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In Des Moines News

Drake alumna paints Dogtown mural about Black Renaissance

Photo by: Lily Wasserman | Staff Writer

Art is flourishing in Dogtown. From the live music at xBk and Lefty’s to the yearly Art Week that builds up to the art festival, the area is entering a period of artistic growth. This includes the murals on the sides of many buildings, such as the new one on the side of xBk by artist and Drake alumna Jill Wells. 

Wells’ mural depicts the Black renaissance, also known as the Harlem renaissance. xBk owner Tobi Parks said he chose Wells because of her canvas work, and the artist began work after funding came through. 

“I’ll go by the venue, you know, just working around or walking around the neighborhood, and seeing people just stopping and taking photos,” Parks said. “And that’s part of the reason, right, is like trying to get people to engage with the work and get people to notice what is in our neighborhood and the rich artistic value that we’re providing.”

xBk also has a community mural in its patio area, where it is encouraged for artists to leave their own mark on the wall. Parks and Wells are currently working on a tactile-based mural for the visually impaired. 

According to Director of Community Engagement Ryan Arnold, there had always been the general desire for more art in the neighborhood among various neighborhood associations. During the pandemic, sidewalk art parties proved that art could bring the Dogtown community together, which community associations and creative groups took note of. That’s where the murals came in, with the goal of giving the area’s residents a greater sense of community, even temporarily. 

“We met with community partners, and one thing that came out in this discussion was interest in beautifying the walls,” said Teva Dawson, director of Group Creative, an organization that connects organizations to artists primarily in central Iowa and Kansas. 

The business district previously received funding from Wells Fargo and Invest DSM for the Dogtown Lighting Project in November, and they reached out to both again for the murals project. Invest DSM marked the Drake area as a neighborhood to invest in and bring vibrancy to. Since the murals aligned with that goal, the group conducted a pilot program designed around middle-market areas, neither the most nor least valuable on the housing market, such as Dogtown.

“Ever since we started the special investment district, we have wanted to infuse a kind of artistic approach to that,” said Lori Calhoun, the president of the Drake Neighborhood Association and member of the committee for the Dogtown business district in Invest DSM. The Drake Neighborhood Association was involved in the sidewalk painting and worked with Group Creative to help bring emerging artists more visibility in the area. 

Group Creative worked on finding artists for the murals and connecting them with Dogtown businesses. The business owners would envision how the mural would look, and Group Creative would find artists who met the criteria for mural painting. 

Not all the murals in Dogtown are permanent. Two of the murals are on buildings set to be condemned.

“We don’t have exactly how many years, but those two buildings will eventually be demolished and new construction will happen there,” Arnold said. “But what if we go ahead and use the space as a canvas for artists to add vibrancy to the neighborhood?” In his eyes, the murals might bring temporary benefits to businesses and the neighborhood that the blank walls would not have. 

Beyond the murals, Dogtown has an upcoming lights exhibit that is designed to bring more foot traffic to businesses in the winter months, opening in mid-November. Through this exhibit and other future projects, art in the Dogtown area will continue to ingrain itself in the identity of the Drake neighborhood. 

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