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As nightfall drops its canvas on Des Moines, the scent of latex house paint seeps from Studio 411 at Mainframe Studios. Betsy Hart, AS’16, pours a large circle of a Drake blue shade on an oversized glass frame where it fuses with layers of red and gray. Her giant abstract of broad strokes and bold splashes drape the walls and join drop cloths cluttered with sketches and vivid cans, stir sticks, and swatch boards.
Hart’s creative pursuits have filled every inch of the 450-square-foot studio as the first alumnus tenant in the Department of Art and Design Alumni Studio’s new one-year residency program. The studio space is located in Mainframe Studios, a non-profit organization offering workspaces for all types of artists near downtown. The opportunity inspired this emerging artist to pick up her paintbrushes again.
After earning a Bachelor of Arts degree in painting in 2016, Hart settled into a full-time work as a barista where she doubled as the coffee shop’s art manager. But her own artistic vision lost focus in the confines of a tiny one-bedroom apartment.
“I stopped creating for a while just because of the space, and let other things in life get in the way,” Hart says. “Creating was always on my mind, so it was really exciting to have a space that wasn’t in my home where I could develop a consistent studio prac
tice and just make art,” Hart says.
Funding a dedicated space to simplify the transition into a dynamic and growing Des Moines art community is precisely what Drake University President Marty Martin and Department of Art and Design faculty members Ben Gardner and Emily Newman envisioned when Mainframe Studios opened in 2017.
“We’re trying to help answer how you evolve from a student into an artist,” says Newman, who coordinates the program’s nomination process. “Some students choose paths that allow them to work on their computers in a variety of spaces, but others need a physical space where they can leave things out and make a mess. We thought this was a great opportunity for students because it’s a pre-built community. There are support systems and the infrastructure is already there.”
Gardner, the outgoing department chair, says the studio space connects the curriculum’s objectives for formal techniques and conceptual ideas with access to a boots-on-the-ground experience. “We are constantly evaluating and figuring out ways to make sure that our teaching is based in the ideas of the traditions involved in art, but also how students will be able to move forward after they graduate,” Gardner says.
Connecting to community
For Hart, maintaining routine studio hours resulted in more than fine art outcomes. It fostered friendships and artist alliances, and built confidence to expand her talent in new directions. She experimented with an innovative medium consisting of thick paint layers that allowed her to use wood-carving tools to manipulate and expose richly-colored tiers.
Participating in a series of “First Friday” open studio events broke down barriers to delivering the public side of her craft. “Those events gave me an opportunity to develop in different ways and work closely with other artists. I created a website and business cards and hung my art professionally. And it forced me to become comfortable showing my art to people and talking openly about it,” Hart says.
As Hart’s residency drew to a close this summer, she hosted her first solo exhibition at a local venue and gave a presentation to department faculty and students. “It was such a dynamic experience and a great launching pad, and I’m really grateful to Drake and the president and faculty for supporting it,” Hart says. “Making connections with people in the Des Moines art community was incredible, and I want to keep making and showing my work.”
It was such a dynamic experience and a great launching pad, and I’m really grateful to Drake and the president and faculty for supporting it…
Growing Des Moines Art
Hart is passing the key to Studio 411 to former Drake classmate Ryan Topeat, FA’16, who has spent the past two years attempting to create pieces in a garage and duplex. Neither were ideal places to make his art.
“Not only will a studio help me as an artist to create work within a proper space, the studio size will dictate the actual size of the work being made within that space,” Topeat says. “I can’t speak for all artists, but I can say that about my work because I like to work on big compositions.”
Topeat is equally appreciative and looking forward to his succession into the residency program. “It’s showing that Drake is helping their fine art graduates with the essential tools to flourish within their respected fields of work and achieve goals for the future.”
Newman adds, “By having the opportunity at Mainframe Studios, we’re hoping that we can get more of the Drake art and design alumni to remain in the Des Moines area and help art grow here.”