Art Takes Root

A new attraction combines art and agriculture to cultivate creativity among visitors and locals alike.

Art Farm Iowa artist-in-residence Fausto Fernandez was so inspired by the landscape that he dragged a canvas across the ground like a tiller. The subtle stained-grass results are shown below.

Writer: Christine Riccelli
Photographer: Cierra Peterson/Dalluge Photography

Driving along rural roads in north central Iowa on a glorious sunny summer day, you see what you likely expect: lush fields of corn and soybeans, classic red barns, massive silver maples. But then you come across something more improbable: a mural of cheery pink tulips on a traditional two-story white farmhouse. Looking closer, you see additional murals — a colorful bull, fluttering butterflies, frolicking rabbits — adorning the livestock building, grain bins and garage, plus sculptures dotting the property.

Welcome to Art Farm Iowa, a new 10-acre attraction in Worth County located two miles outside Northwood, a town of 2,100 near the Minnesota border. Situated on a 173-acre working farm, Art Farm opened on Labor Day weekend 2023, but it’s still a work in progress, scheduled for completion in 2025.

“The idea is to meld art and agriculture in an approachable rural setting,” said Steve Hanson, Art Farm’s progenitor whose father and mother, Merle and Jeanette Hanson, own the three-generation family farm. “There are people who are uncomfortable in museums and who don’t regularly engage with art. And there are people who aren’t exposed to agriculture or rural settings. We want to create a place where both groups can feel 100 percent comfortable and welcome.”

Hanson, 51, splits his time between Northwood and Phoenix and feels at home in both worlds. He grew up on the farm and currently leads Nutrasocial, a business development and marketing consulting company that serves clients in the food, nutrition and agriculture industries.

His love of art took root when he was young. He visited museums like the Art Institute of Chicago during trips with 4-H and FFA. His interest continued to grow over the years, and he’s been collecting art since the mid-1990s.

Jeanette, Steve and Merle Hanson own the three-generation property that is now Art Farm Iowa.

Art Farm’s Origins

The idea for Art Farm stemmed from musings between father and son in 2021. “We were thinking about what was next for the farm,” Hanson said. “I told Dad it would be great to do something with art, and as everything evolved, we realized the farm would be the perfect place to marry art and agriculture.”

The art component will include exhibits, installations, artist demonstrations and lectures, classes, workshops, concerts, performance art, hands-on activities and more. The overall collection contains about 1,000 works that have been purchased, commissioned or donated. Artists from Iowa, the United States and even farther afield are represented in the collection, which includes ceramics, drawing, fiber, glass, painting, photography, sculpture, wood and more. (To learn more about the artists and the inaugural exhibit, see below).

A new 4,000-square-foot barn, constructed by local Amish artisans, houses a gallery, gift shop, kitchen, and spaces for performances and special events. Nearby, a pair of 350-square-foot grain bins are being turned into a studio for ceramics and glass; one will house the exhibits and classroom, the other will contain the kilns. A third grain bin is being converted into an open-air drink and snack bar, where visitors can relax and enjoy the bucolic surroundings on an adjacent patio. Art Farm’s artist-in-residence program is already up and running. A different artist will stay on site during each of the summer months — June, July and August — and live in the farmhouse until cabins are built within the next few years.

When dsm visited this June, a Phoenix-based multimedia artist named Fausto Fernandez was eager to discuss his residency and his first time in Iowa. He was so inspired by the pastoral landscape that he hooked a canvas to the back of a tractor and dragged it back and forth along the ground, mimicking the ritual of planting crops. He liked the stained-grass results and will display both the canvas and a video of the process at an upcoming show in Arizona.

“It’s very unlike anything I’ve done before,” said the artist, who grew up in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico. “Being here has challenged me to do new things as an artist.”

Artwork by Fausto Fernandez.

Rural Experience

That kind of direct engagement with the land is Hanson’s goals for Art Farm. To that end, he has set aside four acres of prairie — funded in part by a $2,500 USDA grant for soil conservation — that will feature walking trails through gardens of vegetables and flowers, designed by Iowa State University interns. Also, since the entire property lies along the migration path of the monarch butterfly, Art Farm is partnering with Monarchs on the Move, an Iowa State Extension and Outreach program that encourages 4-H youth to develop butterfly habitats.

“We see having a long-term relationship and collaboration with Art Farm,” said Dennis Johnson, ISU Extension’s education specialist in Worth County. “It’s a different way to showcase agriculture, especially to people who don’t understand or appreciate it.”

To fund Art Farm, Hanson formed a nonprofit organization. In addition to private donations, the organization has secured $60,000 in grants from the Worth County Development Authority, which administers grants from Diamond Jo Casino, located seven miles east of Northwood just off Interstate 35. Hanson said the casino itself can help draw tourists: “People who go to the casino are looking for more things to do in the area.”

