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Keystone Place mural celebrates Iowa

Retirement community artwork pays tribute with beauty and humor By Cale Stelken
This youthful lampoon of “American Gothic” is just one of many highlights on the new Iowa-themed mural at Keystone Place at Forevergreen. (photo by Cale Stelken)

NORTH LIBERTY– “It kinda felt like Oakdale, maybe a prison!”
Mary Jo Pipkin, Executive Director of Keystone Place at Forevergreen, laughed about the once imposing, concrete wall that loomed over the retirement community’s Memory Care Courtyard.
“We started out here and said, ‘Gosh, what can we do with this wall with it being secured and gated in?’” she said. The staff soon saw the giant pale slab as an artistic opportunity.
After searching online, Pipkin found Blake Ross, a 54 year-old artist out of Bettendorf. Ross’s background includes billboards and commercial art with only a few murals in his portfolio. Upon visiting last spring, however, Ross was intrigued.
To assist in her vision, Pipkin sent him about fifteen pictures.
“I wanted it to have an Iowa theme,” Pipkin recalled. “I for sure wanted some Grant Wood.”
The nearly 100-foot wall, which starts tall at the building and tapers down towards the patio gate, would soon become an homage to Iowa culture and scenery. To begin the summer project, Ross penciled the basic composition over the course of two evenings. He then took nine days to paint the entire mural in sepia tones before spending the summer painting over that in full color.
The result is a majestic display of Iowa nature and landmarks interwoven with whimsical satire. From right to left, the painting takes viewers on an illustrated trip through the State of Iowa. Scenic bluffs of the Mississippi River begin the journey, followed by the Ghost Players of the Field of Dreams. The Iowa State Capital, a youthful lampoon of “American Gothic” and a Madison County covered bridge round out its major landmarks. The mural even acknowledges the land on which it is located, with a classic Winnebago camper.
“This used to be Colony Campground,” Pipkin explained. “So a lot of people that are from North Liberty have lot history and standing of knowing that was Colony Campground.”
Despite the long distance from Bettendorf to North Liberty, Ross found the circumstance rather catering.
“It took about two months to complete, and we let him have a room here,” Pipkin noted.
The Executive Director grinned broadly as she showed off the mural, pointing out a few of its many subtle characteristics and cameos, including Keystone’s resident canine, Cooper, a tribute to Ross’s grandparents and a moon rendered in a special solar paint that makes it glow at night.
During the artist’s stay at Keystone, Pipkin said, he got to know the staff and residents.“We have a resident on hospice right now that he got really close with,” she explained, motioning toward a small area of the painting. “And he added her in here.”
One of the standout pieces of the mural depicts a frantic, cartoon pig driving an old car, its crates of farm fresh produce flying out the back. The idea was carried on from a previous work by Ross.
“I just loved it,” Pipkin beamed. “I said ‘Throw that pig in there if you want to. It’ll be fun. It’ll make ‘em laugh!’” 
Pipkin remarked at how the mural has proven to be more than art, but rather a form of therapy for Keystone residents.
“If the residents in Memory Care have mid-to-late stage dementia, and if they’re having some problems, you just walk them out here, you start talking about this, and immediately they change in their behavior. So it’s a great distraction.”
Locals are invited to view the new mural soon. Keystone Place will host its one-year anniversary celebration and open house on Thursday, Nov. 9, from 3-6 p.m. The event will feature fare by their award-winning executive chef, tours, music, raffle drawings and giveaways.