the needs of others. The strength of Frantzen’s ability to extrapolate identity into visual imagery is easily seen in her public works of art for Iowa State. Examples of Frantzen’s Art on Campus commissions will be found in the Perceptions of Identity: Paintings by Rose Frantzen exhibition. The exhibition examines these public art commissions while bringing Frantzen’s studio paintings into the conversation. Themes of exploring and understanding identity are present in much of Frantzen’s work which is depicted in the exhibition with the series In the Face of Illusion, presenting a look into Frantzen’s artwork when she is free to investigate her own questions. The paintings are evidence of the mental contemplation Frantzen engages in to gather understanding of issues such as identity and implicit bias. Employing the human figure, the series heightens her exploration of identity by overlaying optical illusions into the images. A visual representation of the artist’s reflections on a concept, the paintings exhibit a dedication to continuously learning and expanding her knowledge base. The exhibition also presents an opportunity to highlight Rose Frantzen’s significant contribution to building Iowa State’s distinct vision through the Art on Campus Collection, while delving deeper into what it means to explore and understand our perceptions of identity.

-Sydney Marshall, Assistant Curator

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