There is a magical, peaceful oasis in the middle of downtown Clinton, highlighted by a colorful, collaborative new public art exhibit in a public park.
Gabriella Torres, an abstract visual artist in Clinton, created a unique outdoor art gallery — “The Grove,” on display through September in Pocket Park, 125 4th Avenue South.
The large-scale abstract forest of artwork is all custom framed by local woodworker Tim Fuller in 12 free-standing frames that range in size from 4 to 10 feet in height. Placement in the public park space, mixed with the imaginative style of Torres’ art makes for a unique experience.
“Oh my gosh, it’s stunning,” Quad City Arts executive director Kevin Maynard said of The Grove during a Wednesday opening reception. “Gabi has told me about it in phases, but it’s more than I ever imagined. It’s really quite stunning.”
He and Quad City Arts visual arts director Dawn Wohlford-Metallo attended to support Torres, who has received a Quad City Arts “Arts Dollars” grant (of $5,000 in 2021).
The abstract Grove paintings are meant to complement the natural colors of the park.
“Even though there’s a lot of big movement, big energy and gestures in here, they still are very peaceful, I think – I hope, anyway,” Torres said Wednesday.
She applied for the project from the Iowa Arts Council, which encouraged artists to use some of the federal American Rescue Plan money. She got a $5,000 grant, and raised $5,000 more.
Torres paid for the frames, but Fuller gave her a generous discount.
“I thought I wanted to make something for my town. I knew I wanted to make abstract art accessible,” Torres said. “I wanted it to be an intimate, immersive experience. I didn’t want art that was going to be up on a wall. I wanted people to be able to walk among it and be close to it.
“I wanted to create an art forest,” she said. “I wanted to activate an underused space, which this had been.”
A lot of work to improve Pocket Park has been done with The Grove project, which took nine months.
“Because of this project, it got so much love and attention,” Torres said, noting this is her first public art project.
“I’m a dreamer – I like big projects to make big impacts,” she said. “I wanted to show people what’s possible, if you work together, put your mind to it. I am so proud of my community. This was a collaborative effort – there were so many people who made this possible. I had the idea, then I had people who believed in the idea, and believed in me. That’s really what made this possible.”
From Clinton to NYC, Korea, and Europe
Torres is a 43-year-old Clinton native – her mom is from Argentina and dad is from Mexico. Her father is a retired pediatrician. After working as development director for the Clinton YWCA, which she left in 2021, Torres is now a full-time artist.
“I was always loved to draw and doodle, and at first I thought I would be a fashion designer,” Torres said. She focused on poetry instead – she earned an MFA in creative writing from The New School in New York City (2005), and her bachelor’s is from University of Iowa in comparative literature (2000).
Torres was published in chapbooks and journals, and taught English at a university in Seoul, South Korea for six years (2009-2015). She had been an adjunct English professor at Baruch College in New York. During her time in South Korea, Torres completed a master’s degree from the University of Birmingham in England in teaching English as a second language.
When she came back to Clinton, Torres got into painting watercolor, to connect with creativity while working on a manuscript.
“A lot of the poems were published in journals, but instead of continuing writing, I totally embraced and dove into visual art,” she said. “I went from making tiny things to paintings that fill up a park.”
Torres loves abstract art, similar to her lyrically abstract poetry.
“For me, painting is an extension of that,” she said. “For me, the abstract form is to me very natural. I like the languages of color, of movement, of texture – how they all work together to create compositions that are kind of like poems in themselves.”
Torres was invited to exhibit in group shows in Madrid, Spain, Paris and in Italy in 2021. “I was taken aback that people would be interested in my work overseas. It just resonates with people,” she said.
When she paints, Torres always explores a balance, and finding balance among the pieces that make up our lives.
“It’s connecting these sometimes chaotic parts, and almost embracing them to find balance among that,” she said. “We’re made up of all that. That’s real life. It’s being able to look at that from a distance in how that all works together.”
How The Grove came to be
The Grove was designed to be an immersive art experience, and visitors are invited to wander through the space and experience the art in an intimate, natural setting.
