Gabriella Torres is pretty special, so it’s fitting the passionate Clinton artist earned special recognition at the Governor’s Arts Awards program last week as an emerging arts leader in Iowa.

The 44-year-old Clinton native said that the award was a total shock, and the category’s top recipient is a good friend.

Gabi Torres, left, was honored March 1, 2023 in Des Moines by Chris Kramer, director of the Iowa Department Cultural Affairs.

“I was wildly honored. It was a huge surprise,” Torres said recently. Her friend, Amber Danielson, won that award category – she’s executive director of the Marshall County Arts & Culture Alliance (based in Marshalltown).

The state special recognition also is a way to honor Clinton for the positive things happening, Torres said. “That’s my ultimate goal – when I get this award, my community gets recognized, not just me,” she said. “That is what it’s all about.”

Among her ambitious goals is to open a new artist studio in a building that she is leasing downtown as part of the revitalization of Clinton.

Among Torres’s friends who came out to Des Moines to support her last week was Quad City Arts executive director Kevin Maynard. They’re pictured at the State Historical Museum of Iowa.

She needed a bigger, more open warehouse space, and plans to move by May. Torres’s current storefront studio (which she owns) is at 83 Main Avenue, in the Lyons district of Clinton, and the larger space also is in the Lyons district, in the north end of town.

“The space I’m in is meant to be a store, divided up into different rooms,” she said. “The Grove frames, I couldn’t even store them in my studio because they were too tall.”

“This will give me more space for things,” Torres said of the new space, with a separate office area. “There’s a lot more storage space as well.”

Last June, the abstract artist (who has had paintings featured in British Vogue and House & Garden and exhibited in group shows in Madrid, Paris, Genoa, and Milan) created a unique outdoor art gallery — “The Grove,” on display through October 2022 in Pocket Park, 125 4th Avenue South.

Torres created 12 abstract paintings for “The Grove” last summer in Clinton, 125 4th Avenue South.

The large-scale abstract forest of artwork was 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 made for a unique experience.

“I’m into immersive experiences,” she said this week. “I do feel like The Grove was immersive; you could walk through and see the art, and be part of it.”

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 (through Quad City Arts), and raised $5,000 more.

“I think about how I can bring seemingly disparate parts together and make something cool,” Torres said of a big new project.

Working in nature

She has a friend (Jessica Steines) who works as a naturalist for Clinton County Conservation, and asked Torres to collaborate.

Daughter of an Argentinian mother and Mexican father, Torres stands with art by Zaiga Minka Thorson at the Figge Art Museum, March 6, 2023 (photo by Jonathan Turner).

The artist is deeply inspired by nature and the Iowa landscape. She uses acrylic paints and realizes they’re very toxic, so Torres wants to make her own eco-friendly pigments that won’t harm the environment.

“One of my goals – I want to learn to make my own pigments, to make natural earth pigments, dyes, things that are going to be non-toxic and more environmentally mindful,” she said.

“Because I love where I live so much and I love Iowa, I want to be able to go out and make paintings that celebrate and honor the environment, using those materials,” Torres said. “How cool would it be to make abstract landscapes, literally using the landscape? I’m using the earth to celebrate the earth.”

Torres in June 2022 at The Grove in Clinton (photo by Jonathan Turner).

She would create colors from earth, clay, wildflowers, and rocks.

Torres worked with Steines on a presentation about creating a body of work celebrating this regional landscape, using pigments created from those places. She also wants to be the county’s first artist-in-residence, living in a county-owned cabin during November and December, and then showcase her art at the Mississippi River Eco Tourism Center at Rock Creek, in early 2024.

Torres made the presentation to the Clinton County Conservation Board on Feb. 21, and got their approval.

Through this spring and summer, she will forage for materials for her pigments and create them, and be in residency at a cabin north of town from Nov. 1 to Dec. 15, on Clinton County property. Torres is looking for funding to raise money for the $37,000 project, including from the Iowa Arts Council.

“When I’m passionate about a project, I am tenacious and I get it funded one way or the other,” she said.

