From Tower, Jefferson is a Giant Canvas
You can see a lot of things from the top of the bell tower that rises 168 feet over the Jefferson square. You can see the Greene County Courthouse, the surrounding neighborhoods, the water towers and grain silos that spike the horizon in every direction.
But it takes a certain kind of vision to create the kind of public artwork that earned a 2018 Governor’s Arts Award during the recent Iowa Arts Summit. A team of Jefferson artists and volunteers used the Mahanay Bell Tower as a centerpiece for an ambitious project that transformed the town square into an outdoor art gallery, complete with rooftop murals that can be seen from the tower’s observation deck.
“That was the driving point for developing new public art and community development,” said Peg Raney, executive director of the Jefferson Matters: Main Street program. “We thought, ‘What can you see from the tower?’”
Plenty, actually — and even more now, thanks to some creativity and hard work.
Local artists and volunteers installed sculptures around the courthouse. They added artwork to an alley they renamed “Sally’s Alley,” which recently was featured on National Public Radio. To welcome the Register’s Annual Great Bicycle Ride Across Iowa, they set up a public piano painted with portraits of RAGBRAI founders John Karras and Donald Kaul and former RAGBRAI host Chuck Offenburger, who lives nearby.
Local artists also painted murals on the rooftops of three downtown businesses, along with sidewalk art that is visible only when it rains. The projects give visitors another good reason to ride the elevator to the top of the Mahanay Bell Tower, which was built in the 1960s with about $350,000 that a local man named Floyd Mahanay left in his will. A plaque dedicates the tower “to the glory of God and as a gift to the people of Greene County.”
The gift keeps on giving. Locals used the lofty perch to see their town’s potential as a cultural destination.
“We appreciate that these projects in rural communities are being recognized,” Raney said of the Governor’s Arts Award. “(It) empowers small communities who view art as economic development to move forward and draw people to their community.”
Next up? The group is developing another art project called “Arch Alley,” which will add artwork to some of downtown’s historic arches.
— Jeff Morgan, Iowa Department of Cultural Affairs