Ph.D. student finds artistic recognition when selected to commemorate UI’s 175th anniversary

Gul Rukh Mehboob was selected to capture the University of Iowa’s history and future in a painting presented during the institution’s 175th anniversary and 22nd presidential installation — all without any formal training as an artist.


Daniel McGregor-Huyer

University of Iowa student Gul Rukh Mehboob stands next to her painting for the 175th anniversary of the University of Iowa on Feb. 24, 2022.

Parker Jones, Arts Editor

On Friday, University of Iowa President Barbara Wilson will stand in front of a special painting at her formal presidential installation ceremony at Hancher Auditorium.

The painting was created by economist, Ph.D. candidate, and international student Gul Rukh Mehboob, who has studied for just a semester so far at the UI.

Mehboob was selected by the UI’s 175th Anniversary Planning Committee to create a work of art to celebrate the university’s vast history, as well as its possibilities for the future.

The artist, who moved to the U.S. to work on her health economics Ph.D. in the College of Public Health during the fall 2021 semester, is originally from Peshawar, Pakistan.

After only a few months of attending the UI, Mehboob saw the call for artists put out by the 175th Anniversary Planning Committee but was not confident in applying because she didn’t — and still doesn’t — consider herself a professional artist.

“When I saw that, I felt excited because not only it was about art, but also because it was related to this really prestigious event,” Mehboob said. “I think what the committee really appreciated about my application was how passionate I was about art.”

Mehboob said that being selected was unexpected and a bit overwhelming. After presenting her concept to the Planning Committee, she was given the go-ahead to paint the image that will stand behind Wilson as she is formally installed.

The work itself features a black-and-white image of the Old Capitol building, with specific colorful elements like the structure’s iconic golden dome and vibrant orange and yellow autumn leaves around the top edge of the image. Mehboob said she used charcoal and watercolor paints to create the artwork, which she said are easier to use but different from her preferred materials, oil paints.

Mehboob said she has used art as an escape since she was a child. While she ultimately chose a career in economics and now focuses on public health, she emphasized her love for visual art that has remained through her life.

“Whatever personal challenges I had, whatever my personal circumstances were or whatever I was studying, art was something that has always been with me,” Mehboob said.

Despite having no formal training as an artist, Mehboob said she has always loved art, and learned the basics by happenstance one day.

RELATED: Dancer, teacher, poet, and cashier — Jhe Russell is a man of many talents

In 2016, while working and studying at the Federal Urdu University of Arts, Sciences & Technology in Islamabad, Pakistan, Mehboob visited a Sunday bazaar, where she came upon a stall with a man who was selling his own paintings. At first, Mehboob was interested in purchasing a piece, but ended up having a conversation with him instead.

“I think maybe he just understood that I’m really passionate about art, and he said, ‘You can sit with me, and you can learn if you want to,’” Mehboob said. “Whatever basics I have learned, I’ve learned from him. If he wouldn’t have offered me, or taught me the basics, I wouldn’t really have been this confident about my artwork.”

After the 175th Anniversary celebrations, Mehboob’s original painting of the Old Capitol will be permanently displayed in the Office of the President in Jessup Hall. A print will also be displayed in the Vice President’s office suite in the Iowa Memorial Union.

Mehboob said that ultimately, although she hasn’t received a degree or a certificate in art, that her recognition as an artist for painting the Old Capitol after such a short time at the UI has inspired her to continue creating on a more impactful scale.

“The response is so nice. I’ve really realized that people really value your artistic skills, and they really take interest in your work,” Mehboob said. “It has given me the confidence that along with my Ph.D., I can also do this.”