The artist stands with other examples of her abstract acryclic paintings.

Torres envisions teaching other artists how to make their own natural paints and possibly sell the products herself.

The art will not be framed on walls, but will be suspended so visitors can walk around the paintings, Torres said. “It’s like they’re floating and you walk through them – again, an immersive experience.”

Once the show goes down, she plans to do outdoor installations on other county land. “Then it’s creative placemaking and people can go out and see it,” she said. “I am beyond excited for this project – it’s just like a real soul thing for me.”

There are Quad Cities videographers also interested in making a mini-documentary about the project, Torres said.

Highlighting local beauty

“I hope this highlights the beauty we have in our county, and also makes people more aware of it, and also sets a foundation for future artists to come in and do a residency,” she said.

In November and later, the artist really loves the darkness of the colder woods.

“You can see everything, when the leaves have fallen,” Torres said. “You have this incredible view. I actually prefer it. And to be mindful of Clinton County Conservation, I didn’t want to interrupt a time when there are high rentals. It was a very intentional choice.”

Two of Torres’s paintings for The Grove (photo by Jonathan Turner).

“And I like trekking through the snow,” she said. “And you never know with Iowa weather, it could be like 75 degrees.”

She creates landscape art in the abstract medium by using the colors of the landscape.

“Also the composition you find in nature is so stunning,” Torres said. “You have the horizontal orientation of the land itself, the earth, and you’ve got the vertical orientation of trees. For me, when I’m walking out in the woods, I take a lot of pictures and I find natural compositions that then inform what I do in my studio.”

The art doesn’t literally represent nature, she noted, but the feeling is more subsconscious.

Having that connection to nature is “so crucial” to Torres as a person, she said. “It’s like necessary for me as a human and I really value it. I feel like this is a way to honor that and also a way to do something awesome for my county and my community.

“If I can get more people interested in conservation and get people practicing art in an ethical way, or an environmentally ethical way, that’s really amazing,” she said.

2nd artist at The Grove

The Grove will be a permanent outdoor gallery space. The second artist, to use the same frames Torres did, is Kansas City-based Harmony Kurtz Eccles – another Clinton native who grew up close to Torres (though they didn’t get to know each other until later). She’s an abstract artist as well, and the next installation will start in the beginning of June 2023.

A 2022 painting by Harmony Eccles.

“I think representational art, you see a lot more of it,” Torres said. “It’s widely present, so I want to create opportunities for abstract art to be accessible. You never know, maybe that will inspire someone – a kid, an adult, maybe they’ll be moved by it.”

Eccles is borrowing Torres’s Grove paintings, using them as inspiration, to paint in conversation with them.

“I was thrilled, that she’d want to use my original pieces and add to them,” Torres said. “There will still be a bit of Gabi in The Grove this year.”

Her “Wild” exhibit was up at the Sawmill Museum in Clinton last May, and several of those paintings are now at Krumpets Bakery in Fulton, Ill.

Honoring her parents

Torres (who does not have children) is also taking care of her elderly mother, following the death of her dad last September from Alzheimer’s.

Torres’s mom is from Argentina and her dad (a pediatrician) was from Mexico, and they put down roots in Clinton in 1976 (they had met in Boston), raising three kids there (Gabi is the youngest and her two brothers live in California now).

Torres at the Figge Art Museum (with art by Zaiga Minka Thorson) on Monday, March 6, 2023 (photo by Jonathan Turner).

“That has a lot of meaning to me,” she said. Her dad “loved Iowa so much and he really instilled in me that love for Iowa,” she said.

“He loved the corn, he loved the people, and he really instilled that in me,” Torres said. “For me, being able to follow in his footsteps in my love for this place, trying to do what I can to bring beauty – that means something to me. That’s why it’s so important.”

“Clinton is a community that embraced my dad and my mom, and I think that means a lot to me, especially in a time now where that seems to be not the common story,” she said. “Clinton is home, and people in Clinton are supportive of me and kind to me. If I can do right by Clinton the way Clinton’s done right by me, I feel that’s pretty special.”