Fortune tellers read tea leaves to predict the future. Naomi Friend uses them to clarify the past and present.
The Ames artist brewed black tea and a potion of old-fashioned photography chemicals to make the eight prints that comprise her quietly compelling new show “Restless Tenants,” presented by the Iowa Arts Council and the State Library of Iowa. It’s on display through August at the Law Library at the State Capitol.
The images that emerged in the artwork offer a glimpse of Naomi’s agrarian roots, on her grandmother’s farm in southwest Minnesota and her husband’s family’s farm in Washington’s fruitful Yakima Valley. Naomi herself grew up in northwest Iowa, where “the soil is so good that people don’t worry about it washing away,” she said. “The more you have, the more you take for granted.”
But the artwork on display includes images of cities, too. It reflects the shared values and uneasy tensions that exist between Iowa’s city and country folks, that fill the books in the Law Library, and that bubbled up in the legislature’s recent debates about water quality.
Naomi is a fan of the Kentucky farmer-philosopher Wendell Berry, who has chronicled his efforts to replenish the soil that previous generations of his farm family depleted. His central question, as Naomi put it, is “How do you decide what is enough?”
“Do we really need to till into the ditches and around the light poles to produce more corn?” she said. “In our farming culture, you need to produce more and more to make a livable wage. That’s the way the subsidies are set up – and that’s where the government can make some thoughtful decisions.”
Naomi is the exhibit manager at the Octagon Center for the Arts, in Ames, and she’ll make her debut at the Des Moines Arts Festival in June.
She and her husband also grow flowers on their farm north of Ames. The other day, before she spoke on the phone, she’d just taken a load of tulips into town to sell at the farmers’ market and a Main Street shop that sells various teas, herbs and other botanical products.
It’s not the life she’d imagined in school – she has art and design degrees from Dordt College and Iowa State – but it allows her to combine the things she loves. After grad school, “my husband and I were really sick of renting, and both of us just wanted to grow stuff,” she said. “My husband always wants to drive a tractor, and I’ve always loved growing plants.”
They considered moving from Ames to her grandmother’s farm in Minnesota but eventually settled on their current patch of land north of town. Through the transition, Naomi kept making art and displayed some of the first works in her “Restless Tenants” series at the Bone Creek Museum of Agrarian Art in David City, Neb.
For each cyanotype print, her process goes like this:
Mix up a one-to-one solution of potassium ferricyanide and ammonium ferric citrate. (Yes, the mixture contains cyanide, Naomi said, but “as long as you don’t drink it or get it in a cut, you’re safe.”)
Paint the solution onto wood, paper, cotton or another organic material.
Print a digital photo negative onto a sheet of transparent plastic, like the kind your teachers used to use on transparency projectors.
Lay the sheet of plastic onto the treated organic material and set it in the sunshine for about 8 minutes. The iron (or ferrous) content in the chemical solution is sensitive to ultraviolet light and will produce a bright blue image. (It’s the same shade of Prussian blue that you’ll find in a tube of paint or a pastel.)
Rinse the material in water and then plunge it into a pot of lukewarm tea. The tea’s tannins will deepen the blue tones to purple or brown or black, depending on how long you let it sit in the liquid. That’s what gives the print its antique look, like an old photo.
Rinse off the tea, and there you go: The print is finished.
The process takes some time and some careful attention, but the results are layered and beautiful. And they reflect a lesson Naomi learned from Wendell Berry.
“If you care well for the small things,” she said, “you’ll care for the big things, too.”
The State Law Library Art Exhibits are presented through a partnership between the Iowa Arts Council, a division of the Iowa Department of Cultural Affairs, and the State Library of Iowa. The Law Library is open 9 a.m.-4:30 p.m. weekdays.