Coloring the City

Through public art, Amy Putney Koenig celebrates the creativity and complexities of humanity.

Writer: Beth Eslinger
Photographer: Duane Tinkey

Symbolism runs through everything artist Amy Putnig Koenig touches. Her murals feature powerful yet fun female figures, insightful yet lighthearted messages, emotive yet playful animals, witchy yet whimsical symbols. This duality plays out throughout her other artistic endeavors, including body art and the yoga classes she provides for those healing from substance and physical abuse.

“Symbolism and artistry are a big thing to me,” says the 50-year-old Des Moines native.

One look at Koenig makes this point evident. “My tattoos are like a sketchbook or guide that symbolize my life path, personal beliefs, moments along the way, people I love, and animals and elements that give me strength to keep going and growing,” she says.

Koenig has been an artist for as long as she can remember, selling her first painting at age 10 (she identifies herself as a loner in youth—sewing, painting, collecting feathers and rocks, and hanging out with her mom). Koenig went on to study textile and graphic design as well as fine arts at Iowa State University, where she painted a dormitory elevator and loved making hats. In collaboration with nine other artists, she painted her first mural at the former Hairy Mary’s Punk Rock Tavern in 2002.

Today, Koenig’s murals brighten elementary schools, businesses, yoga studios and cafes throughout Central Iowa. She seeks for each public, commissioned piece to be uplifting and representative of those who live in or frequent the area. For an upcoming project at Mosaic in Urbandale, which serves those with mental and physical disabilities, she’s incorporating images of wheelchairs and walkers.

In addition, Koenig talks to school-age children about public art, works with them to create mural designs, then allows them to paint in five- to 10-minute increments. Rowdy classes are welcome: “They come and kick ass,” she says.

The mural for Enchanted Mystical Boutique, 3621 Ingersoll Ave., “celebrates the protection, care, compassion and ferocity of divine feminine energy, animal guides, and the powers of the planets and astrology in our lives,” Koenig says. Her artist friend Molly Free painted the black-and-white areas.

Motifs in her works often feature food, sunshine, plants, goddesses, animals and such universal symbols as the sun and moon. A 2019 mural at the Village at Gray’s Lake, an apartment complex developed from the former business school at Fleur Drive and Bell Avenue, includes the state bird—the goldfinch—an ear of corn, and the message, “Wherever You Go There You Are.” Its meaning? It’s “not about the place as much as who we want to be and how we grow and love ourselves,” she says.

While Koenig considers her murals “light,” her collages deal with darker topics, including family tragedy, depression, addiction and suicide. For example, her 2019 Art Week Des Moines show, called “A Viewing—Art on Death and Reconciliation,” allowed guests to toss mementos into a fire as a means of release. They could also donate the objects for one of her collages.

In addition to creating art, Koenig teaches yoga, a practice she started about 20 years ago when she was working to become sober. “Yoga is a part of learning to love myself and accept myself,” she says. She started teaching at Powerlife Yoga in 2013 (three Powerlife studios feature her murals), then developed a passion for teaching the women recovering at House of Mercy. She recently became trained in trauma yoga: “I’m here for the brokenhearted—real-life people.”

Today she leads classes at the Spot on 6th, a donation-based studio (some of the free-will gifts include fresh flowers and honey), as well as Whispers Herbal in Sherman Hill. “I bring a sense of being sensitive to healing—from addiction, violence, self-loathing and trauma—to my classes,” she says.

As part of her give-back mission, Koenig has begun drawing custom portraits, donating half the proceeds to Sweet Tooth Farm, which grows produce on underutilized land in the River Bend neighborhood and sells it to residents in the city’s core. She says orders have been coming in daily.

Melissa Walker contributed to the reporting of this article.

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