Jumping Into the Void Creating a Community Art Center in Oskaloosa Iowa

by Sarah Kargol, Matt Kargol

  • Interview
decorative header image from Volume V Issue 1 · Fall 2018

Sarah Kargol was born in Colorado and raised in eastern Iowa. She received her bachelor’s degree in studio art from the University of Northern Iowa in 2000, and is an award-winning mixed media artist with artwork in permanent collections throughout the Midwest and Southeast United States and Canada.

Speaking about her process, she says: “In developing my own voice through art, my love for ephemera and all things dusty, forgotten, vintage, and quirky has grown. I create small pieces and individual parts out of these papers, fabrics, and threads from society’s past treasures and assembling them together. Layering them with other individual pieces and parts opens up new conversations about some of our shared humanity’s weirdest and worst ideas and highlights our beautiful collective movement forward.”"

Sarah is co-founder of the Oskaloosa Art Center and Studios and serves as the Director of the center, where she coordinates classes and events. She also serves as a board member of Fine Arts and Cultural Events of Mahaska County (FACE), which aims to “provide exceptional arts education and opportunities in order to make art accessible and exciting to our community.”

The couple met while at University of Northern Iowa. After spending three years in the South pursuing their artistic careers, they decided to return to Matt’s hometown to raise their four boys.

Upon arriving, they discovered that their new, rural community in the heart of Mahaska County had a void they felt they could fill. We talked with them on a summer afternoon about how they’ve been trying to do just that over the past two years."

*In July of 2018, Rootstalk Associate Editor Vincent Benlloch spoke with Matt and Sarah Kargol, founders of the non-profit Fine Arts and Cultural Events (FACE) of Mahaska County, Iowa, housed at Oskaloosa’s Art Center and Studios. *

Rootstalk: We’d be curious to hear a little more about what’s going on in Oskaloosa right now for you, what programs you’re offering, and the trajectory for your work.

Sarah: We opened the art center four years ago on the east side of town, and for the most part I think it was a successful endeavor. I know for a fact that Oskaloosa never had an art center before, ever in its history, which kind of surprised me. We opened up a brick and mortar space where we could offer classes and whatnot, and about a year and a half or almost two years ago this space was offered to us by Musco Lighting [a multinational company headquartered in Oskaloosa]. [Musco CEO] Joe Crookham knew that we needed a better location, something where more residents would know that we have this kind of service available. They renovated this building and donated all their labor and materials, and we opened a year ago last April. It’s just been a killer year. It’s been just amazing. I think people now can happen by us and kind of discover that we have an art center and find out what kinds of things the art center can offer the community. We have lots of classes and activities, and different events for everybody.

Evening at the Oskaloosa Art Center and Studios in the town’s historic downtown district. Photos by Briana Bartlett unless otherwise noted

Evening at the Oskaloosa Art Center and Studios in the town’s historic downtown district. Photos by Briana Bartlett unless otherwise noted

Matt: We have the gallery shows.

Sarah: Yeah, we have a gallery, classrooms, ceramics, and printmaking. This outer space area that we’re in is where we do performances and open mic nights where people can come and do whatever they want on the stage—you know, family friendly.

Matt: Oskaloosa Community Theater comes and performs here.

Sarah: Yes, they do. We also put up a temporary wall where people can come and hang up their art for a night during “Open Wall/Open Stage” once a month. I think that it’s beneficial to get people to put their art in front of people, I think that’s a big step. We’re just super excited about the growth that’s taken place in the last year. Especially with this sculpture tour that’s happening and the things the Art Center is doing, like our involvement with the city as we implement our public art plan.

Matt: We’ve got the sculpture studio that we’re working on getting open too.

Sarah: The art center is expanding, so we’ve been allowed use of another building down the street on A Avenue. That will be our sculpture annex. We’ll be teaching three dimensional classes there like metal fabrication, welding, I’m not sure if we’ll do any woodworking there because of the welding, you don’t want that fire hazard, but we might offer some wood classes, we’ll see. We’re hoping that we outgrow that space quickly and are able to offer glass blowing or move the ceramics classes that way. So more three dimensional that way and two dimensional in this space.

