DIANA NOLLEN/THE GAZETTE – CEDAR RAPIDS — No one was prepared for the severity of the Floods of 2008.
Mel Andringa helped pile up sandbags a foot and a half high around his first-floor art studio in the 1916 firehouse and the adjacent 1891 CSPS Hall, then placed his art atop tables. Soon thereafter, he was told to prepare for five feet of water, so he stacked tables on top of tables, topped by art. But then the water rose 10 feet inside the building, those plans toppled.
“The tables just floated and dumped all their contents into the water,” he said.
Just like that, so much of his life’s artwork was destroyed.
Nearing 65 that summer, he had been thinking about retiring. That notion washed away, as well. The next decade brought “the 10 hardest years of my working life at CSPS,” he said from his new studio on the third floor of the Cherry Building. It’s a block away from the renovated CSPS Hall, which he and F. John Herbert began turning into a cutting-edge performing arts hub in 1991.
Both historic buildings have become anchors for the revitalized NewBo District in southeast Cedar Rapids. The firehouse has been reclaimed, as well, offering studio space and living quarters for visiting artists and performers.
After the backbreaking days of flood recovery, Andringa went back to his drawing boards, and began noticing the way floodwaters continued to influence his art. So today, he will open a large-scale exhibition of his murals and supersized puzzles in the second-floor main gallery at CSPS, 1103 Third St. SE. Some depict scenes of the city’s evolution, others show art emerging like undulating water from the woodgrain of large plywood panels.
All show the deep and lasting impact of those dark days and years before CSPS reopened on Labor Day 2011.
Also rising from the fetid waters is an exhibit in the Cherry Building’s first-floor gallery. Titled “Lost and Found, 2x2xU: My River, 2008,” it opens today (6/7) and runs through June 14. The colorful mural Andringa designed for the “Moving Home” artistic response to the flood, presented in July 2008 on Brucemore’s outdoor stage, will loom large in the Cherry Building exhibition.
Andringa’s “Morphing Murals of the Drawing Legion” exhibition will be on display at CSPS through July 29, but likely will stay up through the newbo evolve festival Aug. 3 to 5. He’ll be showing 16 pieces, some of which have his art on both sides.
The title hearkens to The Drawing Legion, the name for his earlier performance art initiative that presented original multimedia works in New York, Amsterdam, Iowa City and other points at home and abroad. One component was his “performed painting,” in which he created paintings right before the eyes of audiences. He continues to do this kind of work, sometimes using sidewalk chalk or tempera paint so the layers can be wiped off or washed off, and reworked.
Spectators are invited to watch a new piece in progress at 7 p.m. June 14 at CSPS. It’s all about the process, not the finished product. “It’s about being engaged in the activity of painting, the verb form, rather than the noun,” he said.
That’s one aspect of The Drawing Legion that remains.
After relocating to Cedar Rapids, the company’s scope broadened to bring a new world of musicians, dancers, writers, plays and gallery exhibitions to Cedar Rapids — from Yoko Ono’s art to actors Jeff Daniels and Ronny Cox in concert. The business name eventually morphed into Legion Arts, today’s umbrella organization that owns and operates CSPS Hall.
As he approaches his 75th birthday in August, Andringa’s goal is to step back from the operation of CSPS and spend the next decade creating a body of artwork that’s his own, and not part of an organization.
The works in the Cherry Building were part of the 2008 summer public art project dubbed 2x2xU, in which people from all walks of life are invited to buy a 2×2 piece of plywood from the organizers, and create art around a theme. Those works are then installed indoors and out, turning the NewBo District into a public art gallery. Theme for this year’s 15th event is “My Animal,” on display through October.
But in 2008, the theme was, prophetically, “My River.” Most pieces were touched by the floodwaters, some ending up with debris caught in fences. Some will displayed as they were when the waters receded. Others have been cleaned up, recycled, restored or reproduced from digital images of the original panels.
That’s an analogy for what Andringa sees as the three ways people respond to disasters: wanting everything put back the way it was, which in his opinion, doesn’t let you move on; wanting everything to be new, on higher ground with more levees, to put everything behind them, but then every bump in the road reminds them of what they’ve lost, he said.
“Artists have a third point of view,” he said. “It is, ‘Something happened to me, and I’m going to wrestle with this experience until it gives me a song or it gives me a dance or it gives me a play or it gives me a painting.’”
And 10 years after the disaster, the flood still is giving him art.
WHAT: Mel Andringa exhibition: “Morphing Murals of the Drawing Legion”
ABOUT: How the Floods of 2008 continue to inform his creative thinking
WHERE: CSPS Hall, Main Gallery, second floor, 1103 Third St. SE, Cedar Rapids