By Joe Coffey | The Fifth Estate

One of the most notable national stories about the Corridor from the past year involved the flag of Cedar Rapids, which was lambasted for being poorly designed. This is unfortunate because the story of that flag hasn’t been fully told.

Here’s what happened. Cedar Rapids’ flag got shredded in a TED Talk by design and architecture journalist Roman Mars. The video, which has nearly 6 million views, is an entertaining explanation of good and bad flag design. Mars notes that the American Vexillological Association ranked Cedar Rapids’ flag near the bottom in a survey of best/worst city flags. (Vexillologists are people who study flags.)

The ensuing flap lead to the city of Cedar Rapids announcing a contest to redesign the flag. The winning design will be unveiled and hoisted in June 2020.

The now-maligned current flag was designed by Fred Easker in 1962. He was a senior at Jefferson High School at the time. Easker is 75 years old now and still lives in Cedar Rapids. He recently told me he wasn’t a very good artist back then and wasn’t doing too well in art class. Regardless, his teacher got him involved in a city contest to design a municipal flag.

“I did what any kid would do,” Easker said. “I procrastinated and then threw it together at the last minute.”

Easker followed the implied guidelines. He basically illustrated the city motto, “Proud of yesterday… Progressive today… Promising tomorrow…” and won the contest. His design will have flown at Cedar Rapids City Hall for 58 years when they replace it next year.

Mars’ TED Talk about flag design is an excellent primer on the subject. A well-designed flag can unite a city. People in Chicago and Washington, D.C., love their city flags. They fly them at their homes and businesses. Elements of them are worked into everything from infrastructure design to public art to logos for businesses and community organizations.

The design principles behind good flags are explained in the submission materials for the current contest. Unfortunately, they were not explained to Easker in 1962. Nor were the “Principles of Art in Iowa,” which I will share with you now:

  1. You know good art when you see it. “American Gothic” is the most recognizable American painting in the world. It is captivating.
  1. You don’t know good art when you see it. Many people, including Iowans, hate “American Gothic.” It is dividing.
  1. Trust the advertisers. The beloved Tiger Hawk logo for the University of Iowa was designed by Bill Colbert, an art director for Three Arts Advertising in Cedar Rapids. It is ubiquitous. It unites UI alumni and Hawkeye sports fans.
  1. Don’t trust the advertisers. The City of Five Seasons concept and the Tree of Five Seasons logo came from ad gurus at Creswell, Munsell, Schubert & Zirbel (later known as CMF&Z). It has been controversial and continues to divide us. Those guys raised their own money and power-flushed the toilet brush-looking sculpture past the city’s Visual Arts Commission, bypassing the usual steps for deciding on and constructing art on public property.
  1. Great artists make great art. One of the best portraits in the Hall of Mayors at Cedar Rapids City Hall is that of Lee Clancey. It was sketched by Geoff Lasko, who is a great artist.
  1. Great artists can make not-so-great art. Lasko’s first sketch of Mayor Clancey didn’t look like her so they took it down before giving him another shot at it.

 

I asked Easker if he’s going to take another shot at the flag. After all, he knows a thing or two about art by now. He was studying history in college but changed his major to art. He says reflecting on his city flag contest experience might have had something to do with that.

Easker became an artist. His oil paintings of Iowa landscapes are breathtaking. Some are in museums. He is an NEA fellowship recipient and has been featured as an “Iowa Master” in an art series by Iowa Public Television.

I think it’s unfair to say that Easker’s 1962 flag was “poorly designed.” After all, no one was offended by it until the TED Talk made us experts on vexillology. I love knowing that the flag left its own designs on its creator. Iowa ended up with another great artist because of it.

Easker says he isn’t going to submit another flag. He does have advice for anyone who is going to submit a design, though.

“Follow the guidelines,” he said with a laugh. “That’s it. Follow the guidelines.” •

Joe Coffey has 20 years of experience as a journalist, educator and marketer in the Corridor.