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Icon Water Trails

Mother-of-pearl shells from the Des Moines River inspired the iridescent surface of “Hello, River,” shown in the rendering on the right. Photo: Plus/And

Writer: Brianne Sanchez

A shimmery sculptural landmark set to debut in downtown Des Moines in mid-June is designed to catch eyes and capture hearts. The creative duo behind “Hello, River” hopes its head-turning public art piece will serve as the catalyst for a conservation-oriented meet-cute.

“We want to help people fall in love with the river,” said artist Amanda Lovelee, who designed the sculpture with Emily Stover, her partner in a Twin Cities art collective called Plus/And. “We asked ourselves, ‘How does a relationship grow over time?’ You move from ‘Hello’ to ‘I love you’ and through all the stages in between.”

Every relationship begins with a moment of recognition. A wink. A nod. A handshake that turns into a hug. In this case, public art sparks something special between community members and the waterway streaming nearby. The beautiful artwork is poised to enchant visitors — and educate them about our shared ecology.

Photo: Plus/And

A river’s love language

The city’s current relationship status with its rivers might best be summed up as: It’s complicated. Preparations for the art project involved researching how natural resources and industry intersect, and their impact on the people and wildlife at the confluence.

“Part of the initial call [for artistic proposals] was to have a sculpture that communicates safety,” Stover said. “But we identified early on that there’s no such thing as absolute safety. A safe relationship is one where you know, understand, care for and listen to the other. We tried to find a way to use data to communicate enough about the river that people can start to build that relationship.”

Plus/And envisioned a pearlescent arch inspired by the bridges that span the riverbanks, the endangered mussel species that filter the water, and the decorative arches that often frame couples at a high school dance. It creates an opportunity for people to embrace the river without getting wet.

Step inside, and the sculpture becomes an immersive experience. Interactive technology ties the river’s current flow rate to the soundscape playing inside. The artists recorded the river at various water levels to pair with live data from the U.S. Geological Survey, so visitors can press a button to hear its rush or trickle.

“We made an emotional chart that syncs to flow rates,” Lovelee said. Some relationships feel heart-poundingly fast and furious, while others are calmer and more relaxed. “Loving the river doesn’t mean that you need to be a kayak rider on the rapids. Love can also be sitting on a bench and looking at the river.”

Adding to the ‘artshed’

“Hello, River” will be the team’s second piece in the metro. The artists installed their first, “Water Water Everywhere,” last summer in Grimes. It’s a thicket of tall metal signs that form the title phrase at the city’s Waterworks Park off East First Street.

The new sculpture, slated for the west bank of the Des Moines River just north of the Interstate 235 bridge, will introduce paddlers to the downriver developments and access points of the Iowa Confluence (ICON) Water Trails. When complete, ICON will link 80 sites along 150 miles of rivers and creeks in Central Iowa in a network of outdoor amenities that proponents hope will attract locals and out-of-towners alike.

In addition to the distinctive archway, “Hello, River” will include a series of plaques that feature local lore and factual information that encourages visitors to explore Iowa’s waterways. This ambitious work will be a centerpiece of the Shoreline Signals “artshed,” a series of public art projects to be installed along the rivers’ watershed.

“Public art is an important piece of what we are doing because we feel like art can enhance the connectivity between people and the place they’re experiencing,” said Stephanie Oppel, ICON’s executive director. “[This sculpture] is going to serve as a signal to what you are encountering in terms of river activity. The way it’s positioned, you can see it from a variety of angles. Maybe that’ll pique someone’s interest and curiosity.”

Whether visitors spot the sculpture from land or water, the artists hope it’ll have them at “Hello.”

Wade Deeper

“Shoreline Signals” is a public art initiative that’s designed to connect the water trail system at multiple points. Facilitated by Group Creative Services, the installations are designed to beckon trail users to enjoy the water and its edge while also learning about its dynamic nature and role in the ecosystem.

Polk County received both private and public funding to support “Hello, River,” including a $125,000 grant from National Endowment for the Arts. Additional grants from the Iowa Arts Council and Bravo Greater Des Moines are funding other projects designed to connect Central Iowa’s waterways.

So far, art installations are planned for sites in Bondurant, Clive, and downtown Des Moines. Project organizers are encouraging other metro communities to install additional artwork in the next few years.

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