“Meet the Artist” is a series of interviews with the Iowa Artist Fellows.
For more than 20 years, Julia Franklin has been making art with objects people have left behind.
But the West Des Moines artist’s latest work was inspired by a single box of her father’s possessions, given to her recently, long after his tragic death 26 years ago. The items helped her discover the mysterious circumstances surrounding his suicide, a murder investigation, a book and two true crime episodes on TV.
Franklin worked at the Dallas Museum of Art before her current job teaching art at Graceland University, in Lamoni, and is one of five new additions to the Iowa Arts Council’s Artist Fellowship Program. The fellowships were created in 2014 to support Iowa artists who contribute to artistic excellence and innovation in Iowa.
As part of the fellowship, she and the other fellows will travel the state to discuss their work at public events, receive career-development training and a $10,000 grant.
We asked them to share a bit about their backgrounds, their work and their thoughts about the arts in Iowa.
So here’s Julia in her own words . . .
Where do you make your work?
Even though I make art in my home studio and in the sculpture studio at Graceland, some of my best work happens at the kitchen table.
What is your artistic medium of choice and why?
I’m a sculptor and an installation artist who relies on found objects to tell stories. While I have the skill to reproduce objects in a variety of materials, it is just that — a copy of the original. Found objects are rich in history and at times charged with power and emotion. I’m compelled to use them so my works feel honest and true even though they tiptoe between the boundaries of art and artifact. The artistry emerges through careful selection of these precious objects and the creation of displays that showcase their worth.
What themes does your work explore?
I’m a detective. I see found objects as clues that point to a person, place or event. My job as an artist is to collect and analyze them to figure out what they mean. Ultimately, my work deals with preservation and the search to understand our individual and collective identities. My work also embraces nostalgia by holding a magnifying glass to what we leave behind and questioning how things came to be.
What are you currently working on?
My work over the last year has profoundly shifted from telling other people’s stories to my own. For most of my life, I thought I understood my father and how his tragic death shaped me. Even though I’ve used found objects in my art for over 20 years, I never imagined a newly discovered box of my dad’s odds and ends would become the center of an exhibition that led me to question his identity as well as my own. To make sense of his suicide, I created displays and multi-sensory experiences with my dad’s personal objects, letters, and documents to publicly share my past and reveal my own changing narrative.
When a friend saw my first exhibition about this, “Picking Up the Pieces,” he said it reminded him of a set with props on a stage with no actors. I began to see my installation through a different lens. What if I added actors? So I am now writing a play about the day Dad went missing, his death and our recent discoveries.
I am also experimenting with the encaustic process (using beeswax and paint) to create new works that preserve his letters. It’s a wild ride, and I’m not sure where I will end up. But I am saying “yes” to new adventures and allowing the art to go where it needs to go.
I am still trying to figure out how to tell some recent discoveries . . . We thought my dad’s suicide was due to debt, but we recently discovered that it was more than that. He was gay and miserable that he couldn’t be himself. Additionally, we found out he was a key witness who established a motive in an arsenic murder case. He had an appointment with the sheriff to make another statement, but he took his life instead. There happens to be a book about the murder and at least two true crime episodes on TV where an actor portrays my dad. My sister and I knew none of this for over 26 years and only learned about it by chance after our mother passed away.
What do you enjoy about being an artist in Iowa?
Moving from Texas to rural Iowa helped me notice and value overlooked places and objects. It’s a place that has helped me slow down, become aware and reflect. Most importantly, it made me realize that Iowa is a treasure box of quirky small towns, abandoned houses, fascinating people and breathtaking landscapes, and that we need to find small ways to appreciate and preserve them. Iowa thankfully provides a safe place to take risks and try new things
because the community is so supportive.
What is one thing you would change about the artistic field in Iowa?
As Iowans, we see that the arts are alive in communities all over the state, but I’m not sure people outside of Iowa know that we have an incredibly vibrant and diverse art scene and world-class art experiences. While Iowa is recognized for its agriculture and politics on a national stage, I’d like to see major news shift to cover the arts.
Are there any upcoming events or milestones you’d like folks to know?
“Portrait of My Father” runs Jan. 14-March 1, 2019 at the Helene Center Galleries at Graceland University in Lamoni.
— Jeff Morgan, Iowa Department of Cultural Affairs