Iowa State University Heating Plant + Marion Gunderson = Georgia O’Keeffe-like Watercolor

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(Click here to go to this blog’s home page.)

Mother (Marion Gunderson) used to store her watercolors in two ways at Gunderland. She had approximately seventy of her watercolors stored loose in portfolios under the basement steps. Another fifteen-or-so of her paintings were framed and displayed around the perimeter of the basement.

A portion of Marion Gunderson's ISU Heating Plant watercolor, 1951. (Click photo to enlarge.)

It must have been after Mother passed away in 2004 that one of those paintings hanging in the basement caught my attention. I had no idea what building/location was in the painting. I just knew that the Georgia O’Keeffe-like gentle-curvy lines and rich colors that Mother used prompted me to ask to have this particular painting.

Not realizing that the painting included mounds of black coal, I thought that perhaps the painting was of another ag-related building. My dad (Deane Gunderson) and my husband (Bill Shimon) didn’t know the exact location of the building in the painting; because of the coal in the painting, they believed the painting might have been of something factory-related.

Mother’s, Clara’s (my oldest sister) and Marti’s (one of my middle siblings) work helped with my investigation. Several years ago at Mother’s request, Marti took inventory snapshots of as many of Mother’s watercolors as could be located. Mother then put those snapshots in an album. Along with the snapshots, Mother provided corresponding documentary notes for most of her paintings that were in those snapshots. Since before Mother passed away in 2004, Clara has been our family’s keeper and continuing recorder of documentation about Mother’s watercolors.

Back to the above-mentioned painting…I hung on to the painting for another couple of years before asking Clara if she had any idea of the identity of the building in the painting. Clara looked in Mother’s notes and found that about this particular painting, Mother had noted, “ISU Heat Plant, Ames, Iowa. From charcoal sketch done while at ISU.”

Bingo! Identity known!

Alongside Mother’s signature on the painting she included the year “1951.” Mother attended Iowa State College (now Iowa State University) from 1937-1941. We assume that she created a charcoal sketch of the heating plant sometime between 1937 and 1941, and later, with the charcoal sketch as her reference, in 1951 painted her watercolor of the same heating plant.

Because the heating plant in the watercolor looks nothing like the present Iowa State University power plant, I was confused about what Mother’s vantage point might have been when she painted the heating plant. I recently contacted Jeffrey Witt, ISU’s Assistant Director of Utilities, to learn more about the history of Iowa State’s heating plant. More specifically, I wondered if he could shed some light on where Mother’s vantage point as she painted might have been, in relation to the current power plant at Iowa State.

In the next post I’ll include the connect-the-dots information Jeff provided in regard to history of Iowa State’s heating/power plant and Mother’s 1951 watercolor of the older plant.

(Click here to go to Louise Shimon’s blog’s home page.)

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2 Responses to “Iowa State University Heating Plant + Marion Gunderson = Georgia O’Keeffe-like Watercolor”

  1. Peg Moore Says:

    What fun and exciting detective work!!! 🙂

  2. Peg Moore Says:

    And I have a special fondness for anything Mother painted in 1951. Heart.

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