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Axis Bold as Love 

The new Schmidt Art Center in Belleville, Ill., presents an exhibition of contemporary art from Iran

Out near where the corn grows and the Herefords graze and the hogs fatten, that landscape oft-designated the American heartland, not far from Scott Air Force Base, where the war on terrorism is kept stocked and well armed, four heartland women are enjoying a rainy Tuesday afternoon appreciating an exhibition of contemporary art from Iran. None of them reveals any concern that these paintings, with their delightful displays of color, their interplay between traditional and modernist sensibilities, come from one of those nations denounced by President George W. Bush as part of the "axis of evil." They love the lush harvest golds in Mohammad Ali Taraghijah's paintings of horses and cocks and cloaked women at work in the fields. They gaze closely and appreciatively at the contemporary Persian miniatures of Mohamad Bagher Aghamiri, with their intricate gold borders like tapestries and colorful central panels with scenes of lovers or visions of heaven -- blue and purple skies, green cypress trees tapering to brushpoints, plump singing birds. They read the list of media and wonder what gouache is.

They're especially charmed by the newly opened exhibition space they're visiting for the first time, the William & Florence Schmidt Art Center on the campus of Southwestern Illinois College in Belleville. Long after they spend their time looking at the art, they sit together in the warmly lit space as the gray skies open for one of those swift Midwest rainstorms. The Schmidt is an absolutely perfect place to be this day: lovely, quiet, filled with light and color and the slightest degree of political subversion. The women sit and talk and smile, and none of them suggests it might be time to leave.

The cornfields and cattle and hogs lie literally just across the MetroLink tracks from the Schmidt and its inaugural exhibition, A Breeze From the Gardens of Persia: New Art From Iran, a collection of paintings on its third stop in a national tour. Southwestern Illinois College is MetroLink's last stop heading east, and the Schmidt is one of the first buildings a commuter will see, which says quite a lot about how seriously this growing community college, formerly Belleville Area College, takes its role as a cultural agent in the region.

"It's a very big deal for us," says Elmer Kirchoff, the college's president. Kirchoff was present the previous Tuesday, when the Schmidt was holding its grand opening, a fête that included sweet punch and cookies and lots of chocolate. Kirchoff stood by a white grand piano as a musician noodled through a few arpeggios. He's a squarely built man with white hair and skin that reddens easily. He's conservatively dressed, unshowy, a president of a small Midwestern college who represents common-sense values and who worked to build an arts center instead of a football team.

"I didn't believe this would ever get off the ground," he admits, sitting in the office of the Schmidt's executive director/curator, Libby Reuter, former associate dean of art at Washington University. Alongside Reuter and Kirchoff on opening day is Kathy O'Dell, executive director of the SWIC Foundation, the school's fundraising organization. Kirchoff and O'Dell look the role of the Midwestern administrators; Reuter, with her red hair and stylish jewelry, is the more flamboyant artsy one -- yet it's just these sorts of collaborations that make arts centers happen next to the cornfields.

Kirchoff calls the Schmidt the "crown jewel of the community college" and "an exciting addition to the region's cultural scene." Kirchoff's praise might sound like the common effusiveness of college administrators, but the $1.9 million that was raised to build the Schmidt came from private donations. O'Dell says that if you want to measure the excitement the arts center has generated, it's a good number from which to extrapolate.

An arts center is not one of the first things that come to mind when schools look to expand their facilities and their prestige, but, according to Kirchoff, since the idea came up four years ago, there has not been a voice in opposition. The plans passed through the Board of Trustees, the foundation, administration and faculty representatives without controversy. The original design of the building came from an adjunct instructor and architect, Brad Eilering, and the model of which was shown to elicit early donor support. That early plan grew, and Kirchoff enlisted a working team of trustees, foundation board members, administrators, faculty and those involved in the actual construction to meet and oversee progress monthly. Academia, that most memo-infested institution, loves meetings, but these resulted in what proves to be an elegantly modest structure. An appealing architectural quality of the Schmidt is how in a relatively small space -- 6,800 square feet -- it effects both an open and closed vessel, the central gallery space partly enclosed so as not to distract from the art and yet opening to a windowed alcove with views of outdoor sculpture and what will become landscaped terrain.

In terms of the outside views, they've still got a half-million dollars to go, O'Dell qualifies, before an environmental element -- a small creekbed -- softens the landscape and makes those institutional brick structures on either side of the Schmidt less disruptive to the natural division of land and sky. Kirchoff says the school is forming a partnership with the Missouri Botanical Garden to reclaim land on the campus property, with an area of restored prairie grasses already visible at one entrance to the school. O'Dell talks about the Schmidt attracting revenue from hosting retreats for business and industry -- a swank conference room is part of the Schmidt -- featuring views of "green grass, flowers, sculpture -- and you don't need to park," referring again to the end of the MetroLink line.

Considering that it's taken years to get a decent fine-arts facility off the ground at billion-dollar-endowed Washington University, you wonder whether there's something in the water over in Belleville. Reuter plans to make the Schmidt a resource for area schoolchildren and instructors, as well as for the college. There's a screen above the reception desk on which students can watch educational videos on artists and art movements, a smart addition to an arts center looking to serve a generation clued into the moving image. Reuter plans to host small concerts, as well as lectures.

A Breeze From the Gardens of Persia wasn't planned as the inaugural exhibition -- delays in construction made it so -- but Reuter acknowledges it's proved timely, "a look at the humanity" of a country labeled evil. If visitors come in imagining brown desert landscapes, they indeed find references to that setting, as in Gholam Hossein Nami's "Desert," a square of clay and acrylic on board that presents at least five different surface textures, varied browns and red clay cracking like caked earth. Although localized by its reference to landscape, Nami's work is reminiscent of the abstract explorations of Western artists such as Antoni Tapies.

The integration of Western influences into the Persian traditions is central to this exhibition in that the artists weigh aesthetic, religious and political concerns. Habibollah Sadeghi paints a guitar player in a field of flowers as the impressionists might have painted him. Reza Bangiz, in an exceptional group of linocuts, "Design Series," depicts spiked-helmeted warriors on horseback, brandishing curved swords. The images reflect an ancient iconography but also hint at present-day passions and fears.

Nobody's talking about those fears or mentioning the "axis of evil" during the opening-day celebration at the Schmidt. A white-haired woman in a splendid gold jacket enters the space and sighs to a volunteer gallery attendant, gray-whiskered and hunched with age, "We need this."

"Well," he replies, "it's here."

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More by Eddie Silva

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