2024 is Olson-Larsen Galleries' 45th anniversary! To help commemorate this special milestone, we present the next installment in The OLG Archives blog series. 

 

We started this series last summer as a way to celebrate the gallery's steadfast history while starting the next chapter in our new space. In the previous post, we highlighted a few artists who we have represented for several decades– Amy Worthen being one of them. Amy, an OG OLG artist, has graciously offered to write this post. 

 

Enjoy Amy's recollections!


Since 1970, Olson-Larsen Galleries (originally, Jan’s Gallery) has represented my art works. My collaboration with the gallery has spanned virtually my entire adult life. At the risk of sounding like my grandmother telling me about when she first saw an airplane, I would like to share a few memories of the gallery’s earliest years and put its founding into the context of what Des Moines was like back then. 

 

In 1970, when I was twenty-four years old and had recently completed an MA in printmaking at the University of Iowa, we moved to Des Moines. I thought that we were coming here for just one year. A born-and-bred New Yorker, I never anticipated spending my life in the Midwest. Little did I know how things would play out or imagine that, in becoming an Iowan, I would discover possibilities for artistic growth and enjoy career opportunities that I never might have had back East. 

This is what Des Moines was like when my husband Tom accepted that supposedly one-year appointment at Drake University. In 1970, the Art Department was housed in World War II era metal temporary buildings. Downtown Des Moines consisted of mainly low-rise buildings, yet it had a flourishing business district with department stores and shops as well as office buildings, mostly of insurance and publishing companies.  There was no Civic Center, no Gateway Park, no skywalks. Gray’s Lake was an industrial wasteland. The lights on the Weather Tower predicted the weather. Terrace Hill was still in private hands, uninhabited, not yet the residence of the Governor. Further out, Merle Hay Mall was an open-air collection of stores, the walkway between them unroofed. In West Des Moines, there was no Valley West Mall yet. Valley Junction featured one main street with an elegant bank, a shoe repair shop, and lots of bars and second-hand shops. 

 

Des Moines had so many movie theaters. The immense KRNT theater hosted major concerts and shows. The Des Moines Symphony and Civic Music offered subscription concerts, but the Des Moines Metro Opera was still just a gleam in Robert Larsen’s and Doug Duncan’s eyes. National Public Radio and public television and Sesame Street were new. Des Moines had no real food scene at all, and the grocery store offerings were bland. Politically, it was a traumatizing time. We had been horrified by assassinations of leaders and troubled by the country’s always deeper involvement in the war in Vietnam, spurring resistance; we were inspired (or divided) by the Civil Rights, Black Power, and Peace movements. Beards were controversial, as was breast-feeding in public. This was before the re-energizing of the women’s movement and second-generation Feminism. It was before Watergate and before the fall of the Iron Curtain. Iowa had seven Congressional districts. The political parties in Iowa got along. It was before the Iowa Caucuses.

 

In 1970, business and academic communications were by typing and mimeographing. Photocopying was a recently new technology. There were no personal or office computers, no cell phones, no digital photography, and no digital printers. No emails, no Internet, no websites, and no social media. Advertising of cultural events was by print-only mailed invitations and ads. But in the 1970s, the Des Moines Register and the Des Moines Tribune had something important that, for today’s Des Moines, is a grievous loss–—reporters whose beat was to cover the arts. Its two major newspapers had actual art, literary, and music critics.

Around that time, a few watershed events occurred that impacted art in Des Moines. For example, in 1969, Jim Demetrion had arrived as the new director of the Des Moines Art Center, invigorating the art community by bringing cutting edge national and international movements and especially, California art to Des Moines. (Jim would eventually bring me on to guest-curate print exhibitions at the Art Center, launching my complex career as a working artist, print historian, and museum curator.) 

 

Also in 1969, Bonnie and Shirley Percival launched Percival Gallery in downtown Des Moines. Housed in the Shops Building (built as an interior Renaissance courtyard with shops opening on to it, and demolished years ago). The gallery brought Pop and Op Art, Color Field painting, and Minimalism to Des Moines collectors. They featured paintings and prints by artists including Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg made at collaborative print workshops such as ULAE, Gemini, and Tamarind. Percival also showed the University of Iowa-based artists Mauricio Lasansky and Ulfert Wilke.

