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'Something the community would identify with': Cultural Studies professor is helping brighten Iowa town, one mural at a time

Creighton Cultural Studies Professor Barbara Dilly, PhD, with one of the murals she restored in Shell Rock, Iowa.Whether at street level or 40 feet up, as long as she’s got a paintbrush in her hand, Barbara Dilly, PhD, finds many opportunities to brighten up rural America.

For nearly the past quarter of a century, the associate professor in the Department of Cultural Studies at Creighton University has been painting or restoring large murals on the buildings in Shell Rock, a northeast Iowa town of about 1,400 people.

“It’s a place that’s meaningful,” said Dilly, who grew up on a farm outside of Shell Rock and maintains a home there, where she lives and engages in participant-observation research during breaks from classes. “It attracts people. There is a vibrant folk culture there and I hope my paintings help contribute to that energy by providing a little more local color. Everyone in the community does something to keep this small town alive — the volunteers on the fire department, the farmers, the town residents, nearly everyone is involved in some way. The paintings are just my part in it all.”

Dilly first became involved in the project in the mid-1990s when town officials were looking for a way to beautify and enliven Shell Rock’s vintage downtown. One suggestion was to repaint a large, mid-century Coca-Cola advertisement that greets visitors and residents alike. When the cost to restore the mural came in at $5,000, Dilly stepped up and said she’d do it for free.

Local businesses donated money for supplies and equipment and, before long, Dilly found herself on a scissor-lift high over the corner of Main and Cherry streets, touching up the roughly 30-foot-by-30-foot mural in red, white and blue. A year later, her success with the Coca-Cola sign led to another project on the other side of the building, restoring a Gold Medal Flour mural.

From there, Dilly moved down a bit to scaffolding-level projects.

She underscored the iconic Coca-Cola logo with another large mural proclaiming: “Shell Rock, Iowa, USA… Our Home Town,” a painting now featured on the town’s website. During the town’s bicentennial, she restored a 15-foot-by-40-foot painting advertising the JR Clawson & Son Hardware store, this one at street level.

After working on murals outside, in 2016, Dilly was invited by the mayor and city council to do a large mural for the interior of the new Shell Rock City Hall. She elected to do a four-panel mural in oil depicting the Shell Rock River — which cuts through the heart of town — in all four seasons, from different vantage points from hiking trails along its banks.

“It is the river ecosystem that gives Shell Rock its unique identity and beauty,” Dilly said. “That’s how these projects go. They ask me, and I do it. With the painting in City Hall, though, they just said they wanted something having to do with the river, so I came up with the four seasons. I went out in each of the seasons and took pictures of different spaces on the river and incorporated all the wildlife that shows up on the river in the different seasons, including people kayaking in summer. It took me a year, from fall to fall, working on each season’s portion of the painting.”

This summer, she came back outside, painting another original on the side of the telephone company’s building depicting an operator at a switchboard in a scene from 1963. The local telephone company commissioned the mural but gave Dilly artistic freedom.

“Again, I was interested in doing something the community would identify with,” she said. “And as I was painting, people would pass by on the street and say, ‘Oh, my mother used to be a switchboard operator.’ I got many stories out there painting.”

The murals are far from Dilly’s first artistic endeavors. Before she got a doctorate in anthropology and a professorship at Creighton, she was an artist, painting in the tradition of Midwestern Regionalist artists like Thomas Hart Benton and Iowa’s own Grant Wood. As a multimedia artist, Dilly also worked on large stained-glass pieces for churches in California.

In Dilly’s work is also an undercurrent of the public art that came into vogue during the 1930s as part of the New Deal’s Federal Art Project to help unemployed artists get back on their feet. Large murals were painted in many government buildings, notably post offices, where some can still be seen today.

“My work is reminiscent of those public arts projects,” she said. “Any community that still has one of those treasures it as part of their local heritage. People always tell me they like the murals I paint because they remind them of their local heritage. They say they brighten up the town, cheers them up. I hope so.”

On the strength of Dilly’s murals, Shell Rock initiated a community arts festival, recognizing the many others in the area who ply their artistic talents. The town boasts artists working in the medium of wood, quilt artists and metal artists, as well as other painters and crafts artists.

Dilly hopes her work encourages others to “go public” with their work, suggesting scrap-metal sculptures and various odes to the community’s farming heritage would be fun to create.

“We’ll see what happens,” she said. “I never know what will come next, for me or for someone else.”


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