Creating Stanley Museum’s first work of art

Odili Donald Odita, a Nigerian-born artist who grew up in the Midwest, is the creator behind the new Stanley Museum of Art’s first official installation — a vibrant floor-to-ceiling mural located in the museum’s lobby.


Gabby Drees

Artist Odili Donald Odita responds to questions from the media at the Stanley Museum of Art at the University of Iowa on Tuesday, April 12, 2022. The Stanley Museum of Art is slated to open to the public on August 26, 2022.

Parker Jones, Arts Editor

An intersecting kaleidoscope of colorful, angular lines stretches from floor to ceiling on a wall in the lobby of the new Stanley Museum of Art.

The nonrepresentational mural is the first work of art installed in the newly constructed building, and the artist behind it, Odili Donald Odita, has his own abstract connections to the University of Iowa.

Odita was born in Nigeria in 1966. Soon after, his parents fled the country because of the Nigerian Civil War and immigrated to the U.S. — where they initially moved to Iowa. Odita’s father studied design and printmaking at the UI, while his mother studied social research. Later, the family moved to Columbus, OH, where they stayed for the rest of Odita’s childhood.

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The young artist spent a few years living in Iowa City and wouldn’t return until years later, when he was contacted by the Stanley Museum of Art to design and paint a mural in its future lobby.

His mural, titled Surrounding, is meant to reflect one of the most famous pieces in the UI’s 17,000-piece art collection — Jackson Pollock’s 1943 masterpiece, Mural, considered one of the artist’s most seminal works that marked a transition from representational art to the fully abstract “splatter” style he is known for.

The Pollock painting will be featured as part of the new museum’s inaugural exhibition, displayed in one of the second-floor galleries in time for the building’s Aug. 26 grand opening.

When Odita saw Mural in-person and in color for the first time after years of viewing Pollock’s work solely through black-and-white photos in art textbooks, his view of the painting drastically changed.

Odita initially viewed Mural as a “problematic” work of Pollock’s, citing the enormous piece’s intense design and seeming lack of balance — however, after seeing it in color, the artist said it “totally made sense.”

“I understood how he was using color in opposition to the drawing, the intensity of the yellows and the whites to complement the structure of the drawing,” Odita said. “It made complete sense as to the balance, it was just really impressive.”

Odita’s work will be the first in a series of lobby-displayed artwork, which the museum has titled “Thresholds.” Due to the sunlight expected to filter in through the lobby’s large windows, it will only be a temporary exhibition to prevent extensive sun damage to its vibrant colors.

It is expected to remain up for a few years before being painted over.

When taking on larger projects and wall paintings or murals, Odita said he views the space that the mural exists in to be just as important as the piece itself. He considers how one’s body may feel existing in the same space and time as the art.

“Whatever the space is, and wherever the space is, it definitely is an important factor in the work and part of the work,” Odita said.

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Although the style he has become most well-known for is decidedly abstract, Odita’s work didn’t always take on the often angular and prismatic patterns that can be seen in Surrounding. Growing up, the artist was largely inspired by comic books, and the paintings and artwork his family had around the house.

His Nigerian heritage also greatly influences his interest in art, Odita said. He describes his childhood as one surrounded by art and art history — his father fostered much of the material that got Odita started, including pieces of African art, various prints, and art books on topics like the Renaissance or Picasso.

“When I was a kid, my dad had these prints, I’m not sure what they were of, or what they were for, but I would spend my time just copying them one page after another, until I would fall asleep,” Odita said. “To think back on all that stuff I looked at, it’s just interesting to see how it panned out.”

Odita said he always knew he wanted to do something with art, and was previously interested in avenues like photography, illustration, and graphic design. Ultimately, however, he said he doesn’t have enough patience for those approaches, and simply prefers a bigger scale — though he has respect for artists who “muster the diligence” for those kinds of mediums.

The painter’s true “devolution” into abstraction, as Odita describes it, occurred during his undergraduate years at Ohio State University, when a fellow student told him to find his own style.

“There was somebody whose work I admired at school, and you learn by copying, so I was always taking from work he was making — one day, he came up to me and was like ‘Hey man, you’re copying my style, you have to figure out your own thing,’” Odita said. “It was very hurtful in a sense, but it was very helpful because it just forced me to think about my own path, and from there I just slowly devolved into being an abstractionist.”

Odita has taught at various institutions for nearly 20 years and has lived in Philadelphia since 2006. Odita presently works as an associate professor of painting in the Tyler School of Art at Temple University, though he is currently on an unpaid leave of absence while taking on personal projects.

While he has only visited the UI a few times to visit faculty members or speak in lectures as a visiting artist, Odita said that his mural in the Stanley serves as a tribute to not only Pollock, but to the museum and its space as well. He noted considering Iowa City’s seasonality during his different visits, making for a piece he ultimately hopes will give people joy to see.

“I really wanted to make something that is conditional to the environment here, because I’ve been in the city at different points when it’s freezing terrible cold, as much as when it’s like beautiful this spring and summer,” Odita said. “I hope it just stands up to the audience, and gives people joy to see it.”