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Q&A: Being the artist…in-residence

Nathan Wright

It wasn’t quite a sabbatical but the Ballet Des Moines Artist-in-Residence program had the same type of impact on Nathan Wright, the Des Moines-based illustrator.

He is finishing the six-week residency program this week which is held each Fall, Winter and Spring as the lead up to a performance. Wright started on Feb. 19 with Ballet Des Moines as they prepared for Cinderella, which will be performed twice this Saturday at the Civic Center in downtown Des Moines.

Wright had five weeks to create a project that was displayed at a one-night exhibition last Friday at MainFrame Studios in Des Moines. His work is still on display at MainFrame Studios or can be found here.

Wright is the sixth artist to participate in the residency program. The artist-in-residence receives $500 and the work produced during the residency is split 50/50 between the artist and Ballet Des Moines.

Clay & Milk talked with Wright about the program, how it challenged him as an artist and what he’s planning on doing with this experience from Ballet Des Moines.

Wright is also a regular contributor to Clay & Milk.

Our Q&A is below:

One of the illustrations created by Nathan Wright during the Ballet Des Moines Artist-in-Residency program. Illustration courtesy of Nathan Wright

How did you hear about this program with Ballet Des Moines?

NW: They take on an artist who comes in and is on sight in the studio for about five or six weeks. That artist creates a work that is inspired their experience.

Every artist has been different, photographer, videographer, doll maker, they had a woman who built a robot that painted abstract things. That was the one where I first heard about it, then through Jami (Milne).

So I thought I’d throw my name in. It’s somewhat competitive, you pitch an idea and they go through each artist and select.

The application was due in January and I found out in February.

It didn’t have to be too specific but I said I wanted to make a comic or some sort of story that has nothing to do with superheroes but is inspired by a day in the life of a dancer. The work they go through, their life outside the studio, that’s all I knew at the time.

Back then I thought we would end up printing comic books but as the experience went on it became apparent that we should just make each page super sized so it’s better for a gallery and show experience.

What made you put your name into the contest?

NW: It’s a really good opportunity to build a complete work in the comic platform. I don’t get a lot of chances to do that with my client work it’s usually whatever they want, corporate interior art, a cartoon, or make this idea come to life for me. So rarely I do I get to do a front-to-end actual comic.

I do some of my own stuff but that falls victim to what else I have going on and my own motivation. This was a great opportunity to do a complete, front to back piece.

And the artists that have been selected so far have been so different that I felt like they were making very interesting and bold choices in who they select.

Talk about those first few days and being around ballet…

NW: Really interesting because I appreciate the ballet world but I don’t have a lot of knowledge of it and I don’t know what goes into it. I just know a lot of hard work does but I don’t know more than that.

My first week they were putting together a runway fashion show before they started Cinderella practice, so I watched that come together in a week. They came into that cold, choreographed the whole thing and executed the show that Friday. That was really interesting to see it put together. And that was their annual fundraiser.

But to be immersed in that, watch how they work, it was really interesting. They show up in their sweats, it’s not glamorous, they work their butts off.

Another portion of the comic produced by Nathan Wright during the Artist-in-Residence program

Where are you while all this is happening?

NW: They have this loft area where most of their costume cage is, which is huge with hundreds of dresses and costumes. That’s where the artist stays. You have this perch and can look down on the floor, it’s a great visual.

So I would go up there and sketch. And honestly, it was the best figure drawing class I’ve ever had. Better than college, because of how they move and how they twist their bodies. In college, we had posed and people standing still. In ballet, I couldn’t draw in real time. I had to take a lot of photos and work from those as a reference because my brain just couldn’t capture the movement.

I’d go in for a couple hours each day and sketch.

Was there an adjustment period for you as an artist?

NW: It was a challenge those first couple days. Just immersing myself and getting out of my own head and watching what they do. Then documenting that visually.

I did that for a couple weeks and that inspired the comic book. A lot of the poses I captured became some of the poses in the comic book and led up to that story.

Any takeaways?

NW: Definitely an appreciation for their work ethic, these dancers are artists and professional athletes. I can’t think of another combination like that, so I was just really inspired by how they work and their work ethic. I was just impressed by them and the company as a whole.