Shortly after our move to Des Moines (that first year we lived in the basement level of a Victorian-era house across the street from Terrace Hill), a friend introduced me to Janice Shotwell.[1] At that time, Jan was organizing a new art gallery in Valley Junction in West Des Moines, featuring Iowa artists. She was planning to name it Jan’s Gallery. Jan was a painter married to Walt Shotwell who was a well-known journalist for the Des Moines Register, and the mother of late teenage children. She had served in the Marines during World War II and was of that generation of Des Moines artists who, as young adults had seen the birth of the Des Moines Art Center, volunteered, took classes, and taught there. Many were closely linked as students and friends to the artists-in-residence. These were important painters who came to the Art Center for a two-year stay and had a great impact on the local art community. An influential and beloved artist for Jan’s circle was the painter, Fred Gros. Jan’s commitment to local and regional art grew out of her lived experience. In this, she would become a leader and mentor to many.

 

I have all my old Metropolitan Museum of Art appointment calendars going back to my high school days (an annual Christmas gift from my mother.) I recently paged through the calendar for 1970, which that year featured an early 14th century Apocalypse manuscript.  For September 29, 1970, I wrote in red felt tip pen, "Janis Shotwell at 649 Polk Blvd at 10 or 10:30" I spelled her name wrong... but how astounding, it was really just weeks after I moved to Des Moines. I showed my prints to Jan, and she invited me to be in the inaugural group of gallery artists. The original location of Jan’s Gallery was 519 Maple Street in Valley Junction. (I took the photo used above and in the previous blog post showing the mobbed opening of a show at the Maple Street location. My handwritten notes show in the margin. I can identify a few other Iowa artists and community members in the photo too.) 



[1] Jan Shotwell’s bio and oral history interview can be found here

 I don’t remember exactly when the Gallery moved to 203 Fifth Street but it was a great location at a time when going antiquing in Valley Junction took off and there was much foot traffic. The Fifth Street space had a living-on-the Earth vibe. The walls were covered with burlap. There may have been shelving-on-bricks and macrame. Jan had the illusion that she could run the gallery and paint at the same time. Her friend, painter Val Tone, was often there with her, painting too. 

 

Featuring the work of established and emerging Iowa artists, Jan’s Gallery showed a variety of media, from paintings, prints, and sculpture to ceramics. Many of the artists taught at colleges and universities around the state. Among the distinguished painters whose work she represented were Betty Miller, on the faculty at Iowa State University, and Byron Burford at the University of Iowa. Although she sold a lot of art, works by designer-craftsmen also helped keep the lights on. I remember one very popular item was a ceramic candle holder with a tear-shaped wax candle that she sold so many of, though I do not recall the name of the potter who made them. Among the most gifted ceramicists were Lee Ferber at Drake, and studio potter Mary Weisgram, whose distinctive, white-glazed porcelain was very sought-after. 

Marlene Olson, Jan Shotwell, and Amy Worthen at opening reception

Amy Worthen, Susan Watts, Maria Worthen at opening reception


As I wrote earlier, I could not have anticipated that I would encounter such an abundance of opportunities for artistic growth here, growing along with Des Moines. Jan’s Gallery and Olson-Larsen Galleries were instrumental in this, making good things happen for me and others. We have come far. It’s been a joy to think back to those early times with wonder and with gratitude.

"Wing and Bloom" featured artists at opening reception, October 2023. 

Left to right: Kirsten Furlong, Barbara Fedeler, Rachel Deutmeyer, Amy Worthen, Paula Schuette Kraemer, Molly Wood

Amy Worthen speaking about her latest series of wisteria drawings, 

October 2023


A heartfelt thank you to Amy for the kind words and for sharing her experiences with everyone! We feel so fortunate to be able to work with amazing artists and clients, and we look forward to doing it for another 45 years. 

Sign Up Today!

Sign up to receive regular updates on upcoming events and exhibitions, new artwork arrivals, artist talks, and general gallery info.

542 5th Street
West Des Moines, Iowa 50265
United States
542 5th Street
West Des Moines, Iowa 50265
United States
Copyright © 2024, Art Gallery Software by ArtCloudCopyright © 2024, Art Gallery Software by ArtCloud