A Mural Mystery: The Story of Karl Wirsum and the Iowa Field House

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The University of Iowa Field House was formerly the home of Hawkeye Athletics. The building’s major tenants included the Iowa men’s wrestling program, the Hawkeye men’s and women’s basketball programs, and the UI swimming and diving teams.

Iowa’s wrestling and basketball programs moved to the then newly constructed Carver-Hawkeye Arena in 1983. The Hawkeye swimming and diving teams moved to the campus Recreation and Wellness Center in 69 .2 million from IU in 2010.

When the Hawkeyes moved in, 10 very different tenants began occupying the Field House in 1996.

Chicago-area artist Karl Wirsum’s “Just Us What Past Before Us” features 10 brightly colored figures measuring approximately 8.5 feet each. All of the figures painted on the wall strike athletic poses around the track on the fourth floor of the Field House.

Wirsum’s humanoids have been described as “alien, robotic and superheroic”.

“[The murals are] kinda scary,” said Jaymeson Harms, a frequent Field House user and first-year history education student. “Every day you walk in and see and it’s like, ‘What’s the point?'”

Derek Eller, owner of a New York art gallery that bears his own name, said Wirsum’s “pop art” drew on a number of styles including comic books, advertising, oceanic and South American art and European surrealism.

“Karl was heavily influenced by blues music,” Eller said. “So, [his art] is this strange amalgamation – the resynthesis of all these different influences, which somehow gives it its quirky flavor. What he really did for decades was this simultaneous exploration of figuration and abstraction. You have these kind of characters that are basically made up of all these geometric shapes.

Eller’s gallery has featured works by Wirsum since 2010. Eller said regular works of art by Wirsum can sell for between $30,000 and $65,000. The artist’s most historic and famous pieces can fetch up to $200,000 at auction.

According to a commission filing from the UI Museum of Arts, Wirsum’s art in the Field House cost $49,600.

Dr Pamela White, who was director of the UI Museum of Art from 2008 to 2010, said the Field House murals were designed by Wirsum and executed by sign painters via scaffolding.

Documents in the Commission’s filing indicate that Stephen Prokopoff, who served as UIMA’s director from 1992 to 2000, brought Wirsum’s work to Iowa City.

In an email exchange with The Iowan Daily, White said Prokopoff was a fan and friend of Chicago-area imagists like Ed Paschke. Prokopoff’s connection with Chicago-based artists led him to bring in Wirsum.

When “Just Us What Past Before Us” was commissioned in 1996, Prokopoff said the collection wouldn’t have existed if the Iowa Legislature hadn’t issued new rules for art in public buildings in 1978.

Legislation requires all public buildings to feature works of art that cost around half a percent of the total price of an installation.

Prokopoff died of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma in 2001.

The UI Field House isn’t the first building Wirsum has changed with art.

Wirsum was part of a Chicago-based art group called ‘The Hairy Who’ in the 1960s. Wirsum, Jim Falconer, Art Green, Gladys Nilsson, Jim Nutt and Suellen Rocca were the six members of the group – who all dated ‘Art Institute of Chicago.

According to the Art Institute of Chicago’s website, “The Hairy Whoo” revitalized Chicago’s art scene by mounting “unconventional exhibitions of bright and bold graphic works” on the city’s South Side.

The future of Wirsum’s legacy

Eller said Wirsum’s artistic career began with an injury he suffered as a child.

Wirsum was supposed to talk to his mother from the top of the basement stairs of his childhood home. Wirsum leaned further and further through the door to hear what his mother was trying to tell him as she did the laundry.

A young Wirsum then fell down the steps and fractured his skull. The injury hospitalized him.

As he recovered, he daily read comics about gnomes and elves that his father had written. Wirsum’s father, August, was an amateur artist. August sketched and sketched with Karl while he was in the hospital with his head injury.

Eller believes August’s background in comics influenced the art Karl created during his 81-year life.

Karl’s parents died in a car accident in 1949. Karl Wirsum, then 10 years old, was in the car when his parents collided with a tractor-trailer, by The ChicagoTribune. Wirsum survived the crash with minor injuries, not his parents.

“There has been speculation that somehow his work has always retained a sort of childish quality due to some of the traumatic events that happened to him as a child,” Eller said. “He kind of stayed in the playful, childlike spirit of the cartoon that was happening when he was younger.”

Karl Wirsum died of cardiac arrest at the age of 81 at Advocate Illinois Masonic Medical Center on May 6, 2021, per The ChicagoTribune.

Wirsum’s art will help commemorate him at places like the Art Institute of Chicago and the Eller Gallery.

His murals in the UI Field House, however, may only do so for a few more years.

On January 12, UI announced that it would be executing a 10-year facilities master plan. The plan includes a new ambulatory care center for the University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics.

According to a statement, the ambulatory care center will be built on the land currently occupied by the 95-year-old Field House. What this means for Wirsum’s “Just Us What Past Before Us” is unknown.

“I think there are generations of artists who quote [Wirsum] as a major influence,” Eller said. “He’s been one of those underrated, underappreciated artists for many years…I think there are a lot of famous contemporary artists who cite Karl as a contribution.

“I have a feeling his legacy will only grow and strengthen in the years to come as more institutions and exhibitions include him,” Eller added. “People will realize that he really offered something quite special that other people learned from and learned from.”

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