Torres had the idea for The Grove when thinking of how to best bring art to the public, allowing for many to access art in the community. At the heart of her mission is to not only create her own art, but for others to gain access to viewing and making art, in a community where opportunities for this are limited.
“Sometimes, there’s this misconception that art is only accessible to people with a lot of resources,” she said. “I don’t believe that – I believe art is for everyone. I think art is part of our human nature, to create. I hope that by making art more accessible, people can be close to it – that it might inspire them to feel more creative.”
“It’s important to me because art matters,” Torres added. “It has a transformative power, and I think by having things like this in our town, it creates civic pride. I think making art accessible, it opens the doors for art to bigger audiences.”
“I want to turn it into a magical land,” Torres said of the park during her remarks to reception attendees. “I want these lights, and I want to feel like we’re in this other world. All of these lights have been donated from the city, from public works. They put all this up; they got electricity running. They have transformed this park into this amazing space.”
“I can’t tell you, the feeling, what it’s like to walk in here tonight, and see this park transformed,” she told Wednesday’s visitors. “By supporting this, you’re not just supporting your community, you’re supporting the arts in Clinton, Iowa – which you know I’m very passionate about.
“I believe in the transformative power of art,” Torres said. “For me, the most incredible of this entire experience was how so many people came together to make this happen, that they believed in me, and we all worked together as a team to make it happen. I’m so proud to be a Clintonian right now, you have no idea. We live in a great place, where great things can happen.”
Collaborating with many others
Several area businesses and groups came together with funding to help make The Grove a reality, including Clinton National Bank, Citizens First Bank, Clinton Convention and Visitors Bureau, the Downtown Clinton Alliance, Retired With Wood, Brocolo, Kersh Digital, City of Clinton Parks & Recreation and Public Works Departments, Upholstery Unlimited and generous community members.
“It means the world to me to have my art on display for the public in my hometown,” Torres said. “I’m grateful to everyone who helped me take my big idea and make it a reality. As exciting as it is for me to paint and create, it’s made even better by sharing my work and seeing others find their desire to create.”
Fuller (of Retired With Wood) met Torres in summer 2021, when he did a frame for a client of hers. She contacted him about The Grove project – art is a new field for him.
“I’m a furniture builder,” Fuller said. “We take local logs, turn them into lumber, and make custom-made, sculpted rockers.” He also makes tables and bar tops.
He’s been woodworking since the ‘70s, and formed his business in 2014, after retiring from running the Clinton Harley-Davidson dealership for 10 years.
Fuller worked on the frames (all local lumber – hickory, ash and walnut) this past February, within six weeks. Steve Pearson of Upholstery Unlimited cut the canvas to fit the frames.
“It’s awesome. Her vision – she wanted the paintings to look like trees of the forest,” Fuller said. “That’s why we went with the different sizes. And she scattered them, they all look amazing.”
“We tried to make the frames simple, but unique,” he said. “I’m happy to have the exposure of Retired With Wood through this, because I’m not good at promoting. Will it do some good future business? I hope so. One way, to be involved with Gabi doing this, it gives us an opportunity to get our name out there.”
Why stay in Clinton?
With all of Torres’s talent, ambition and passion, why does she stay in Clinton, versus moving to a bigger city?
“I love my hometown; I love this place,” she said Wednesday. “This is a wonderful place to live and I think it has so much potential. I want to be able to contribute to that and make a positive impact if I can. Big cities have lots of artists and they are doing cool things.
“But places like Clinton, the arts are just as important as anywhere else, and if I can help be part of that, then that’s what I’d like to do,” she said.
“There is nowhere else I would want to be an artist. We are so fortunate to live in a city where people come together to make things happen and care so much about where they call home,” Torres said.
There are conversations about making the park a permanent outdoor gallery, to rotate paintings in the frames.
“I couldn’t have asked for a better response,” Torres said. “The frames could be stored for the winter, and then each year, I would have a new artist showcased every year. Keep the arts alive in Clinton, and make it a cultural destination for people.”
For more information on the artist, visit her website.