Artist celebrates small-town Iowa
by Amy Brouillette/Lakehom Magazine

Before he even entered kindergarten, John Vander Stelt was an artist. He'd hone his craft sitting at his kitchen window, drawing birds and old barns in the realist style that would become his hallmark years later.

Today, Vander Stelt is a working artist with commissioned paintings held in private collections nationwide. A "regionalist" whose work reflects a deep love for his native northwest Iowa, Vander Stelt draws inspiration from great artists of that genre, Edward Hopper, Thomas Eakins, Grant Wood and Norman Rockwell.

"What I like about other regionalists is that they paint about things that they know and have meaning for them," says Vander Stelt. For him, that place is Maurice, Iowa, population 250, a microscopic fleck on the map 60 miles south of Sioux City.

His grandfather, John Vander Stelt Sr., was a Dutch immigrant who helped settle the town generations ago. He was also an artist and a key creative influence on his grandson, who says, "I inherited my artistic tendencies from my grandfather, I suppose."

Vander Stelt combined his creative genes with training, attending Northwestern College in Orange City, where he graduated with a degree in fine arts. While currently a graphics designer for a local corporation, he's managed to continue his artistic pursuits, and to grow a small business creating commissioned paintings and graphic designs on the side.

Meanwhile, he's fostered a deep appreciation for his subject matter: Iowa.

"It took me a long time to develop that love for the place I'm from. But now it's so deep, I can't imagine living anywhere else or painting other things."

Vander Stelt is like most artists who grapple with the art of art and business of art.

"I suppose I have varying degrees of creative enthusiasm for some of the projects I take on.

What I love is when there's just a seed of an idea, which I take and make my own."

One such project was a commissioned piece from Blue Wells Bunny, the largest family-owned dairy in the nation. The painting, a nostalgic portrait of a baseball player sitting with a young boy at a soda fountain, was displayed at the company's 90th anniversary celebration last year.

"I enjoy helping people see the beauty in everyday things, or in things from the past," Vander Stelt says. Indeed, he admits his subjects are everywhere: "I see potential paintings everyday, all day long. Wherever I look I see things that might make a good painting - everything from a plowed field to an old shoe."

While hardly an obvious artistic hub, Maurice is unique in that it is home to a burgeoning creative community, says Vander Stelt. "I'm not all alone out here. There are a lot of really talented artists here for me to share ideas with."

Besides, small-town Iowa suits Vander Stelt just fine. He explains he not only finds his creative inspiration along Maurice's familiar streets, but in God as well.

"We were made in God's image, so I think art is a wonderful gift to use to praise God with."