DECORAH – In Iowa’s scenic Driftless area, trees are cloaking themselves in autumn coats of many colors, while partly sunny skies and not-quite-sweater weather are predicted for the Northeast Iowa Artists’ Studio Tour.
The 22nd annual adventure is from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Friday, Saturday and Sunday. There is no admission fee.
It’s a self-guided road trip to the studios of 47 artists at 34 locations, all within 40 miles of Decorah. Along the way, scenery ranges from impressive limestone bluffs, meandering river bottoms and valleys forested with hardwood timber. Iowa’s Driftless area was untouched by glaciers that carved paths through the state eons ago.
But the biggest attraction is the behind-the-scenes look at artists at the bench, easel or throwing wheel creating their art, said Darla Ellickson, tour director and founder.
“We have so many interesting little pockets of creative artists. Unlike when you go to an art fair and just see the finished product, on this tour, you’re stepping inside an artist’s world and seeing works in progress,” she explained.
Iowa’s largest and longest-running tour features many award-winning, national-caliber artists displaying and selling pottery, paintings, woodcuts, baskets, jewelry, woodworking, kaleidoscopes, sculpture, collage, fiber arts, photography and more.
That the area has become an artists’ enclave doesn’t surprise Ellickson, an award-winning jewelrymaker who creates contemporary, wearable designs in sterling silver and 14K gold with gemstones.
“We’re within hours of major cities like Chicago, Minneapolis, Des Moines, Milwaukee, Kansas City, so we can live here and still go to our high-end markets and art fairs,” she explained.
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The tour draws visitors from throughout the United States and abroad. One year, Decorah blown-glass artist Dan Fenn and his wife, Deborah, counted more than 700 cars at their place. “License plates from all over the country — people come a long way to see us. They see a whole other side of us, the environment we work in. I have a beautiful shop I blow glass in, but my house needs to be pushed over,” said Dan Fenn, joking.
Blowing glass, he said, is a “four-hand project,” and he and his wife have worked together for more than 30 years. He loves the entire process — from engineering and building his own equipment and working with sand and minerals to blowing glass to create vases, bowls, gazing balls and much more.
“It’s very organic, right out of the earth,” Fenn explained. “There’s the artistic nature of it, too. If I made one of everything in my head, I’d have to live to be 300 years old.”
Painter Jennifer Fisher Jones, also of Decorah, has participated in the artists’ tour for four years. “Each year I’ve been on the tour, I’ve had a different series going,” she said. Jones likes working in large-scale formats, such as her “Big Dogs, Large Stories” series.
“Participating helps get my art in front of people — a different audience. Some people are going around to purchase art, while others want to be exposed to different artwork,” Jones said.
The tour is one of the busiest weekends of the year in the Decorah area. Hotels are booked, and restaurants, breweries, shops, galleries and museums will be abuzz with activities. Smaller communities like Calmar, Elgin, New Albin, Lansing, Clermont and Waukon benefit, as well.
“We always put next year’s dates in the brochure so people can plan around it. I’m way out in the country, and I have a nice, open front entry. I wait for the first person to walk through the door and say, ‘Wow, I didn’t know this was out here.’ That’s my favorite moment to say ‘Welcome,’” Ellickson said.