Rohrbach Associates P.C., Iowa City’s go-to architectural firm, recently brushed the construction dust off a spanking-new home for the University of Iowa College of Public Health. Clean-lined, airy and a snap to navigate, this structure is the very model of a modern major campus addition. What’s brought it into focus for selective aesthetes, though, is its startlingly original group of 12 interior murals, commissioned from Iowa photographer Peter Feldstein.

Each mural confronts passers-by with a full portrait of a contemporary Iowan, blown up 20 percent larger than the subject’s actual size, then etched onto a glass panel and set into a wall facing the building’s central atrium. One panel is devoted to a pensive old man wearing a hoodie and holding a little pumpkin (opposite page, top); another shows a fellow in a cowboy hat squinting coolly into the camera (left).

Partly because they’re anonymous and partly as a result of the images’ fractionally increased size, the dozen people depicted become icons. Studying them, you may drift toward the notion that they’re from a strong, storied race—survivors of disastrous fires, floods, droughts or economic depressions. Then, suddenly, you’ll realize your notion is true. As everyday Iowans, they’ve been through those very trials. And, when morphed into permanent murals, they lodge themselves in the minds of the college’s students and teachers, who accept these frank, ever-present figures as symbols of anyone made better by public-health programs.

To cast his affecting characters, Feldstein drove around the state, often introducing himself to strangers and snapping a few quick, casual shots. After he’d tallied about 300 photographs, he began mulling them over. To (somewhat regretfully) arrive at his final choices, he kept in mind their eventual, specific locations in the college building, and at the same time aimed for a balanced yet unexpected mix.

Feldstein’s no novice in the art of guerrilla street photography. He’s widely and deservedly known for documenting the inhabitants of Oxford, a town about 15 miles northeast of Iowa City, where he settled in 1978 and still lives with his wife and doted-on cats. Those hometown portraits—intentionally neutral and “democratic,” as he puts it—have been exhibited repeatedly and also published in a handsome 2008 book called “The Oxford Project” (Welcome Books).

Feldstein just turned 70, but his restless, exploratory nature comes across as barely legal. His growing fascination with imagery on glass is shared by a friend, architect Constantine Antoniades. The two men trade ideas about the three-dimensional effects they might achieve by layering sheets of etched glass, and Feldstein turns out digital drawings of patterns he’d like to use in that context. If you know he spent decades coping with the confines of photographic darkrooms, you catch his joy when he says, “Now I do my work in Adobe Illustrator.”

Written by Gary McKay

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