[James Kerns and wife Santha in 2017]
James Kerns is no stranger to how art impacts a community. As a member of the Art and Culture Board in Cedar Falls, Iowa, he has seen daily how the link between art, education, and volunteerism helps a city and its people thrive.
"The thing behind volunteerism is that support for the arts can be an uphill battle," said Kerns. "However it has been proven many times that the relationship between developing the creative side of your mind as well as analytical is helpful. Solving a problem in an industrial setting often relies on a creative solution which you may not find in a normal engineering curriculum. Our sponsorship and volunteerism is awareness and understanding of the importance of that creative process, not only in Cedar Falls, but throughout the state."
A physics and arts double major in college with a math minor, Kerns has always been a strong proponent of the relationship between arts and science. As a facilitator at John Deere, he traveled the world alongside his wife Santha and embraced the opportunity to see art in a variety of cultures. They brought that passion to Cedar Falls.
"We started volunteerism in Cedar Falls with what was called Arts Alive. It was a group that supported the arts center which, at that time, was located in the old Main Street school near the Recreation Center," Kerns recalls. "This was roughly ten years before the Hearst Center opened so about 1979. The Arts Alive group raised money and sponsored openings very similar to the Friends of the Hearst which it eventually became."
Over the years, Kerns has served on the Art and Culture Board multiple times including a period as president. His wife Santha, an art teacher who has taught at Holmes and Peet Junior High in Cedar Falls as well as in Waterloo, has also served on the Art and Culture Board in the past as an officer and president in addition to serving as a member of the Education Committee.
"What I like about the Hearst is how it provides all ages a place to go with a little bit of structured programming," said Kerns. "A lot of joy and creativity which enriches people’s lives like crazy."
Kerns also praises the relationship between the Hearst and the University of Northern Iowa, particularly their collaboration on bringing joint art programming to Cedar Falls.
"We toured the collection at UNI and they had quite a bit of work from artists like Picasso and Rembrandt that they couldn't show because it needed to be restored. There was no state funding available so we participated with Darrell Taylor who manages the UNI Permanent Art Collection and Charles Adelman, as well as other people from the foundation, and we started a 'Friends of the UNI Permanent Collection and Gallery' group. We just had a virtual showing of recently conserved pieces and they are magnificent. The value both in price and culturally tells us who we are as people and as a society. This is important work that we couldn't afford to lose. It has been magnificent and we've had a lot of fun with it."
The sentiment is shared by Santha especially as she watches her former students continue their own journey.
"Having that association with UNI and the Hearst, we have gotten to know a lot of arts and theater students," she said. "It's amazing to see my own students grow. The new sculpture that is in front of the Cedar Falls Woman's Club dedicated to the suffrage movement was done by a student I had in 8th grade. I got to know her again at UNI and we even have her sculptures in our own home. That’s just one example."
Throughout his years on the Art and Culture Board, Kerns has built a lot of relationships and seen many works of art come to life. So what has been his favorite?
"Once upon a time, there were illustrators that Gary Kelley worked for and half a dozen came to Cedar Falls and provided artwork that went up and conducted art workshops," Kerns remembers. "As far as my favorite exhibit at the Hearst, it has to be one by Nina Ward. She works in clay. The exhibit was animals on the verge of extinction and they were life-size and, in some cases, larger than life. They had them on the floor, walls, and pedestals. It was the most impactful show I have ever seen."
Although the COVID-19 pandemic has currently changed many things including the arts, Kerns is still looking to the future with the same dedication that he has carried his entire life.
"The Public Art Committee deserves a tremendous amount of credit. There is value in arts. It provides an opportunity to kids who may struggle in some areas. In my senior year of high school, I took art and found I love it. If you feel good about yourself in one regard or another, it can help give yourself value and provide growth in other areas of your life."
James Kerns received a plaque from Cedar Falls Mayor Rob Green on October 28, 2020, to commemorate his years of service on the Cedar Falls Art and Culture Board. You can learn more about the Hearst Center for the Arts at www.thehearst.org.