Muscatine Community College (MCC) students work with local artist to create campus sculpture

Take a walk around the Muscatine Community College campus and you’ll likely find a newly erected sculpture in the quad, right outside Loper Hall. You can’t miss it—standing almost 10 ft. tall and taking up over 40 ft. of real-estate, the sculpture beautifully depicts Iowa’s unique agricultural history.

It was a project that started in 2019, when MCC received a grant from the Iowa Arts Council for a series of metal sculptures to feature on campus. With a directive to showcase Iowa’s unique landscape, it only made sense to enlist students from the Agriculture program to brainstorm ideas and have students from the Welding program build it.

farming sculpture in front of sidewalk

John VandeWalle, a local artist who specializes in engineering repurposed metal art sculptures, was also brought on to bring those concepts to life.

“From discussions with students, I learned a lot about the history of agriculture and agriculture in Iowa,” said VandeWalle. “For me, my understanding of agriculture was driving through Iowa—what I see on the highway.”

Putting his newfound knowledge to the test, VandeWalle’s sketches included a rolling landscape of hills, contoured tilling in perfect rows, standing corn stalks, a sun and moon nestled among wind swirls and a tractor as the main focal point.

With sketch in hand, VandeWalle joined heads with MCC’s Welding Instructor, Chris Kramer, to render the drawing for cutting and welding tasks . Once approved, Kramer, VandeWalle and more than 15 students from the Welding program got to work.  

Ruperto Martinez, now an MCC graduate with a welding certificate under his belt, said this class project was a nice change of pace.

“In class, we practice flat welds, horizontal welds, vertical overhead, lap, butt and tee joint welds, over and over again until we get good at them,” said Martinez. “This project was a lot of fun because we actually built something.”

Pointing at the back portion of the sculpture, Martinez adds, “I welded together some of the corn stalks and the anchors running down the hills’ backs.”

Things for the triad team were going smoothly until the pandemic hit. This, coupled with Iowa’s cold winter months, prolonged the project by a year. Despite it all, VandeWalle found this added time to be a blessing in disguise.

“We were able to get more materials. I was able to sit and think about what exactly the sculpture involved, what it meant and how best to represent it,” said VandeWalle. “We came to the conclusion that rather than a single piece, we needed to do several different panels and several different sculptures.”

And in true VandeWalle fashion, the art installation was almost fully comprised of repurposed steel and metal, donated from local distribution companies and from members of the Ag department. Kramer, the MCC Welding Instructor, says that it’s been enjoyable overseeing the project from start to finish.

“It truly was a team effort and every student was able to have a hand in it,” said Kramer. “Personally, it’s been amazing to watch John’s artistic ability in real time. I mean, just how he so easily threw together pieces to create the tractor portion—I was in awe.”

VandeWalle agrees this project was a team effort, taking him outside of his comfort zone.

“It was an intimidating project, just because I knew that it would take me outside of my normal box of just working by myself—trying to fulfill the expectations of others, trying to support a team—but it’s been fun.”

He hopes this is just a starting point for different departments at the college to do the same thing. “I’d love to see other artists collaborate to bring more to the campus.”