January 18, 2022

Public art: A catalyst for connection, change

National prize partners local students with international talent

It’s been nearly a year and a half since Creston Community High School art teacher Bailey Fry-Schormeier and her former student, Tatelyn Schultz, first approached Creston City Council for permission to paint wildlife murals on two city-owned walls. Now, the Mentor Mural Mashup program, Fry-Schnormeier and Creston Arts are the recipients of a prestigious national award from the National Academy of Design – the Abbey Mural Prize – and a $10,000 gift.

Abbey Mural Prize

According to its website, each year, the National Academy of Design in New York City invites artists, architects, arts and community-based organizations and other nonprofits to submit proposals for the Abbey Mural Prize.

Created in 1932 through an endowed bequest in honor of illustrator and muralist Edwin Austin Abbey, the Abbey Mural Prize grants support for the commission of public murals in the United States. Building on a tradition of public murals as instruments of social activism, neighborhood revitalization, and community engagement, the Abbey Mural Prize aims to broaden support and recognition of the vital role that murals play in making public space more open and accessible.

Fry-Schnormeier said she was encouraged by Nicole Salgar of NS/CB Studio in Miami to apply for the award and recalls the moment she learned she was awarded the prize.


“I was sitting in the auditorium, the last day of teacher in-service, June 4, and I was waiting for the retiree presentation to begin,” she said. “I saw an email pop up on my phone, I checked it and I started squealing. I showed it to the middle school teachers sitting behind me, to share the news with them, because I was sitting by myself and so overjoyed.”

The project

The $10,000 prize Fry-Schnormeier received from the National Academy of Design on behalf of the Mentor Mural Mashup program and Creston Arts has been put toward the program’s latest project, which begins this week with Colombian artist Gleo and students enrolled in CCHS’s visual art classes this semester in McKinley Park.

Fry-Schormeier first discovered Gleo’s work through a YouTube video which showed 17 painted grain silos in Wichita, Kansas. She shared this video with her students earlier this week to show them who’d they be working with.

“It has been the largest mural painted by one artist in the world up to date,” said Fry-Schrnomeier. “I think they were pretty blown away watching the video and one lit up right away and said, ‘I’ve been there. I’ve seen that!’ So that was exciting to see her reaction to see that’s the artist that is in Creston right now that she’ll be working with soon.”

Fry-Schnormeier said, had it not been for her husband Blake, she would not have finished the application.

“We have a really amazing program, but as I filled it out, I thought, ‘This isn’t us. We aren’t there yet,’” she said. “We’re just this little mural program. We’re not at this level. This is like next level stuff.”

Blake got on the application and started working where Bailey left off.

“He encouraged me to keep going and get it submitted,” she said. “Without that push, I wouldn’t have gotten it done. I don’t know that Gleo would be here right now. I don’t know that this project would be getting started this week. It was a lot of work and I just really feel it was above the work we were in the midst of.”

But the panel of five jurors from the National Academy of Design felt differently.

“At first it just seemed kind of surreal because I know how much the program means to me and I see every day the impact it’s had on youth in our community,” said Bailey. “To have someone from outside our community, who doesn’t even know us be able to see that and recognize the power of the program is really rewarding.”

Bailey was surprised to have been awarded the Abbey Mural Prize as its typically awarded to projects in larger communities.

“I only saw these projects being done in major metropolitan cities across the country,” she said. “I’m very interested in finding out now, what is the smallest community that has been impacted by an Abbey Mural Prize project. Are we talking the size of Des Moines? Are there other rural communities? Are we the first?”

Sherry Edmundson Fry

Bailey is not the first Crestonian, nor the first Fry, to be recognized by the National Academy of Design.

In 1914, American sculptor Sherry Edmundson Fry was elected in to the National Academy of Design as an associate member, becoming a full Academician in 1930.

According to the National Academy of Design, becoming a national academician is a lifetime honor given annually by the current national academicians — it cannot be applied for or solicited. In a tradition dating back to 1825, current members confidentially nominate and elect a new class each year, honoring the group’s remarkable contributions to the story of American art and architecture.

