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Whipple relishes the ‘good fatigue,’ feedback at art festivals


Judith Whipple is one of only six Iowa artists who have participated in each Des Moines Arts Festival since it was launched eight years ago, and is one of only 23 Iowans among the 173 artists participating in this year’s event June 24-26. Whipple creates sculptures of animals – some real, others make-believe – using papier-mache, wood, wire and objects such as wheels. Her husband, Joel, son, Jake, granddaughter, Sydney, and friends assist with building the pieces in the family’s home-based studio in Runnells. The Whipples travel to several festivals during the year to sell their art, and their work can also be seen year-round at two local galleries, Tandem Brick Gallery and Frame and 2AU. Whipple has some college-level art education, but said she has learned most of her techniques through trial and error and observations.

How did you get your start as an artist?

I’ve been an artist all my life. I’ve been working professionally for about the past 35 years and traveling to different shows. I started off as a painter. I was doing paintings and drawings. I was very eclectic. I did a lot of still lifes and some landscapes and a few abstracts.

What made you decide to switch to creating these paiper-mache animals?

I had made these years ago, but had never shown them. In 1994, while I was working on a screen for someone as a commission piece, I decided that it needed something on top. My daughter said, “How about those birds that you did?” I put the birds on top, and they were so much fun and people really liked them that I started doing more of them and it grew into this. Now I haven’t had an opportunity to paint too much.

Do you do make all types of animals?

Birds are my focus, but I do a lot of other animals too. Some of them are more imaginary creatures. It just evolves. You look at one thing and bring in parts of another thing into it.

Are there similar characteristics between the different pieces?

I keep a little bit of humor involved in all of them. I used to do a lot of life drawings, and now with the animals, I always try to capture attitudes and gestures to also give them a human element. You can relate to their attitudes in different ways – through their expressions, the tilt of their heads, their stances.

Do you make more than one of the same design?

There are always ones that are similar, but it feels like we’ve never done any two that are alike. But it’s possible that we have without realizing it.

How much time do you spend on each one?

I do each one in stages. I’ve been working on some of them since the first of the year. There are a lot of steps involved, and sometimes, they might sit for a while.

How many do you take with you to sell at five or six art shows you attend each year?

I try to take at least 60, and sometimes more. I do some bigger pieces too. I might take an old ladder and add some character to it with birds sitting on it. That’s probably the largest thing I do, and the smallest thing I do are birds on swings.

Have you been pleased with the public’s response to your art at these shows?

There’s been big support, especially in Des Moines. We’ve had a good response to the work and a lot of nice encouragement.

What changes have you noticed in the Des Moines Arts Festival since its inaugural show?

This has evolved into a whole different show from what it started as. It has really been fun to see it evolve. We’ve done some very nice shows, and Des Moines holds its own. We go to a show in Denver that is rated real high, and Des Moines’ show really holds its own. Des Moines’ show is as easy as it can be for an artist. They have a lot of volunteers who are really connected with the needs of artists, and they do understand all the work that goes into it.

What’s it like to be involved in a festival that continues over several days?

It’s fun, but it’s a lot of hard work. You are very drained because the weeks prior, you are constantly getting ready for it and tweaking everything and finishing up on pieces. Before a show, I’m working long days and pulling a few all-nighters. I think everybody does that. You say that you’re not going to do it, but somehow, you do anyway. It’s a real good fatigue, but it is tiring.

What do you enjoy about the experience of art shows?

It’s great to see firsthand response to your work, and a lot of people give really good input. And it’s great to see other people’s work. It’s fun to see people whom you see at other shows throughout the years and see how their work is evolving and catch up with what’s going on with them.

Do you see yourself returning to your roots in painting in the future?

I love doing this. I would love to get back to painting sometime, but right now, I’m having too much fun.

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