Matt: One of the cool things with the art center and the sculpture annex is that people in the community will not only be able to learn how to do these things, but will then have a facility where they can do these things. It’s really hard to set up a studio yourself. You need equipment that costs a lot and takes up a lot of room. Having that space where people can have studio time and just come and create it will be pretty unique in Iowa. I don’t know if there is another sculpture community or sculpture studio in the whole state.

A gallery show at the Oskaloosa Art Center and Studios. Photo by Sarah Kargol

A gallery show at the Oskaloosa Art Center and Studios. Photo by Sarah Kargol

Sarah: So, that’s our trajectory. We have big plans. Probably bigger than we can chew off by ourselves, and we know that but I think the bigger we think and the bigger we dream, the bigger strides we make here in Oskaloosa.

Matt: I think the biggest thing we need right now is to increase our people-power.

Sarah: Our volunteer base is very small.

Matt: We need more people involved. The more people we can get involved, the more things we can make happen. When we have five to seven people doing everything you can only do so much. If we could get 20 people, that impact just magnifies.

Rootstalk: You mentioned this public art plan. How are you connecting with local funding sources or how are you planning to implement it?

Sarah: When we moved to Oskaloosa we noticed there was kind of an art void. Matt is looking at things from a bigger perspective, I don’t know, he’s got this huge dream for Oskaloosa. I’m talking huge, like this is going to be an art mecca someday. What he did was he actually sat down and wrote a public art plan for the city’s use—but it didn’t go that way, so we’re holding on to it and using it ourselves.

Matt: There’s a lot of elements to it, and really, the sculpture tour is the first step in that. For the sculpture tour we were able to get seed money—grant money from the Golden Goose club here in town—which is a hundred women who put a hundred dollars down each quarter to fund a specific event.

Sarah: It’s just a grassroots group of women that just pull their money and then vote on where it goes in their community. For example, we got seed money for the sculpture tour, but the next time I think the police got new body cameras. They fund all types of stuff in Oskaloosa. I think it’s a unique group and it’s a really amazing funding source.

Matt: Now, the impact on the community is huge. People come to Oskaloosa now and go, wow, this is an art community because there’s art around.

We call it the sculpture tour and it really does act like a tour. If someone were to go to each location of a sculpture they would learn a lot about the community because the sculptures are placed in locations where there’s significant history. Those are places that you wouldn’t go to if you didn’t know there was history there but you start to learn about the community that way. It really helps engage the community and visitors too. So that’s the first step.

Sarah: Phase one!

Matt: Phase one. We’re looking at murals on buildings, also some street murals. There’s just a whole list of stuff that we want to do, but you know, we’ve got to take it in steps and make sure our funding sources are secure for what we’re doing before we add something else to it.

Anywhere but Here, by Nathan S. Pierce

Anywhere but Here, by Nathan S. Pierce

Rootstalk: You mentioned there was an art void here. We’re curious—with the schools and the local education system here, how does this connect with education? Do you get any support from either high schools or middle schools, or William Penn University? Have you been able to draw them in?

Matt: We’re trying to draw them in. With me teaching at the high school, I give additional credit for going to art openings and participating in these things. There’s art in the classroom and then there’s art out in the community that’s happening. We do stuff in the classroom and we learn, and that’s great, but then there’s this whole art world that we’re trying to create here and that we’re trying to bring to Oskaloosa. Having those experiences is different than sitting in the classroom. I grew up here and I loved art and I went to school for art, but I went to college having never been to an art gallery. It wasn’t available to me. So when I moved back here to teach, that was one of my goals—to make sure these kids can’t say they didn’t have that opportunity, so that the opportunity now exists.

When we first changed out some of the sculptures we were in the square watching, and there were some people walking down the street and they stopped and were looking at all the sculptures and they were talking. I have no idea what they were saying, but that was a conversation that wouldn’t have happened otherwise. It sparked something. I don’t know if they liked it or disliked it, but that doesn’t really matter. The fact is that they were contemplating something that they wouldn’t have contemplated before and so their world has expanded.