National Academicians show work in National Academy of Design exhibitions, foster the next generation through educational programs, and, in keeping with a tradition dating to its founding, offer a diploma work to the permanent collection.

Fry was born in Creston, Sept, 29, 1879. After his high school graduation, he enrolled at the Art Institute of Chicago, where he studied sculpture with Lorado Taft. He then moved to Paris, where he attended the Académie Julian and the École des Beaux-Arts, and worked with Frederick MacMonnies, a former student of the famous 19th-century American sculptor, Augustus Saint-Gaudens.

“He actually went on to live in Paris and Rome and has a bunch of really famous sculptures, but he grew up right here in Creston, Iowa,” Bailey said. “He’s an amazing sculptor. World famous.”

Fry also played a prominent role in designing the U.S. Army camouflage during World War 1.

“He was big in the camouflage unit, so when Eric (Cheung) was designing the piece for the 42nd Infantry Division in Rainbow Park, we shared that with him and he was like, ‘Aww man, I totally want to do camo! We got to honor this guy from Creston,’” said Bailey.

Bailey is unsure if there is any relation, but she is researching their potential connection.

Iowa Art Council

Last week, the Fry-Schnormeiers presented at the Iowa Rural Summit. Each year, the annual summit brings leaders from small towns across Iowa together to discuss and address issues such as housing, economic development and leadership.

“Art can be that catalyst and help drive economic development,” said Bailey.

David Schmitz, administrator of the the Iowa Arts Council, moderated this year’s Iowa Rural Summit. He invited the Fry-Schnormeiers to share with other community leaders about Creston’s mural program and the impact of arts on economic development in rural communities. The opportunity enabled the Fry-Schnormeiers to guide others in how to reach out to artists, how to be equitable, and how to go about the mural process within a community.

“It’s really about the vitality of the arts and how they are in direct correlation to the resiliency of the community and how the arts can be an indicator of economic vitality and success,” said Blake.

Armed with information from a 2019 study conducted by the National Governors Association, Blake shared how art can drive economic development and encourage community engagement in the smallest of towns.

“Communities that have a performing art centers grew faster. Their population grew faster. Communities that had public art rebounded faster in the 2008/9 recession,” said Blake. “Bailey and I are not economic developers, but we we’re there to speak from our viewpoint of creatives within our community and how, even though we aren’t economic development people, we can see the attraction to public art and why the community engagement is important in projects and helps create community.”

The Fry-Schnormeiers said they have witnessed an influx of new visitors to Creston because of the mural project.

“Often we’ll give tours to people who are from out of town,” said Blake. “People will email us, tell us they are coming in to town ahead of time. We’ve had folks that have drove from over three hours away.”

“They grab a bite, check out the shops up town and do a mural tour,” said Bailey.

Blake said he sees the murals as a key component to attract new people to Creston or inspire people to return home.

“I was telling the kids today, we went off to college, we lived in the city and we enjoyed all the public art, the music and the galleries, we loved all that,” Bailey said. “When we moved back to Creston we thought, ‘How do we make this what we want it to be?’ If we choose to live here. We want to be with our family. We want to be in a smaller community to raise our family. How do we bring what we love to Creston?”

Bailey said she told her students about Keith and Kyrie Smith whose passion and hard work partnered with other community volunteers led to the establishment of a skate park in McKinley Park. She told them about the fundraising and planning Jeremy Rounds and Angie Wegscheid are working on to bring a dog park to McKinley in memory of their daughter Lexi.

“I just said, ‘If there’s something you really want your community to have, there’s nothing out there that says you can’t push for it and you can’t do it,” Bailey said. “I’m just blown away by the support we’ve had and everyone whose been involved. It’s just kind of crazy.”

SARAH  SCULL

SARAH SCULL

Sarah Scull is native of San Diego, California, now living in Creston, Iowa. She joined Creston News Advertiser's editorial staff in September 2012, and was promoted to managing editor in 2018. She now serves as associate editor, writing for Creston Living and Southwest Iowa AgMag in addition to the daily news.