Book Review: Lit By The Sun

Lit By The Sun: The Art And Artists Of The Hotel Pattee, by Lela Gilbert, photography by Ellen Bak

[Note: This book was provided free of charge by Carpe Diem Books in exchange for an honest review.]

The title of this deeply artistic and spiritual book comes from a quote by the owner of the hotel cum art museum in Perry, Iowa, Roberta Green Ahmanson, who said: “In Iowa the land itself is art, pattern, texture, and color, changing with the seasons, lit by the sun, rubbed by the clouds, tossed and reborn with the wind (3).” The book is a testament both to the spirituality of art in varied forms as well as to the resilience of a small Iowa town for whom the Hotel Pattee is a cornerstone of the downtown area, besides a glorious artistic achievement. Ahmanson, as well as many of the artists who are profiled within these pages, pay frequent tribute to the spiritual and moral implications that we are created in the imago Dei, the image and likeness of God [1], and that we in turn create in an analogous manner. The result is a book that is full of light and texture, of creativity, of honoring the past and looking forward to a better future. For those of us who have never been to the small town of Perry, Iowa, for Iowa is one of only eight states that I have not yet seen myself, this book is the next best thing to staying at the hotel and enjoying its art in person.

In terms of its contents, the book is organized by the artist, interspersed with quotes from the hotel/museum’s owner, Roberta Green Ahmanson about the work of renovating the originally run-down hotel and also the spiritual vitality and Iowan spirit that she hoped, and succeeded, to instill in the revitalized building. The artists themselves have talents and compelling stories that are discussed on the pages, and also amazing artwork in a variety of different media and traditions that somehow work well together as a testament of creativity and tradition and optimism. The farm scenes of Gary Ernest Smith’s canvas paintings are praised alongside the pottery of Eric Peterson, made from the independent-minded Iowa clay and the lighthearted aluminum sculpture garden of Bill Luchsinger and Karen Strohbeen that resembles something a six-year old would create in its bright cheer. The abstract wooden sculptures of Mac Hornecker and the musical-instrument inspired sculptures of native Californian Rob Brennan complement the photorealistic watercolors of Steven Kozar. The whimsical folk art mixed media works of Betsy Peterson are discussed alongside the watercolors of David Kreitzer taken from the amateur photography of his minister father of the lost country church life of bygone generations and the bicycle-themed canvas paintings of Mary Kline-Misol. The murals of Doug Shelton intersect in subject matter, trains, with the immensely detailed carved and painted leather bas-reliefs of Will Ghormley. The Iowa seasonally themed canvas paintings of John Preston sit alongside the bright watercolors of one-handed Iowa painter Dennis Adams, who lost his right hand in a freak farming accident that led him to art school where he learned to paint left-handed and the late Millard Sheets, who had a long relationship as an artist working on commissions for the Ahmanson family. The pastels of art professor Bobbie McKibbin sit alongside the pastels of would-be nun Ellen Wagener and the Euroepan-inspired oil paintings of Jan Kasprzycki and the architectural engravings of Amy Worthen. Besides this visual art and sculpture, the hotel also celebrates quilt artists like Betty Lenz, Murray Johnston, Hmong paj ntaub artist Susan (Shoua Vang) Her, Tracie McCloskey, and JoAnn Belling. The book also celebrates the arts & crafts vision of William Morris by including the traditional wood furniture of Christopher Vickers and the wallpaper embroidery of Elizabeth Elvin and various Perry needleworkers as well as the deep burned and painted wood efforts from local firm Sticks and the hand-pulled screenprints of Elinor Noteboom. Later in the book the paintings of Gary Bowling, whose Prairie Fields and Horizon graces the sunny front cover, are displayed, showing the book as a whole to be a testament of diverse and beautiful art in a working small-town hotel.

As is the case with many of the other books by this publisher [2], this book is a testament to the way that a fine choice of paper and elegant and gorgeous photography can raise a book far from the mundane workmanlike efforts so commonly printed to a book that is itself a work of art. The attention to detail, to the point where one of the curators of the museum made sure that the photographic representations in this book precisely matched the color of the art works in the hotel/museum, is impressive and praiseworthy. The resulting book is one that praises a wide variety of diverse artists, some of whom labor in fields far from the public attention of most who enjoy visual art [3], and that serves as a momento and as an advertisement for the Hotel Pattee, for those who are traveling through Perry, Iowa, and do not want to miss the treasures that are displayed within. In its honoring of local Iowa artists as well as the austere beauty of the Midwestern prairies, the hotel itself, and this book, demonstrates that one is wrong to ignore the beauty that can be found off the beaten path simply because it comes from unexpected places. One of the glorious aspects of art is that it often surprises us and leads us to realize and reflect upon what goes unnoticed in our more prosaic ordinary existence, after all.

[1] See, for example:

[2] See, for example:

[3] See, for example:

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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