Beyond the tourism boost, Art Farm can serve as a potential “third place,” a venue outside of home and the workplace where people can gather, said Jennifer Drinkwater, a community arts specialist for ISU Extension. “Steve is really trying to integrate the community into Art Farm,” she said. “With its focus on being accessible, there’s a huge potential for placemaking.”

Both Drinkwater and Johnson credit Hanson with both a strong vision and the practical know-how to create a sustainable project. “Steve has a lot of connections,” Johnson said. “With his leadership and marketing skills, Art Farm will be able to draw people from all over.

“He’s one of those guys who has a positive attitude and keeps moving,” Johnson added. “He gets things done.”

Douglas Miles, an Apache artist from Arizona, painted one of several colorful murals at Art Farm.

The Iowa troubadour William Elliott Whitmore livened up an early event in 2022.

If You Go

Art Farm opened Sept. 1, 2023, with a new building for a gallery and events. The inaugural exhibit features artist Anthony Martin, an Army veteran from Meservey, Iowa, who carves wood sculptures with a chainsaw, and Lucretia Torva, a Phoenix painter whose works are inspired by regionalists like Thomas Hart Benson and Grant Wood.

Other features are currently complete, including:

  • Outdoor murals by Torva, as well as the San Pedro, California, artist Jules Muck (aka Muck Rock) and the Spanish artist YAI, who lives in Los Angeles.
  • Other murals featuring portraits of Native Americans by Douglas Miles, an Apache artist from San Carlos, Arizona. He painted one of the murals on a reclaimed barn door that incorporates original items from the barn, such as a lightning rod.
  • An interactive sculpture, called “Canned Ham,” (below) which consists of a 1948 metal teardrop travel trailer that Tucson artist Willie Ray Parish converted into a mobile camera obscura. When you stand inside the trailer, you can see a 360-degree view of the surrounding landscape on the floor.
  • Other sculptures, including a fiberglass goat by Phoenix artist Bill Dambrova and an Iowa-inspired glass mythological figure by Madison Kopsa, who grew up in Gilman, Iowa, and currently lives in Scottsdale.

“Canned Ham” by artist Willie Ray Parish.

Steve Hanson expects Art Farm to be completed in 2025. Planned amenities include:

  • Walking paths through the 4-acre prairie, as well as additional landscaped areas.
  • Flower and vegetable gardens.
  • A monarch butterfly habitat and garden.
  • A ceramics and glass studio.
  • Three cabins for resident artists and visitors.
  • An outdoor bar and patio.
  • Regular classes and workshops on art, music, writing and more.

Art Farm Collection

Art Farm’s collection of approximately 1,000 artworks comprises a range of emerging and prominent artists, including Grant Wood (two signed prints) and Andy Warhol (a Polaroid photograph and a print). Other notable artists include:

  • Lucy Sparrow from Bath, England, known for her colorful installations created with felt. Art Farm will display her work starting in June 2024.
  • Jonathan Edelhuber of Nashville, whose oil and acrylic works combine modernist Picasso-like motifs with the pop style of comics and cartoons.
  • Katia Lifsin, a Ukraine-born Israeli artist known for blue-green paintings that explore themes of family, memory and identity.
  • Well-known Iowa artists such as Cedar Falls painter, printmaker and muralist Gary Kelley; Des Moines painter Richard Kelley; and Malvern painter Zack Jones, who repurposed an 1873 church into his studio and an Airbnb.

Steve Hanson plans to rotate Art Farm’s collection for display — and continue to cultivate it through classes and projects. “We want to have creative opportunities happening all the time,” he said.  “One of the phrases we’ve been using is ‘Live. Grow. Create.’ And that’s what we want to establish both in terms of the art and agriculture being practiced.”

Art and Wine

In addition to starting Art Farm, Steve Hanson is transforming a 1922 building in Northwood into a new wine bar and art gallery. The three-story structure, which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, housed various bars over the decades but had been vacant for 10 years when Hanson bought it in 2021.

He plans to fill the first-floor gallery of the nearly 5,000-square-foot building with original works and prints by Cedar Falls artist Gary Kelley, as well as a painting from the late Cedar Rapids artist Richard Pinney (1924-1996). The bar will serve wine and other drinks, plus light appetizers.

Upstairs, a former bowling alley is being turned into an apartment, office and event space. The basement will contain a wine cellar. Hanson has been encouraged by the community’s enthusiasm for the $350,000 renovation and expects to complete it by the end of 2024.

Find It

Art Farm Iowa, 4953 Olive Ave., Northwood, Iowa
In general, the site is open April through November. For updates, find Art Farm Iowa on Facebook.

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