175 Des Moines, IA: Iowa Girls

I had arranged to view the files about this painting. In the lobby, I approached a woman wearing a badge on her black sweatshirt. She had a large round head with a wart on her forehead. She wore round glasses and no make up. Her fingers bore no rings. She didn't know about who my appointment was with, but when I saw her badge read "curator," I asked her about Hopperesque isolation in Des Moines.

"I moved from New York to a place where people go to shopping malls," she answered in a delicate manner that seemed British. "It's a big enough art community. In many cases, you are offered more opportunities to have your name on projects here. I travel quite a bit. I think it'd be very hard to stay here. You know, we don't know who that woman [in Automat] is."

"She looks," I said, "like an uncomfortable shopgirl who moved from the country to the city."

"That's a very good point. That's something!" she brightened. "There are a lot of young women here who come from a farm area."

I found many in the museum.

The young girl working the museum's front desk wore tight white pants and a light blue shirt that accented her rich blue eyes. She had light skin and dark freckles, and her large teeth formed a pouty underbite below her wide lips. After she called Mary Ann, my contact, there was a long wait, so I put my question to her.

"I do like that Hopper painting. You know, when I was younger I didn't like that painting at all. But somehow… I guess I probably relate to it a lot more than I used to. I used to go out and be a partier and now I'm just a loner." She laughed.

Mary Ann, who showed me the files, had brown eyes, a button nose, and a gentle manner reinforced by her soft voice. Three tiny silver baubles hung from the breast pocket of her satiny white shirt.

"That piece [Automat]," she told me, "spawns more creative submissions than any other painting here. We receive short stories from 13-year-olds, poetry, etc. People just feel compelled to share with us how the painting affected them."

On my way out, Laura, a sturdy Des Moines native dressed all in black, answered from behind her reception desk. "I would say it is like the painting because I'm from a rural area. I've lived here my whole life, and I've seen, in the last five or six years, Des Moines's becoming much less provincial. There's supposed to be a fabulous Art Center somewhere on the Drake campus, though I've never been there. If you want to get steak, this is the place to get it. Dairy is good too. And you have to go to Stamm Chocolate: there's one in Amsterdam and one in Des Moines. The farmer's market is a big must. The earlier the better. By nine o'clock, it gets mobbed. It's the only time the downtown really comes alive all weekend."

When I went to buy a post card reproduction of Automat at the museum shop, the teenaged girl behind the counter wore three-inch-thick soles that raised her past six feet in height. Her big brown eyes had a slight droop to the lids, and her brown hair was pulled back tight above her make-up-free face, which was dotted with freckles, as were her plump arms. She was reading 1984 and listening to classical music.

She thought hard how to answer about isolation. "Like in Hopper's paintings? Sometimes I think I am personally. I'm happiest when I'm just alone and allowed to do what I want to do. But every now and then, I need to go be around people. Sometimes, even though you have people around you, you feel alone by yourself."

"Des Moines is expanding a lot. Where I live, a couple years ago was farmland. My house was a farm. It's really annoying how fast it's growing. My parents were one set from Chicago, one set from Iowa. My grandparents grew up on a farm and leave their keys in the car, which baffles me here. And you would never do it in Chicago. Even with all the stuff to do in Chicago, you just still feel kind of closed-in. And there's always people around you; it's just like 'ha!'" She made a gesture of pushing away. "In a little town, it does get boring, but you don't have the fear. There is a lot more to do in Des Moines, but there's more community in a little small town. The neighbors are all basically the same."

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