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Art on the Prairie

For the pilot phase of We the Many, Arts Midwest partnered with Art on the Prairie in Perry, IA (population 7,700). Perry’s We the Many residency spanned visual art, storytelling, community placemaking and more, encouraging local residents to tell their stories and come together.

A person paints trees on a mural panel
Photo Credit: Art on the Prairie

About Art on the Prairie

Art on the Prairie is a nonprofit organization that brings together artists, entrepreneurs, and community members through arts programming. After a population decline in the 1990s, Perry, IA has experienced a population resurgence due in part to an influx of Latinx residents, who now make up over forty percent of the town’s population.

Visit the Art on the Prairie Website

A group of four people sit on couches around a table in a coffee shop, holding up pieces that they're each stitching.
Photo Credit: Art on the Prairie

Artist In Residence: Erik Dominguez

Erik is an immigrant who grew up between two cultures and mixed messages, which fueled him to learn and share the tools to overcome those obstacles. For nearly 25 years, his team-oriented teaching style has centered around shared experiences, a philosophy that everyone has a unique story, and a belief that everyone can share their minds and hearts through powerful presentation

Learn More About Erik

Headshot of a smiling person of medium light skin tone with dark hair, wearing a vibrant floral dress shirt and a red bowtie.
Photo Credit: Erik Dominguez

Community Stories from Perry

We the Many began as a community listening project in summer 2019. From the start, the project sought to use creativity, empathy, and optimism to support three Midwestern towns in building new bridges within and beyond their communities. We came together to celebrate community assets, co-create new arts experiences, and coordinate artist-in-residence programs that would bring people together to explore Midwestern identity and vitality.

Exploring Storytelling

In June 2021, Perry, Iowa’s We the Many community partners began hosting the in-person events that they had been planning –and dreaming of — since the early days of the pandemic. One of the most profound was an evening at Tin Pig Tavern.

Over the last 1.5 years, Perry residents had been connecting to each other, planning a residency in their community, and participating in storytelling workshops. This finale performance was a chance to bring all these threads together in one event.

Bustling with the energy of a hot summer night, locals from Perry and the surrounding area came together to share stories and experience the music of singer-songwriter Chad Elliot.

“As Chad was performing, I scanned the crowd, and saw the delight on people’s faces. It has been over a year since we’ve had experienced that. I had goosebumps – a live event is special and unique.”

– AWKI NJI, Artistic Director
Women on stage delivering a personal story for community event
Photo Credit: Invictus Media
Art on the Prairie’s final We the Many community storytelling event

The Power of Story

The evening was a chance to tell for both novice and expert storytellers to share their reflections on life in and beyond Perry, Iowa. These stories were months in the making, guided by artist in residence Erik Dominguez.

As an educator, trainer and coach, Erik has always been fueled by stories — imagined and real. Through a series of three workshops Erik helped Perry locals develop and perform 5- to 10-minute personal stories at the Tin Pig Tavern — and encouraged their friends and neighbors to do the same.

“A lot of people hesitate to tell their stories because they don’t know how or they don’t have a venue.” said Erik. “A program like the one in Perry helps heal individual hearts and the heart of the community.”

Inviting in Everyone

It was important to We the Many organizers to spread the word about this event to all sorts of people in their community. Before organizer Mary Rose Rose Nichols retired, she had spent 27 yeas as a teacher in the local school district.

“We wanted to engage more people in our events, so we all reached out to people that we wanted to invite,” said Mary Rose. “I reached out to some of my former students — and they came! It was so fun to visit with them – I hadn’t talked to them since they were in eighth grade. and to have us all there that evening. As it turned out, a lot of them ended up either taking a storytelling workshop or even being a storyteller. It was a great night for me to see.”

“A program like the one in Perry helps heal individual hearts and the heart of the community.”

Erik Dominguez, Artist-In-Residence
A lush green mural showing prairie life on the side of a mainstreet brick building
Photo Credit: Art on the Prairie
Art on the Prairie commissioned a mural by by Des Moines artists Jimmy Navarro and Katie Jensen as a capstone to the We the Many storytelling project.

Capturing What’s Good

Celebrating place is a core component of We the Many, and each community partnership begins with in-depth asset-mapping conversations with local project partners. The goal of these conversations was to learn about existing resources (institutions, associations, individuals, traditions), and incorporate these unique strengths into the project.

But celebrating place didn’t end with those early planning sessions. Instead, Ames, Iowa-based visual artist Jennifer Drinkwater brought her What’s Good Project and ethos to Perry – inviting local students to photograph what’s good about their community.

Capturing photos of local trails, businesses, houses, and landmarks, high schoolers Sebastian Hernandez and Jaylene Karolus documented places across Perry that they consider meaningful. In June, the images were proudly displayed on Main Street, at Betsy Peterson Gallery and the Chamber of Commerce.

The project was both an important way for the students to share what they value about their home, and for the Perry community to see what some of its younger residents consider most important.

Photographs hang on the window of an art gallery with a shop sign labeled "Betsy Peterson Design."
Photos displayed as part of the What’s Good Project in Perry, IA.

“I’m 16 years old, and I have lived in Perry for most of my life. I decided to photograph a few of my favorite spots in Perry where I have a lot of memories growing up. I took a few pictures of our downtown because I love how beautiful and lively it is. A couple of my favorite downtown places are the Carnegie library and Soumas Court. Another location I photographed is the McCreary Community Center. It’s an important place to me because growing up, I’ve spent a lot of time there taking part in community activities and being with friends and family. I also took photos of a few outdoor public places such as Forest Park, the Raccoon River Bike Trail, and Weise Park. These are places where I have spent time riding bikes, playing, and hanging out with friends and family. I love being outside and in nature, so I’m glad Perry has areas where people can enjoy the outdoors!”

– Jaylene Karolus, student participant

Creating a Community Mural

Carrying on from programming in 2020-2022, Art on the Prairie commissioned Des Moines artists Jimmy Navarro and Katie Jensen for the creation and installation of a public art mural in Perry’s historic downtown. Through the process, community members watched the progress and even help paint during community painting events.

The new Art on the Prairie mural depicts a Dallas County prairie landscape in a style reminiscent of stained glass. We the Many represents the many individual stories that connect, bridge, and blend together through commonality and finding common ground. Much like a stained glass mosaic with many individual pieces, our diverse community is stronger with many individual connections. Similarly, the diversity of a prairie’s ecosystem is the key to its sustainability and long-term success. Just as prairie roots grow deep, so too, do the roots of Community in a small town.

Now complete and installed above Raccoon Valley Bank, the mural stretches approximately 75 feet wide near the intersection of 2nd Street and Warford Street.