"Cultural Pedestrians," by Sue Quinlan

“Cultural Pedestrians,” by Sue Quinlan

Rootstalk: We’re curious what each of your individual philosophies or approaches to art are both in your practice and in your work in the community? How has that changed or developed as you’ve been working here?

Matt: Having the support of the art center has made me kind of get with the game a bit more and get in the studio a bit, you know, because it’s available. Before I was working out of a one car garage with all my stuff and I couldn’t use half of it. Now that I have a space to work it’s a lot more convenient.

When we moved here, we’d been in a lot of other towns. We’d been in Clemson, South Carolina but we had a studio in Greenville, SC. Greenville has done a whole re-development based on the arts. It’s been rated one of the most beautiful cities in the South, and it is beautiful. They’ve developed the riverfront with art studios. So there’s a hotel and restaurants up above, but it’s all studios along the river and it’s just beautiful. They’ve really embraced their artists. They have art walks, they have studio tours, they have all this stuff and coming from an environment where there’s a good number of artists to a place where there really wasn’t.

There’s not that community here. That’s part of my vision, is that we keep building our facilities up so that artists are going to want to be here. I know when I graduated from college there was no way I could’ve set up a studio myself. You don’t have the resources to do that. But if you could come to Oskaloosa, and you’re a sculptor and there’s already a studio set up then you can kind of integrate into that. This is a great place to get started. It’s fairly cheap to live here, you got a studio to work from, and then we’re starting to build that community.

There’s artists doing all kinds of wonderful things and if we can bring them here…and they could work through the art center…that just exposes our community to more opportunities and more ways of working…

Sarah: My perspective from the art center point of view was a little different. I work with a lot of youth, a lot of young kids. I think that’s going to help, you know not immediately, but it’s building a population that appreciates art, does art, and knows that it’s valuable in all sorts of ways, educationally or emotionally art is just a good thing. I don’t want to put down my town here—so be careful with what you write—but I know that Oskaloosa isn’t too educated on the arts. And I feel like our focus on education and exposure is going to help. Especially this next generation that’s coming up. Maybe [art is] not going to be this foreign thing. The longer we’re here, the more of an impact we’re going to have. This is a safe space.

"Flight," by Hilde DeBruyne

“Flight,” by Hilde DeBruyne

Matt: I like to think we’ve given a home to a lot of kids where they can feel comfortable. There’s people, not just kids, that go through all kinds of things in their lives and sometimes the world is kind of cruel and not accepting of people who maybe are a little different. Art is all about being different. We’ve really found that a lot of the community who sometimes is on the fringe have really embraced the art center and made it their second home. A lot of kids who’ll just come and hang out and it’s like, “ok, man, that’s cool.”

I do sculptures so I’m always trying to balance what I do. I like to do big stuff but big stuff is hard to move, and hard to sell, and hard to do stuff with. There’s constant struggle there when I want to make big stuff but then I realize I’ve got to make smaller stuff and when I can put it on the wall that’s even better because people have space on walls, they don’t necessarily have space out in the three dimensional world. So, those are things that always push and pull me with my art. With the sculpture too, I wanted to have a place where I could also show my work. You know, if I can’t show my work in my own town then it’s a problem. It wasn’t necessarily about me, but it was about….

Sarah: It was about a passion!

Matt: I love sculptures, and if I love it, somebody else was going to love it.

"Angles, Shadows, Reaching," by Bill McGrath

“Angles, Shadows, Reaching,” by Bill McGrath

Sarah: And people do.

Matt: So we might as well share it.

Sarah: I think that’s key to what’s going on in Oskaloosa. I don’t want to point at one person, but he’s been this push for the art center, he’s been the push for the sculpture tour, our public art plan. He’s been the guy who’s like, “this is what we need,” so he lights the fire under us, under our board or gives us something to chew on so we can move forward in what we provide the community. So Matt’s passion for 3D or metal fabrication or any sort of sculpture really has fueled getting the art center going, this sculpture annex going, the sculpture tour, I mean all of it. I want to say we’ve all worked together to get this going and up off the ground but Matt’s really been the ignition point.

