University of Iowa alumna and artist Luisa Caldwell spent part of her childhood in Iowa and vowed to return for college. She did, and years later returns again to the place where she truly became inspired as an artist.
Emily Nelson
Renee Riccardo and courtesy of Luisa Caldwell

Luisa Caldwell’s art has been shown in galleries and public spaces around the world. But there was one place on her professional bucket list she had yet to cross off: Iowa. But a New York Metro IOWA Club event sparked an idea for how the New York City resident and University of Iowa alumna could make that happen.

Whipping Up Creativity: Iowa, the Arts, and NYC, a behind-the-scenes look at the project to rebuild UI’s Hancher Auditorium and the journey of American Ballet Theatre’s Whipped Cream, was held in November 2018 at American Ballet Theatre in New York City. There, Caldwell saw a link between her past work with candy wrappers and the whimsical full-length story ballet, which was coming to the Hancher stage in April.

After a conversation with Hancher Executive Director Chuck Swanson, Caldwell created two works that were temporarily installed in Hancher during the performance of Whipped Cream. The project enabled Caldwell to return to the community and university she says helped make her the artist she is today.

Caldwell’s family spent time in Southern California as well as Des Moines and West Branch, Iowa, before moving to Iowa City. She attended second grade through part of ninth grade in UI’s hometown, and she fondly remembers taking ceramics classes on campus and learning to swim at the Field House.

“Growing up in Iowa City was amazing,” Caldwell says. “I had quite a magical childhood. The safety of a small town but the sophistication and culture that the university offered was special.”

Her father was coordinator for the Iowa Regional Medical Program and was an assistant professor in the UI Carver College of Medicine. Her mother worked at the former store Things & Things & Things, which Caldwell says was not just a retail establishment, but a local cultural and artistic icon in which most everyone who worked there had gone to the UI or was a UI student.

When Caldwell was 14, the family relocated to northern Italy, a move she says devastated her.

“The University of Iowa was interesting and cosmopolitan but also small enough that I could bike and walk. My time there led to me being a professional artist. That is a successful education, as I would define it.”

Luisa Caldwell

“My mom was Italian, and my parents were a bit of adventurers, so they decided to move us to Italy and start importing Italian artisanal products like ceramics, baskets, copper, and leather,” Caldwell says. “But there was no question in my mind I would come back to Iowa City for college. I never considered going anywhere else, and I made that dream come true.”

She returned to study art history at the UI, where she says she had one of the best residence hall rooms on campus: one of three rooms in Currier Residence Hall that at the time had a balcony. She earned her BA in art history in 1986 and started work toward an MFA in sculpture, studying under sculptor Julius Schmidt.

“I got my first exposure to contemporary art through all the amazing sculptures on campus, and, of course, through the museum and having access to Jackson Pollock’s Mural,” Caldwell says. “It was interesting and cosmopolitan but also small enough that I could bike and walk. My time there led to me being a professional artist. That is a successful education, as I would define it.”

After leaving the UI, Caldwell traveled for a year and then moved to New York, where she was one of the first artists to build out a loft studio in an abandoned warehouse in the Williamsburg neighborhood of Brooklyn. She says it was a great experience to help create a community and participate in DIY artist-run installations, experimentation that helped build her portfolio and led to professional, paid opportunities.

Caldwell’s art is diverse, from two-dimensional works on paper to large-scale, site-specific three-dimensional installations. Her materials also vary, but two commonly show up in her work: fruit stickers and candy wrappers. Caldwell often pairs fruit stickers with acrylic paint to make floral paintings, while she uses candy wrappers—many, many candy wrappers—delicately suspended on thread to create streamers that span floor to ceiling.  

“I like to make beauty out of the simplest, unimportant things, and elevate those lowly materials into an art form,” Caldwell says.

While she hadn’t worked with candy wrappers for about five years, Caldwell immediately thought of them as she listened to David Lansky, general manager of American Ballet Theatre, talk about Whipped Cream during the UI alumni event.

“The combination of Whipped Cream and that beautiful building inspired me,” Caldwell says. “I was excited to get back into the wrapper installations and think about where they can go after Hancher.”

Caldwell has enjoyed attending alumni events in New York sponsored by the UI Center for Advancement, saying they have been interesting and of high quality. Along with the American Ballet Theatre event, she cited a screening of UI-alumni produced documentary Saving Brinton and reception at the Whitney Museum of American Art for the exhibit Grant Wood: American Gothic and Other Fables.

“There are so many interesting things coming out of Iowa,” Caldwell says. “The Grant Wood event was so well done. It was a beautiful presentation and we were able to tour the museum after hours. Who else gets to do that?”

Caldwell says the events also provide an opportunity to engage with fellow alumni.

“I feel like professionals today are so streamlined to our own interests, but it’s good to mix it up and meet other people,” Caldwell says.

While Caldwell never finished her MFA, she says she hopes to complete it someday—maybe even at the UI. But for now, she cherishes the opportunity to create something beautiful for the place she called home for so long—and to check off one more item on her bucket list.

“There are certain projects that work on a personal level as well as professional, and when they merge like this, it becomes such a meaningful experience,” Caldwell says. “It feels like I’m coming full circle in my life, and I love that feeling, like coming home.”