Also, to be able to get away from myself for six weeks and be immersed with another creative world was worth it for me. I needed that break and sometimes it’s good to get out of your own head. It’s almost like, you need to go study something for six weeks.

It felt like a college course all over again, you get to go observe and study, then create some output of what you saw.

What weren’t you expecting?

NW: I didn’t expect how much goes into it outside of the dancers. The administrative staff, choreography, I didn’t know the amount of support people that were involved to make this come together.

I would definitely have more of an appreciation for it now.

Is there anything you can use from this moving forward?

NW: I’ve always wanted to work with companies to create either internal or external communication pieces that aren’t just like a brochure. I’m always trying to pitch a five to ten-page comic book. Tell your story that way but I didn’t have anything to show.

This would be a good piece, front to end, the style, how it could unfold, something to try. It wouldn’t be as exciting visually as the ballet one.

So this is something you’d recommend other artists pursuing?

NW: Yeah definitely, any artist that is interested. Just watch the social feeds and then they choose pretty fast. And then you are in there like two weeks later.

The art show was last Friday and technically this is week six. They do have some of my original work that they are selling at the show this weekend, some of the original drawings. It’s awesome and super fun, to go create a body of work. Even the sketches that informed the big piece.

You think companies should pursue a residency program like this?

NW: Like a short couple weeks. It’s a bold thing to do, it could be anything for a company. There’s not a big investment. I don’t know what an artist-in-residence would be like at Kum & Go, but I’m sure it could be fun and interesting.

Why not?

Q&A: Being the | Clay & Milk
A central Iowa ag-tech accelerator has secured more backers and finally has a name. The Greater Des Moines Partnership first announced the accelerator last year, naming four initial investors. On Monday, the Partnership said the program will be called the "Iowa AgriTech Accelerator" and named three new investors. The new investors include Grinnell Mutual, Kent Corp. and Sukup Manufacturing, all Iowa companies. They join investors Deere & Co., Peoples Co., Farmers Mutual Hail Insurance Co. and DuPont Pioneer. Each investor has agreed to put up $100,000 for the first year of the accelerator. Startups entering the program will receive $40,000 in seed funding in exchange for 6 percent equity. Tej Dhawan, an angel investor and local startup mentor, is serving as interim director until the AgriTech Accelerator names a permanent leader. Dhawan held a similar role with the GIA before Brian Hemesath was named as managing director. As interim director, Dhawan said his main job includes hiring the accelerator's executive director, establishing a business structure and initial recruiting for the first cohort. The accelerator will place few filters, such as location and product, on the applicant pool, Dhawan said. "When you’re seeking innovation, innovation can come from every corner of the world so why restrict ourselves," he said. One area the the AgriTech Accelerator won't recruit from is biotech. For its first cohort, the AgriTech Accelerator will work out of the GIA's space in Des Moines' East Village, Dhawan said. A future, permanent home is still to be decided. The accelerator's program will host startups from mid-July through mid-October, ending with an event connected to the annual World Food Prize. The GIA, which the AgriTech Accelerator is based on, also ends with presentations at an industry event. The accelerator has also started lining up a mentor pool. The Iowa Corn Growers Association, Iowa Soybean Association and the Iowa Pork Producers Association have agreed to provide mentors, as has Iowa State University. While the AgriTech Accelerator is loosely based off of the GIA, it will differ in its business structure, Dhawan said. The GIA runs through a for-profit model for both operations and its investment fund. The AgriTech Accelerator will have a nonprofit model for its operations and a for-profit setup for its fund. Dhawan said the nonprofit model is being used so the accelerator can better work with other nonprofit partners, such as trade associations. "These are all organizations that are nonprofits and can be amazing stakeholders without ever having to be investors in the accelerator," he said. "It becomes easier to work with trade associations in their nonprofit role when we are also a nonprofit." When it's up and running, the AgriTech Accelerator would be one of a handful of ag-focused startup development programs in Iowa. Others include the Ag Startup Engine out of Iowa State University and the Rural Ventures Alliance from Iowa MicroLoan. Matthew Patane is the managing editor and co-founder of Clay & Milk. Send him an email at
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