Engaging a Creative Mind

Above: Thoughtful artist Mitchell Squire explores a link between 1950s Des Moines portraits, old glass vases and an atomic bomb test.

By Christine Riccelli

I always enjoy catching up with artist and architect Mitchell Squire because I know he’ll challenge me with his intellect, inspire me with his insights and wow me with his work. A recent visit to his Des Moines studio was no exception, where I found him preparing for an exhibition currently showing in Santa Fe, New Mexico. Arresting photo portraits from the mid-20th century that capture that era’s idealized notion of young women were lined up in front of his packed bookcases, while a photo of an atomic bomb test hung on a wall. Brightly colored glass vases and bottles were clustered in the middle of the floor.

“I was interested in asking the question, ‘When did our present begin?’ ” Squire told me, explaining why he brought these seemingly disparate elements together. The answer, as the Santa Fe installation suggests, is with the detonation of an atomic bomb, which heralded the arrival of the nuclear age. “Fantasies of the good life, the democratic process and the American dream are embedded in the photographs of the women,” Squire said, “while the backdrop is the protection our military might [provides].”

Squire incorporated the glassware, which he found at a local antiques mall, after he researched the story of the 1945 Trinity test in New Mexico. The atomic blast was so hot that the desert sand swept up in the fireball liquefied and turned into particles of bright glass, which fell back to the ground in irregular forms. In the installation, the photo of the explosion hangs behind the glass sculpture. (To read a review of the show and see photos of the installation, click here.)

The back story of the photo portraits—all of which are of Des Moines women—intrigued me as much as the overall project. Squire and his wife, Martha Selby, inherited some 75 such portraits from Martha’s grandfather,Rodney Selby, a reporter at the Des Moines Register who pursued photography as a hobby, often showing his work at the Iowa State Fair. A military veteran, he also took the photo of the atomic blast that’s part of the Santa Fe installation. The contrast between the innocence served up in Selby’s portraits and the annihilation of innocence represented in the bomb image is riveting.

The Santa Fe show is the first version of the installation, said Squire, who’s also a professor of architecture at Iowa State University. He plans to expand it as he continues his research of that time period and of Selby, who died in 1978 and whom Squire never met. I’ll look forward to discovering how the work evolves—and to Squire sharing it with the Des Moines community.

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