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'Goldfinch Gates' bridge displays work of local artist Cait Irwin
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'Goldfinch Gates' bridge displays work of local artist Cait Irwin

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The new addition to the Pottawattamie County’s public art collection, “Goldfinch Gates,” features Council Bluffs artist Cait Irwin.

“The concept aims to represent the experience of travelling down a trail while being led by Iowa’s state bird, the Goldfinch,” said a press release. “The two panels at the entrance have a sunrise sky design, while the other end of the bridge beautifully displays a sunset sky design.”

The exhibit contributes to the public art collection through the initiative ArtFITS (Art on the Frontier Iowa Trails System).

Irwin has known since a young age that she was an artist.

“It’s like breathing, it is necessary and life giving for me,” she said. “Although I have been creating art my whole life, I have only been officially full time for seven years.”

Irwin found her inspiration for this project from her two great loves: art and nature.

“This project was an opportunity to combine those passions,” she said. “When I read what the intention was for this project — to create art that fits the surrounding area — I immediately thought of the many walks I have taken in nature and I recalled my interactions with wildlife, especially birds.”

“The ‘Goldfinch Gates’ installation can be found on one of the newest segments of the trail near Railroad Highway, just east of County Road L34,” said Pottawattamie County Trails Association Board President Courtney Harter. “The current trail extension starts at Smith Wildlife Area which is located about a quarter-mile north of Husker Lane along Railroad Avenue.”

The artwork takes some time to get to, as work continues to connect the trail to the bridge and beyond toward Underwood and Neola. Those interested in seeing it could park along the highway and walking through some tall grass.

The Goldfinch is a bird that Irwin enjoys to spot because of their “brilliant flash of color and intriguing flight pattern.” It’s the state bird of Iowa.

“Goldfinch Gates” was chosen out of eight submissions from artists in the region. From start to finish, the project took roughly two years.

“Originally, the start date was for the spring of 2019 but was delayed due to flooding,” Irwin said. “The timing worked out because I was able to start building the ‘gates’ at the same time the pandemic hit.”

With Irwin being able to continue work at home, she began to secure materials and create a timeline in April. She really dove into the process in May.

The original installment date was in August, so this gave Irwin enough time to go back and fix things as needed.

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“Some of the materials were new to me,” she said. “I also slated in more time for the process because I taught myself some very basic welding skills so I could attach the panels to the bridge and acquire a new skill.”

The location of the bridge allows people to “connect with the outdoors and local arts community.” With Pottawattamie County ranking 91 out of 99 counties in terms of health, the trails that lead to the area can encourage those to see the art, as well as getting some exercise by hiking or biking to the area.

ArtFITS partners with PACE, Frontier Iowa Trails, Golden Hills Resource Conservation & Development, the Pottawattamie County Board of Supervisors, Pottawattamie County County Planning and Development and Pottawattamie County Conservation. The project was funded by grants from NACo Creative Counties Placemaking and the Iowa West Foundation.

“Trails are the No. 1 amenity sought after by our community,” Iowa West Foundation Vice President of Grants and Initiatives Matthew Henkes said in the release. “With the addition of colorful, engaging art, this becomes not just a trail but a place-based destination that fits nicely into our overall placemaking strategy.”

Irwin said she is proud of the work she has done that is displayed in homes all over the world.

“I sell a lot online and I keep track of every sale with a pin on a map,” she said. “I have also attended multiple art residencies where the environment around me inspired the work.”

Irwin has also illustrated children’s books — two of them feature national parks and she is currently working on another featuring Yellowstone in Wyoming.

“My first book illustration project was completed in 1996, it was an illustrated memoir on my experience in dealing with severe depression,” she said.

That book was published in 1999.

Irwin is also a muralist and said she has painted on walls from here to Alaska.

“My largest body of mural work can be found at Iowa School for the Deaf,” she said. “I have completed eight murals there.”

Students were able to contribute to the murals by helping develop concepts and helping during some of the painting process.

Irwin has a mural at the Wabash Trailhead and in private homes and businesses in the Council Bluffs area.

“We hope this first installation will serve as a model for future public art installation in partnership with Pottawattamie County along the trails,” PACE CEO Danna Kehm said in the release. “ArtFITS reinforces a special sense of ‘place’ in Pottawattamie County.”

To see the entire process Irwin went through — from concept sketch to instillation — by searching #goldfinchgates on Instagram or Facebook. For information and to see more of Irwin’s work, visit irwinartworks.com.

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