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The Supreme Court (Real and Imagined)

Posted on September 13, 2017 at 12:16 PM by Jami Milne

The Supreme Court, 1977, from "Real and Imagined Aspects of the Iowa State Capitol." Engraving and etching. Gift of Fred and Ruth Kammeier. In the permanent collection, Brunnier Art Museum, University Museums, Iowa State University. UM86.565


A statement from artist Amy N. Worthen:


During 1977-78, I was working on-site, making drawings in preparation for Real and Imagined Aspects of the Iowa State Capitol. Having already drawn, engraved, and etched several realistic views of the exterior and interior, and at the same time having observed government at work, I began to imagine more fantastical approaches. The first print resulting from my new way of seeing the Capitol was Skeleton on the Stairway. The white marble balusters made me think of bones. From that point, the visions poured forth. 


One of my favorite rooms in the Capitol is the ceremonial courtroom of the state’s Supreme Court. Several years ago, the Supreme Court moved into its own building south of the Capitol. Adorned with carved panels of plants, flowers, and mythical animals, the magnificent judicial bench stands before a classicizing pediment supported by columns and brocaded wall hangings. I made a straightforward drawing of the courtroom in my sketchbook. One day, I received a parking ticket from the City of Des Moines for parking on the wrong side of the street right in front of my house as I ran inside to get something. I had to appear before a judge in traffic court and pay a fine. Dressed in his black robe, the judge reminded me of a penguin. All of a sudden, I knew exactly what I needed to do in my Supreme Court print.  I held nothing at all against the Supreme Court justices but I must confess that in this print I took mild revenge against the traffic court judge. Most of the real and imagined animals arguing before the animal judges come from my engravings, A Deck of Playing Cards and Melencolia II. At the far right is my cat. She had appeared earlier in If Des Moines were on the Ocean, and Pet House Sitting in the Window of Cat Suburbia, and probably in some other prints as well.


Because I had to make many highly detailed prints in very little time, I made this plate in a combination of etching and engraving. First, I lightly etched the under-drawing and then followed up with burin engraving, adding burnished mezzotint on the penguin.  After making the State Capitol series, I rarely etched the under-drawing on the plate again. Now, I always execute the preliminary drawing with the direct technique of drypoint. 


The Supreme Court achieved some notoriety by word of mouth and in the press. Two years later, I was working on Vaulted Atrium and brought the actual plate to the Capitol to make some additions and corrections on-site. Reflected in the polished copper, I noticed the face of a man quietly watching me work. I turned to confront him. He asked me, “Are you the artist who put the animals in the Supreme Court print?” “Yes,” I replied. He said, “I am the bird.” He turned out to be Ward Reynoldson, the Chief Justice, and he was not offended at all.


Amy N. Worthen


See the exhibition Amy N. Worthen: The World in Perspective now through December 17 at the Brunnier Art Museum.

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