Cyclists in West Des Moines can now enjoy a colorful tribute to Iowa’s native wildflowers thanks to a new mural created by a University of Northern Iowa art professor and her student.

Samantha Goss, assistant professor of art, was one of only six artists selected by the city to create murals with a nature theme on three trail underpass entrance and exit walls this year. The beautification project is just the latest public art creation from UNI’s art department focused on community engagement and hands-on experience for its students.

The mural itself was created with spray paint, a nod to one of Gross’ long-time art inspirations, and features vibrant, stylized renderings of aromatic aster, butterfly milkweed, sweet coneflower, little bluestem, and Joe Pye weed - plants all found on Iowa’s native prairies and cornerstones of its ecosystems.

“Nature has a long history of inspiring artists as subject matter, color schemes, or materials. Art has returned the favor by celebrating nature and more recently advocating for local and global environmental concerns,” Goss said. “These plants are not only part of our beautiful landscape but important for our local environmental concerns like managing rainfall runoff for water and soil quality, health, and supporting pollinators and wildlife.” 

To help her create the mural,  Goss turned to senior art education major Ryan Jones, a West Des Moines native who had also applied for the project, which was led by the city’s public arts commission. Jones, whose art is focused on printmaking, jumped at the chance to learn something new.

“As a future art educator, expanding your skill set is a vital way to keep lessons relevant and interesting, and working and learning about new materials is very beneficial when you then have to teach somebody how to use them properly,” Jones said. “As someone who has never worked with spray paint, this was a very valuable lesson. Especially coming from Samantha, who has experience working with street artists in the past.”

A relative newcomer to Iowa after moving to the Cedar Valley to start her position at UNI in 2019, Goss wanted to take advantage of the opportunities afforded her by a stable job after years of navigating the adjunct professor circuit in an array of Chicago-area colleges.

“I wanted to get back into producing art,” Goss said. “So, I started applying for every two-dimensional public art call in the state. I had the vision, I had the skills, so I thought I’d see what happened.”

Goss has been interested in public art and street art from her childhood in the suburbs of Chicago to her time directing the Union Street Gallery, a Chicago-based nonprofit dedicated to the arts where she organized an exhibit featuring prominent street artists. So, when she got the call that she had been selected to create a mural, she wanted to showcase the artistic value of spray paint. 

“The tagging and graffiti I’ve seen in Waterloo and Cedar Falls has been vandalism. There’s no artistic quality,” Goss said. “So, there is an education component to this as well to help people understand there are opportunities for graffiti to become art.”

Goss and Jones painted the mural from April 11-13, and now Jones is preparing to start his student teaching semester in the fall in Prior Lake and Lakeville, Minnesota. He said he wants to continue to pursue public art.

“If given the opportunity I would love to be a part of more public art projects in the future,” Jones said. “I think getting your foot in the door can be a bit tricky. Now that I have something to show for my skill set, I feel that makes me a much better candidate for future prospects and projects.”

Goss’ project is just one of many efforts from the art department to create art in public spaces.

The UNI Public Art Incubator is a unique program within the UNI department of art enlisting students to fabricate and erect large-scale public art pieces commissioned and paid for by artists throughout the country. The incubator has been active since 2011, and the work it produces can be seen on campus, in downtown Cedar Falls and peppered throughout the Midwest and beyond. UNI-fabricated art is installed on both coasts and in the Bahamas.

Associate professor of art education Wendy Miller is also active in community art. One of her latest projects produced a mural at the Expo Alternative Learning Center in Waterloo that was painted by Expo students with supervision from Miller’s art education students.

It’s a priority that has made Goss feel at home at UNI.

“I love it here,” Goss said. “It’s so unique to have a department that works so well together, where everyone genuinely likes and respects each other. And I see that in other parts of the university too.”