There’s artists doing all kinds of wonderful things and if we can bring them here…and they could work through the art center…that just exposes our community to more opportunities and more ways of working…

Matt: Going forward, we want to start a residency program because we only can teach so many things to people who are in this community, we only know how to teach so many things.

There’s artists doing all kinds of wonderful things, and if we can bring them here for a couple weeks, a month, a few months, however it works out and they could work through the art center, teach a class here and there, do their practice, that just exposes our community to more opportunities and more ways of working that we can’t necessarily give them right now. I do metal fabrication sculpture work, I don’t do figurative bronze work. I wouldn’t have a clue. That’s something that I know people in the community identify with as sculpture, these figurative bronzes-realistic-type-things, that you make out of clay and then cast. We need to bring in an artist who does that, so that it’s something we can get started. Once people learn it then they can develop it here and we can keep bringing people back.

Rootstalk: You mentioned that you’re from Oskaloosa originally…

Sarah: I grew up in the Cedar Rapids area, actually. I moved there when I was eight, and I was born in Colorado, but I don’t really remember that. We met at University of Northern Iowa, in our Education class, and got married shortly after that.

Matt: We both went to UNI. Then I taught at different places.

Sarah: Taught high school.

Matt: Taught high school. And then went back to graduate school after I got my BA and MA at UNI. Then I went to graduate school at Clemson University. Got my MFA there. Then I taught in South Dakota for four years which was very….

Sarah: It was difficult in a lot of ways.

Matt: It was difficult. It didn’t match us very well. So then I resigned from there and we went and did art full time for three years.

Sarah: I’m a mixed media artist, and I was doing really well, really well. And then we moved down to South Carolina in 2009 which is when the market just bottomed out. We did art full time for three years which was… and I tell people this… it was great and at the same time the hardest thing I’d ever done.

"Angele," by Chris Wubbena

“Angele,” by Chris Wubbena

Matt: It was the best of times, it was the worst of times….

Sarah: It’s really true. We had four kids and no money. The power kept getting shut off, Christmas presents were being donated to us, I mean it was really difficult with the kids, but at the same time we were doing, you know, what we were put on this earth to do, which is to make art and bring beauty into the world. So we had to make a tough choice then.

So Matt came out one day and said his old high school art teacher was retiring and he asked if he should apply, and I was like, “I don’t want to move to Oskaloosa, but if you want to apply, it’s not like we would have to move there.” He applied, and then he got an interview. I was like, “just interview it’s not like you have to take the job.” But then he interviewed, and they offered him the job, so when someone offers you a job and you don’t have food in the fridge, you kind of have to take it, right? Especially with our children. We wanted to set a good example for them, that’s why we went and did art full time. We wanted to say, “look, you can follow your dreams, you can be who you want to be or who you’re made to be in this world,” but it wasn’t that easy.

"Where We Goin'," by Jacob McGinn

“Where We Goin’,” by Jacob McGinn

Matt: You know, we’re artists. Artists need a community to work from and to work around other artists and creative people. It’s interesting because I always think of myself as an artist first and then I teach after that or I advocate for the arts or I do all these other things, but I’m always an artist first. And then I look at some of my artist friends who all they do is art, and I’ve never been able to just do art, I’ve always done these other things to try and build the arts, and I don’t know where that comes from. I don’t know, it’s just part of how I operate, I guess. I guess it’s because when you realize that art is so great, you want to share that, you want to make sure that everyone understands that, knows how wonderful it is. And when you look around and realize no one else is doing it or only a few people are doing it, you realize: if someone’s going do it, it’s going be me.

Sarah: Right. See a need, fill a need. There was a definite need here, so we jumped in. Rootstalk leaf-bug icon marking the end of the article's text.

About Interviewee Sarah Kargol
Sarah Kargol is an award-winning mixed media artist with artwork in permanent collections throughout the Midwest and Southeast United States and Canada.
About Interviewee Matt Kargol
Matt Kargol is a sculptor and native of Oskaloosa, Iowa, where he teaches Art at the local high school.