Friday, December 31, 2010 7:00 AM
Jan Fleming thinks you should look up more often. When she started to raise her gaze a few years ago, she was delighted to find strange faces looking back at her from buildings all over Des Moines. Why, she wondered. What is this all about?
The mother lode is the Polk County Courthouse, featuring 28 of these stone carvings, known as grotesques. They are not alone in the city, however. Their fellows can be found at the Rollins Mansion on Fleur Drive, St. Ambrose Cathedral, 800 Locust Suites and Spa, the Salisbury House and elsewhere.
They can be silly, scary or merely strange, but why they’re there, we may never know. Fleming obsessed on the subject for years and never found the answer.
She did, however, commit photographs of them and notes about her personal odyssey to two books: “Grotesques in Des Moines … Iowa and Abroad,” volumes one and two, which come packaged in a single cover now at several bookstores around Greater Des Moines. They’re filled with photos of carved faces from here, New York City, Chicago, England, Belgium and elsewhere, with occasional asides that reflect Fleming’s enthusiasm as much as anything else.
She definitely got into the subject. Not every historical researcher and author would dress up as a “Green Man” at the Valley Junction Farmers Market in West Des Moines. Fleming, however, did just that.
Green Man is a term known only to devotees of grotesques, and refers to faces that seem to sprout vegetation. It has something to do with the relation of humans to the rest of nature, and it has been considered by previous authors. Fleming, however, lays claim to one discovery about grotesques that she has never seen discussed anywhere else.
As she worked with grotesque photos one day, she looked at one upside down and was elated to see an owl looking back. Fleming since has found a number of examples of such “upside-downness” in grotesques, and said: “I polled all the living stone carvers, and none had noticed that. I’m certain we are the first ones to publish that; it’s a real coup for Iowa.”
You’re welcome to send her more examples of carved faces from your travels, but don’t expect to see them appear in a third Fleming volume. “I don’t have it in me to do another book,” she said, and gives the distinct impression that assembling books in one’s apartment is a stressful experience.
However, there’s more to be done on this subject, in Fleming’s view. She fervently hopes that our now-pitted limestone carvings can be preserved, which will require money and experts.
Also, she would like to see grotesques included when buildings are constructed in Central Iowa. “Current carvers are doing wonderful things,” she said. And this time, we could make sure to write down for future generations the reason we put grotesques on our buildings: Because they’re cool.
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