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A Rare Writing Project from the Artists Known as Grin City

Rob Dillard, Iowa Public Radio

Short poems, essays and pieces of fiction are going on display at 13 libraries across the state. It's a project designed to connect the public to literature from a collective of artists known as Grin City.

On a recent afternoon, the sound of squeegees pressing white vinyl block letters on a window interrupts the silence at the Coralville Public Library. Four members of Grin City have traveled from a 320-acre farm north of Grinnell to install an excerpt from an essay written by Kevin Hayworth.  He’s a professor at Ohio University in Athens and he’s spent parts of the past two summers in Iowa contributing to a rare public display of writing. As he watches the library window essentially become a page from his work, Hayworth calls it a remarkable combination of art and text.

“You know, seeing your work affirmed by being out in public and having a permanence, which has a different form than being in print," Hayworth says.

Grin City began in 2006 when a Grinnell native named Joe Lacina convinced his parents to allow him to bring some undergraduate art major friends to spend a few weeks on their nearly century old family farm. 

Credit Rob Dillard, Iowa Public Radio
The co-director of Grin City, Molly Rideout, at the 320-acre farm north of Grinnell, which serves as a retreat for artists from all sorts of backgrounds

Since then, it’s become a creative retreat for all kinds of artists, musicians and performers. The first writer-in-residence arrived in 2010 and Molly Rideout, who is a writer herself, came on as co-director of Grin City a year later.  During a tour of the farm, she points to where the authors write.

“This building is an old corn crib," she explains. "So, the way grain was stored before we had the big metal silos would be in these room-sized bins, and we’ve converted three of them into writers studios.”

It was Rideout’s idea to display the writers’ work in libraries. She says she had been thinking about ways in which creative writing and public art can intersect.

“With creative writing, even with the Internet as prevalent as it is now, there’s a lot of opportunities for writing, but there are not a lot of opportunities for people to happen upon it," Rideout says.

Rideout’s concept was appealing enough to draw poet Purvi Shah out of her Brooklyn, N.Y., apartment to rural Iowa. She’s crafting three poems for the project.

“The idea of having my work up on library windows just seemed so fantastic, a way for language to be alive and for people to interact with it one-on-one,” Shah says.

Credit Rob Dillard, Iowa Public Radio
A one-time corn crib now provides studio space for three writers at Grin City Collective outside Grinnell

Shah says the poems she’s working on at Grin City could not have been written at home in New York City. They’ve been influenced by the natural world that surrounds her in Iowa. Back in Coralville, the assistant director of the library, Ellen Alexander, watches the installation of Kevin Hayworth’s essay with camera in hand and a smile. She’s pleased her library was selected for the Grin City project.

“I think it will be fun to have this thing that invites people in from the outside," Alexander says. "They may want to actually come in and read it as they’re walking by the library.”

Molly Rideout and her team lean in close as they squeegee the letters and words on to the window.  This tactile work gives Rideout a sense of what it might have been like years ago in publishing.

“These days we spend so much time typing on a computer and then it goes off, sometimes it gets published in a book, but often times it’s just published on line," Rideout says. "But with this, you’re spending a lot of time with each letter and it kind of goes back to the printing press feel.”

The writers working and living at Grin City will leave the state in a couple of weeks. Their words will stay behind.