Professor Emeritus Stanley Hess
Climbing the stairs from the lower level of the Des Moines Art Center’s education wing, visitors first encounter the artist’s tools—palette, brushes, books. Ascending from the landing, they pass the artist himself at work on a canvas. But not until they’ve reached the main floor and stepped away from the 16×14-foot fresco do they discover the larger story—‘Fame,’ depicted with trumpet and laurel wreath in hand, heralding the artist’s feats.
In the mid-1950s, a young Drake professor of art stood paintbrush in hand next to visiting artist Jean Charlot as the mural Inspiration of the Artist took form. The work that six decades later remains part of the Art Center’s permanent collection introduced Stanley Hess to the multiple experiences possible with scale and form.
“A mural isn’t just a big painting,” says Hess, describing how large works are experienced from a distance and up close, from above and below. “It’s expressive of its surroundings.”
In Tulsa, Oklahoma—his surroundings since retiring from Drake in 1985—the 90-year-old Hess recently finished carving his fifth wooden walking cane, another art form that applies proportion and representation. The 5-inch-long “mall court jester” that crowns the smooth 3-foot hard maple staff is Hess’ playful tribute—crafted in perfect ratio using an X-ACTO knife—to the food court visitors he encounters during walks at the local shopping mall.
“I walk with a cane. People notice. They stop me and want to know about it,” says Hess, who describes the challenge of scale in artfully depicting a lion or a crane. “If I’m off one-eighth of an inch, it’s conspicuous.”
Hess himself was being noticed soon after arriving at Drake. A November 1958 article in Drake Alumnus described the then associate professor of art as “possibly the busiest artist in the Midwest.” His introduction to mural painting with Charlot led to a 1957 opportunity to design two exterior brick murals and several interior murals for a new downtown Des Moines YMCA. More metro area murals followed—for St. Theresa Church, the Child Guidance Center, Iowa Power and Light Co., Mercy Hospital, Blank Children’s Hospital, Iowa Lutheran Hospital, National Travelers Life Co., Valley View Village, and others.
His large-scale mural works, and the diverse perspectives involved, later inspired Hess’ studio painting. He began translating that architectural effect for the canvas, creating works that some described as surreal or magic realism or “trompe l’œil” (“deceives the eye”). A 1972 one-man show in Drake’s Lobby Gallery (now the Weeks Gallery) called them Images Within Images, offering different experiences at different distances and angles.
His art branched in new directions by the end of the 1970s. A woodworking hobby evolved into self-taught mastery of handcrafted musical instruments. Scale again entered Hess’ work, as he produced Renaissance-era replicas as small as six inches and as large as six feet. “As a young man, I wanted to be a musician,” recalls Hess, who in earlier years played the violin. “I wasn’t any good at playing them, but they couldn’t keep me from making the instruments.”
Upon retiring from Drake, Hess and his wife sought a new home. “We used Drake as a model,” he remembers, and the couple explored communities in several different states. “We decided we wouldn’t live anywhere that didn’t have a university.” Tulsa, which became and remains their home, has two.
Hess continued painting canvases and crafting instruments (playing some of them) in retirement. A tremor in his right hand now limits those pursuits, but Hess once again found a new creative path. He’s had offers to buy his finished walking canes and special requests for new ones, but this artist has something of greater proportions in mind. Hess says when he completes a dozen or so canes, he’ll plan his next exhibit.