Projected on the wall is a slightly fuzzy video recording of a figure whose steadiness is palpable through the static of the technology. It is the first sight one views upon entering the Hearst Center. Across the video projection is a plum-colored mural announcing “Eddie Bowles’s Blues.” 

A social media post of a clip from a 1980s cable show of 98-year-old Eddie Bowles performing music spurred Languages & Literatures department head Jim O’Loughlin to conceive of the exhibit. A blues fan, the clip intrigued O’Loughlin enough to do more research. With grant money, he gathered enough sources to compile an album of Bowles’s music

The students in O’Loughlin’s fall 2021 English Senior Seminar each took on primary responsibility to produce one of the displays in the Eddie Bowles exhibit featured at the Hearst Center for the Arts. O’Loughlin said the history surrounding Bowles “is an aspect of Cedar Falls history that could be lost. It's by no means been forgotten, but this allows it to be documented and shared.” The displays range from Bowles’ early life in New Orleans to living in Cedar Falls when it was likely a sundown town that restricted African American residents to those celebrating his long musical career.

O’Loughlin used a variety of technology to increase the accessibility of the Eddie Bowles project. For instance, the exhibit has QR codes, the album is available on Spotify, and there is a historical tour mobile app that informs people how locations in Cedar Falls are significant in relation to Bowles. This augmented reality app is available on both iPhone and Android. The Best of Eddie Bowles can be listened to free online here

An ongoing project of O’Loughlin’s is the Final Thursday Reading Series, which occurs every last Thursday of the month at the Hearst Center. O’Loughlin got the idea “when I was a graduate student. I had gone to an event that happened at this bookstore in a suburb of Boston, which had a somewhat similar format.” The series is in its 21st season. The events kick off with an open mic and then the featured reader, usually a published author, presents their work. “The quality of people’s work and their ability to perform keeps me going, knowing that I can be surprised every month.” 

Even though he got the idea while living on the east coast, O’Loughlin found the Final Thursday readings reflect Iowa’s cultural inclination to share ideas and create projects. “Totally fits with Iowa culture, right? The idea that you would get together and share your own work with people is so ingrained in Iowa culture that I didn't bring anything new; I just set it up. Then people came in and did what made sense to them.” Due to the pandemic, O’Loughlin has condensed the readings from two hours to one hour, and has offered Zoom streaming. 

O’Loughlin has worked in the past with English graduate students on an exhibit about the prose of James Hearst, who is primarily known for his poetry (James Hearst’s former house is now the Hearst Center for the Arts). Some parts of his recently published science fiction novel, The Cord, also began as open mic pieces for the Final Thursday Reading Series.

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