CEDAR RAPIDS - A futuristic curved plywood-and-steel chair by Sogol Rashti faces a window to the world by Michael S. Ryan, in a nod to Kate Kunau's parents.
That's one of the secret joys of being the new associate curator of collections and exhibitions at the Cedar Rapids Museum of Art.
"My parents have a beautiful screen-in front porch, and they always sit out there on summer nights and watch the sun go down. And so when I got that chair, I wanted to find a beautiful landscape for it be across from, because that was such a big part of my summers growing up," says Kunau, 31, of Iowa City, a Preston native who joined the museum's staff Jan. 5. Beautiful vistas were part of the landscape of her hometown in northeast Iowa, about seven miles from the Mississippi River, halfway between the Quad Cities and Dubuque.
An art historian and Ph.D. candidate at the University of Iowa, Kunau specializes in 17th century Baroque art. She says she had great fun stepping out of academia to pull together her first major show at the museum.
"Midwest Summer: Light and Warmth," is on exhibit in the first-floor galleries through Sept. 13. Admission is free for all ages through Aug. 30, thanks to support from Built by Pros, Cedar Rapids Bank & Trust, Transamerica and UFG. After that, fees topping at $7 will go into effect.
Kunau likens her work to "a treasure hunt." She scoured the museum's massive subterranean storage units to choose new works for several of the building's changing galleries devoted to specific themes or artists like Mauricio Lasansky, Grant Wood and Marvin Cone.
"I'm like a kid in a candy store," she says, noting those projects gave her the chance to become familiar with the museum's vast holdings.
But for "Midwest Summer," she got to choose the theme and issue the call far and wide - including website and social media messages - inviting artists living in Iowa to submit works created in the past three years for the juried exhibition. Her prep work began shortly after joining the staff, at the urging of Executive Director Sean Ulmer.
"(He) designed it as a really excellent way for me to get to know the local artist community and the larger Iowa artistic community," Kunau says.
She received 264 submissions from 110 artists across the state, and chose 62 works by 60 artists, portraying images of Iowa at various times of the day and/or relating to summer. Many are landscapes, with sunlight filtering through leaves or abstract depictions, like Hannah Morris' "Swamp Heat," a large oil painting full of intense color, bold strokes and a swath of sticky white-hot sunlight.
"I wanted really varied media," Kunau says. "I was super-pumped, because I got it. I wanted a bunch of 3D objects and I got them. I knew the theme, 'Midwest Summer,' just skews toward landscape, but I knew that I wanted representational and non-representational, and I wanted different media - and I was just blown away by the talent that I saw. It was really amazing, fascinating, and just such a cool experience to see how talented artists in this state are."
The collection includes ceramics, turned wood vessels, jewelry, furniture, glass, collage, oil paintings, acrylics, watercolors, pastels, abstracts, Impressionistic works - and a 7-foot beehive lamp dripping with "honey" and bees.
"Every piece in there is gorgeous," she says. "It was just an embarrassment of riches to choose."
She used a "blind" process, with the artists' names hidden from her view, so she wouldn't be swayed by anyone's status or reputation. Consequently, some, like Morris and Rashti, are UI graduate students. Others are familiar names in Eastern Iowa circles: Sandra L. Dyas, Fred and Velga Easker, Thomas C. Jackson, Robert Kocher, Tara Moorman, Jeni Reeves, John Schwartzkopf, Sara Sorensen, Bill Stamats, Priscilla Steele, Stan Wiederspan, Mary Zeran, photographer Mark Tade and architect Bradd Brown.
Kunau used "every inch" of wall space and wall cases in the museum's back three galleries to create logical groupings, beginning with times of day, moving from morning to midday to storms - because they often come in late afternoon - followed by evening and nighttime's dramatic lighting. Other themes showcase summertime activities in stunning varieties, as well as buildings, plants, people and animals.
She sketched the layout on graph paper, and among her many considerations were keeping pieces away from the corners so viewers won't get "stuck."
"This was my great experiment, but I'm really happy with the way it turned out," Kunau says. "All the pieces are spectacular, so it's fun to have them here.
IF YOU GO:
WHAT: "Midwest Summer: Light and Warmth"
WHERE: Cedar Rapids Museum of Art, 410 Third Ave. SE
WHEN: Through Sept. 13
HOURS: Noon to 4 p.m. Tuesday, Wednesday, Friday, Sunday; noon to 8 p.m. Thursday; 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday
ADMISSION: Free through Aug. 30; after that, $7 adults, $6 college students and ages 62 and over, $3 ages 6 to 18, free ages 5 and under