Ames ARTSPEAKS event showcases diverse artists from across Iowa

From left to right, Awki Nji, Kaleb Stevens, Elliot, Siriaco Garcia, Randy Garza, Paula Garza, Jordan Brooks and Jill Wells.

Omar Waheed


A showcase for artistic talent and a chance to see into artists’ minds, ARTSPEAKS gave an opportunity for artists to talk about their works and give themselves exposure to new audiences.


Taking place at Alluvial Brewery in Ames, ARTSPEAKS was hosted by Iowa State student Kaleb “Kub” Stevens, a junior in community and regional planning, and collaborator Siriaco “Siricasso” Garcia. Diverse artists showcased some of their works and talked about their inspirations behind the work and as artists.


“It’s an opportunity for me to tell my story and share with other people here in the community so they know who I am in real life,” Garcia said. “Normally, they see us behind the table, and now we get to tell the story.”


Held in the backroom at Alluvial, the artists used the environment to create a more intimate environment. Having the audience congregate in the middle, the artists set themselves around the seating area to allow the audience to approach them and engage them between larger Q&A sessions.


The first artists speaking for the night were Paula and Randy Garza from Crooked Street Studios, a husband-and-wife artist duo who largely work in Des Moines. Sometimes working separately, the couple came together for ARTSPEAKS to tell their story and their influences in art.


“We grew up in south Texas, and you know everything in Latin culture is vibrant, loud and obnoxious, and I like that kind of thing,” Paula Garza said. “Exposing people to our Latin roots… because representation matters and the fact that I can put a piece and have somebody like it and take it home was kind of the whole point.”


Coming to the event to broaden their exposure to new people and showcase their works, the couple expressed how their roots and interests in pop culture influence what they create.


The artist proceeding the Garzas, Akwi Nji took to the stage to talk about her work creating visual fabric collages inspired by Black authors and what fuels her to create art.


“I can get pretty filled with fury, and I create to keep from destroying things,” Nji said. “And I was at a point where I was so furious about a number of things, especially how our nation seemed suddenly to be OK talking about race in a way that some of us in this room [and] art have been talking about race and identity for our entire lives. We lived it and tried to talk about it in our context, and we were told no.”


Discussing recent events, especially the killing of George Floyd, Nji passionately expressed her frustrations with the sudden 180 on the country wanting to talk about race issues that minorities are silently forced to face every day. 


Further, Nji told a story from her youth revolving around growing up in a Springville, where she was the only person of color besides her family, and an assignment she was excited for that allowed her to express herself to an unparalleled level before.

For a poetry assignment in her language arts class, Nji decided to go above and beyond the parameters and create a short expressive poetry book with illustrations, using the rainbow for symbolism, ultimately ending on the color black. She was met with a racist remark from her teacher at the time.


“I turned in the assignment and I was so giddy,” Nji said. “I was so eager to receive that feedback, to receive that affirmation. The day she was giving assignments back … she handed me my book and walked into the hallway, and I just wanted to have this really beautiful moment in school. I flipped the [first] page, and the next page, the next page, the next page, the next page, nothing, nothing nothing, nothing, and then I get to the last page. ‘Black is not a color in the rainbow.’”


After a powerful speech on her inspiration and her experience, Jordan Brooks, a doctoral student at Iowa State in education and director of Diversity of Equity Inclusion for the College of Design, took to the stage to give his origin story and why he makes art.


“As a little kid, the way my art kind of kicked off was from my father,” Brooks said. “My dad collected comic books, and we had a whole basement of mad different comic books. So, before I could even read, I was looking at comic books just trying to copy the characters and what not, and I think that kind of launched my imagination.”


Giving credit to his father, Brooks also went into how his drawing got him in trouble in school. Being quick to finish his work and wanting to utilize the extra time he had, Brooks would draw until he would be given detention for disrupting the class with his drawings.


While initially studying psychology at Allegheny College in Pennsylvania, Brooks worked at an organization called Friends of Youth where they essentially served, in his eyes at least, as an introduction for Black children to prison mentality by forcing them to work off debt after getting in trouble.


“I’m doing work there, and I’m always drawing, and I noticed as [the children and I] draw on top of each other, they share more and more about their life … and things that’s going on with them,” Brooks said. “And the more I tell them about myself and put myself into the artwork, the more they out themselves into the artwork, and we kind of reach each other more and more. I thought, ‘Yeah, this might be the thing, right?’”


Talking about how getting others to express themselves as his basis of work and education, Brooks ultimately faced an issue where he was constantly pushing others to express themselves but was not doing the same for himself.


Working at Georgia Southern during the time Sandra Bland was killed, Brooks served as a rock for the students he worked with and pushed them to let their feelings out; however, his students showed concern and pushed him to do the same.


Stevens kept the crowd going after Brooks’ powerful stories. Afterwards, Garcia took the stage after previously deciding not to talk due to a family emergency much earlier in the day.


Going into his complex life story and how it all leads him to doing what he loves, Garcia talked for roughly 40 minutes, mostly talking about how troubles in his past inspired him to create art.


Originally from Texas, Garcia moved to Ames in his mid-teens after dropping out from high school in his hometown. Originally following into the gang life like his father, Garcia received the sign he needed to start over when his aunt, who lives in Ames and offered to let him start over there. 


“It was a culture shock,” Garcia said. “I thought to myself, ‘I don’t have to fight to fit in here.’”


Re-enrolling in Ames High School, Garcia quickly experienced culture shock from his previous life to that of the quiet suburban life in a college town.


Initially wanting to play football but understanding his limitations from his stature, Garcia took to art where he found his calling and went with it, ultimately studying at Des Moines Area Community College in a graphic design program after turning down scholarships for his art at Iowa State and the University of Northern Iowa.


Finally coming to his works, Garcia showed off a piece he had been working on for three years, around the time his mother was deported. Part of his Teenage Nightmares series, the expressive piece captured how he felt about his family, his father’s drug addiction and how it shaped him.


“I didn’t bring [my painting] here tonight because I know I’ll start crying in front of everyone,” Garcia said. “Then you guys would all have to get up and hug me.”


As the last artist of the night, Jill Wells, a Des Moines native, took to the stage to talk about her work and the messages she tries to send.


Primarily a mural artist, Wells showed some of her projects across Iowa. Mostly talking about her mural “Be the Change,” Wells talked about how the piece serves as a narrative piece about disability rights, or rather, the lack thereof. 


Featuring recreations of real protest signs, famous disability rights activists and images of disabled individuals, Wells’ mural aims to be a piece centered around advocacy.


Wrapping up the night, Stevens took to the stage to thank everyone for coming out and ensured that he and Garcia have more shows with more artists on the way.