Art Center exhibits enliven local history

Margaret Hurlbert
Margaret Hurlbert
Margaret Hurlbert works as the Editor of Discover Muscatine Newspaper.

Muscatine Living

MUSCATINE, Iowa–As a river town settled for well over a century, Muscatine has had its fair share of remarkable residents and colorful characters. This fall two exhibits at the Muscatine Art Center, “Captivated by Japan,” and “What Follows is True: Crescent Hotel by Sean Fitzgibbon” will explore the life and times of both Laura Musser-McColm and her interest in Japanese culture and the sensational life of Norman Baker, a notorious radio broadcaster and charlatan.

For over a year, the Muscatine Art Center has worked to research and restore the Musser Mansion’s Japanese-style garden. As work continues, the Art Center, with the help of historian Beth Cody, has worked to piece together how Laura Musser-McColm decided to have it created next to her home. The exhibit “Captivated by Japan,” uses artifacts from the Center’s permanent collection to explore the wide interest in Japanese art and style that gripped the United States starting in the late 1800s, how Musser-McColm likely encountered Japanese art at both the Chicago and Saint Louis World Fairs, and how her fascination with Japanese design manifested in different aspects of her life.

Through items ranging from Musser-McColm’s wedding dress with elements of Japanese fashion incorporated into it to home furnishings with Japanese touches and everything in between, this exhibit helps give context to the Japanese-style garden and allows guests to understand what could have led Musser-McColm to plant it. “It’s been great for us to look into the collection and look at our stuff and get some context for why we have a Japanese-style garden in Muscatine,” Art Center Director Melanie Alexander stated.

In the 1930s, Baker cut quite a figure, vocally claiming he had found the cure for cancer, first at the Baker Institute in Muscatine and later at the Crescent Hotel in Eureka Springs, Arkansas. Along with his medical fraud, Baker, at various points, operated two different radio stations, ran for governor of Iowa, and even invented a musical instrument. Enthralled by his life’s story, artist Fitzgibbon has worked to bring it to life in his book “What Follows is Ture: Crescent Hotel,” a stunning work of graphic creative non-fiction that brings different sources together to tell the story of how Baker, after getting run out of Iowa, eventually refurbished a resort in Eureka Springs, Arkansas and turned it into an alleged cancer treatment hospital. The Art Center has selected artifacts, including many donated by Max Churchill, that tell the story of Norman Baker’s life to pair with illustrations from Fitzgibbon’s book to illuminate the strange but true circumstances of Norman Baker’s life in Muscatine and beyond.

After over a decade of assisting McGibbon with his work, the Art Center considers his book a noteworthy work. “It’s always and adventure to work with an artist,” noted Alexander. “His knowledge of Norman Baker is outstanding.” To celebrate this achievement, the Art Center has invited Fitzgibbon to hold a book signing Oct. 23. They will also sell copies of his book at the Art Center through the end of the exhibit.

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