With the launch of the fourth Conservation Station mobile education trailer earlier this year, Iowa Learning Farms and Water Rocks! took another step forward in not only carrying important research- and science-based natural resources, conservation and water quality information to audiences across Iowa, but also in using artwork as a means to reinforce and communicate these important messages.
The Conservation Station interiors are designed as immersive learning labs which present visual information in an atmosphere supported by ambient sounds evocative of marshes and other natural areas across the state.
"Art is a very personal medium that speaks to different people in different ways," says Ann Staudt, water quality specialist for Iowa Learning Farms and one of the contributing artists to the Conservation Station projects. "Offering visual guideposts for conversations while fostering connectedness between viewers and images is a tried-and-true way to support intentional and casual learning. Artwork and music have been crucial to the success of our outreach programs, and we are grateful for the contributions from Iowa artists who have applied their talents to making our messages relevant and impactful to all audiences."
Conservation Station Marsh Madness is the third trailer featuring original artworks from Laura Comito, owner of Artworks Studio in Carroll, Iowa; Cecelia Comito, an independent mixed-media artist; and Staudt. The team has collaborated to create artworks for inside and outside surfaces as well as a variety of supporting educational materials and posters.
Showcasing Iowa landscapes
Representing authentic Iowa landscapes and ecosystems is the underlying theme of the conservation art created for ILF and Water Rocks projects. According to Staudt, the art not only depicts Iowa landscapes and wildlife, but the original works are also designed to evoke thoughtfulness about individuals' hopes for Iowa's future. As tools for outreach and education, the images provide relevant and familiar scenery that facilitates learning about Iowa, and its environmental challenges and efforts to create a better future for all Iowans.
The core artistic team worked with ILF team members to craft a vision for the trailer, and then got to work creating and constructing. The resulting immersive experience provides visitors with authentic audible and visual inputs, combined with exhibits and artifacts that can be viewed and touched. Sometimes the ideas weren't achievable, such as Laura Comito's wish to have a spongy and marshy floor in the trailer, but the conversations always led to creative ends which made the entire project more realistic and effective.
A professional artist and educator, Laura Comito uses her skills to create and help others learn to create their own art. She created or sourced many of the models, realistic plants and animals for the trailer interior displays, as well as providing creative input and hands-on preparation and installation of the images and displays.
Her vision for Marsh Madness was to create a wetland museum with touch points that could offer visitors the opportunity to experience the natural ecosystem as if they were walking into an Iowa wetland replete with native Iowa plants and creatures in their natural habitats.
"I learned a lot about the world of taxidermy through this latest project," Laura Comito says. "I was not aware there were so many creators who specialize in native species of plants and animals. With a little research and internet searching, I found very accurate and high-quality artifacts that support the authenticity of the installation."
Cecilia Comito refers to herself as a dabbler, not a professional artist. She returned to her roots in Iowa after many years as an attorney in Chicago, but has always held a fond remembrance of Iowa and its natural beauty. In fact, some of her works used in earlier Conservation Station projects were based on her vivid memories of Iowa, but created while living in Chicago.
"I specialize in mixed-media art, which utilizes a variety of repurposed and other materials that are manipulated and applied to a surface to create dimensional art that conveys its message through the resulting image, as well as the materials used to construct it," Cecilia Comito says. "For the Marsh Madness foundational piece, we started with torn-up pages from old Wallaces Farmer magazines, added layers from historical Iowa books and papers, and continued to build texture and depth with natural-fiber papers. The method provides historical and contextual anchors to Iowa, while the final image incorporates familiar landscapes, wildlife and plant life."
Cecilia Comito commented that she relied on Laura Comito's expert eye as an artist to help draw all the different elements together. "She could look at the pieces and envision exactly how it would all go together, offering suggestions or ideas that not only helped us create a better piece, but also kept the continuity of the experience intact."
Reflecting on the conservation education mission of ILF, Cecilia Comito is quick to point out that conservation and production are not adversarial concepts. "Protecting and maintaining a healthy environment is not an all-or-nothing proposition," she continues. "We all want Iowa to continue to help feed the world and be relevant to future generations, but it needs to be done with an eye to the future that harmoniously integrates all goals. We can have a great landscape to look at, great places to play, clean streams for recreation and agriculture, fields you can run in and productive agricultural enterprises. It just takes cooperation and knowledge. ILF and Water Rocks help provide some of that knowledge and I am excited to be a part of the process."
Ripley is a conservation and cover crop outreach specialist with Iowa Learning Farms and Water Rocks.