Fortepan Iowa group to wheat paste College Hill with historic images

A mock-up of a picture that will be wheat pasting to a building on College Hill.


Crews will be wheat pasting five enormous images on three different buildings on College Hill to commemorate the University of Northern Iowa’s 100th Homecoming anniversary on Oct. 5.

The images come from Fortepan Iowa, a historic digital photo archive launched in 2015 and based at the University of Northern Iowa. The archive features curated photos taken by ordinary Iowans in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

“We are so excited to take the archive to the streets,” Bettina Fabos, a UNI professor of Interactive Digital Studies and the Director of the Fortepan Iowa project, said. “This is the first exhibition of our wheat pasting. We wanted to do College Hill first because of its 100th homecoming anniversary and because our archive is based at UNI.”

Enormous versions of five of those photos will be mounted on the sides of College Hill buildings with the centuries-old wheat-paste technique:

  • On the south face of the Copyworks building on the corner of College and 23rd Streets will be a story-and-a-half size cut-out of a girl named Shirley holding a birthday cake. The image is from a photo donated to Fortepan by Shirley Dean, who is now in her 80s and a resident of the Western Home. Dean plans to be present this week the day her image from 1937 goes up on the busiest corner of College Hill.
  • On the north side of the Octopus building on College and 22nd St., a photo from more than fifty years ago of eight young women in pajamas smiling and crowding around a table for a toast with raised bottles captures the ambience of College Hill’s entertainment district. 
  • On the east-facing back of the Little Bigs restaurant and pub, three massive close-up photos of people taking pictures with old-style film cameras may become a perfect spot for modern-day digital selfies.

Flour and water are the main ingredients of wheat paste, which helps the images adhere to the sides of the buildings, and provides a second protective clear layer over the face of the images. The wheat-pasted images can survive for months or more than a year, depending on natural conditions, but do not harm a building’s underlying exterior surface.

Isaac Campbell, the lead artist of the wheat-pasting crew, learned his skill in Hungary last year, where he worked with the original Fortepan archive as a Fulbright scholar. “Wheat pasting is such an incredibly exciting art form because of the way it adheres to the environment and is accessible. I’m thrilled for the opportunity to tell the stories of Iowans through this humble medium,” Campbell said.  

The Iowa Arts Council recently awarded Fortepan Iowa a grant to do wheat pastings and photo exhibitions in five Iowa towns –Anamosa, Cedar Falls, Ottumwa, Sumner, and Webster City – over the next year.

Fortepan Iowa’s collection is curated to represent the personal, whimsical, poetic, significant, and accidentally artistic moments of everyday Iowa life. Fortepan Iowa is the first sister site to the Hungarian-based FORTEPAN project, which gets its name from the global brand of Hungarian photographic film and paper made from 1948 to 2000.