virtual museum

"Woman's Head" (1999)

Dennis Patton (1943 - )


17 feet by 10 feet

In 1976, while vacationing in Ames, Iowa, sculptor Dennis Patton seized an opportunity for creating public art. With the assistance of the Octagon Art Center and the Iowa Department of Transportation, Patton produced the striking 15-foot-tall "Woman's head" (1976)1

Art and transportation exist in a dynamic world, home to natural forces and changing human needs. By 1998, the original redwood and twigs material for "Woman's Head" was beginning to rot away. Further, Ames' transportation needs were changing. City engineers planned to extend Grand Avenue south of Lincoln Way, using the abandoned Chicago & North Western Rail Co.'s rail right of way there to connect to south Ames and open a west entrance to Lincoln Center. The "Woman's Head" could not stand in the path of the combined forces of change.

Iowa DOT's Director of Facilities Support Lee Hammer contacted Patton about recreating the sculpture in steel and relocating it a few yards west on the Iowa DOT grounds. Patton agreed, intending to use the wooden sculpture as a pattern for the new steel structure.

By this time, Patton - born in California and relocated to Iowa - had completed another large public sculpture in steel: "In Transit," which was installed at the Eastern Iowa Airport in Cedar Rapids.2

On Oct. 20, 1998, Patton came to Ames to sign the contract3 for the new work and to haul "Woman's Head" (1976) to his workshop in Mount Vernon, Iowa. Points in the contract called on Patton to:

  • Reconstruct "Woman's Head" in the approximate same size and shape using all steel components.
  • Destroy the original wooden "Woman's Head."
  • Never create another "Woman's Head" of any size or material.

"Woman's Head" (1976) was built over a three-day weekend in August 1976 from donated materials. Patton was paid $400 by the Octagon Arts Center.4

Twenty-two years later, the Iowa DOT, now sole-owner of "Woman's Head" because the Octagon donated the work to the Iowa DOT, would pay Patton $57,000 for the new work. A couple of things had changed since 1976, (1) Patton would now be working on a commissioned piece rather than on his own inspiration; (2) Patton would have to provide the steel and transportation for the work; and (3) Iowa would be paying from Art in State Buildings funds.

In 1979, the Iowa Legislature enacted the Art in State Buildings program, as defined in Iowa Code 304A sections 8-14. The program calls for 0.5 percent of construction and remodeling costs for state buildings to be set aside for fine arts.5

While the Iowa DOT administration offices were getting a facelift inside the building, Woman's Head would get a facelift outside.6

Hammer visited Patton's workshop a number of times to check on the progress of the new work in 1998 and 1999. Hammer took a number of pictures of "Woman's Head" under construction.

Patton had enjoyed the use of found twigs and branches in "Woman's Head" (1976) original hair, he had other plans for the new work. Patton told the Des Moines Register that the new hair would be made from two-inch steel tubing.

"She's going to look bitchin', fun, and cool," Patton said. "After you create that hair, you have to have the right face to support that coiffure."7

On Sept. 23, 1999, Iowa DOT employees got their first look at that new hairdo. Patton, traveling U.S. 30 from Mount Vernon to Ames, following the Vertical Clearance Restrictions on Primary Routes chart8 sent from the Iowa DOT to avoid damage to the sculpture or bridges along the way, brought "Woman's Head" (1999) home.

The sculpture was set in place near the southwest corner of Grand Avenue and Lincoln Way, facing northeast this time.

The new sculpture was marked with weld spots. Over the years, these spots have disappeared as the steel has weathered to a uniform rust brown.

On Oct. 6, 1999, "Woman's Head" (1999) was recommissioned with an official ceremony featuring then Iowa DOT Director Darrel Rensink, Kevin Geis of the Ames Chamber of Commerce, interim Octagon Director Barbara Schroeder, and artist Dennis Patton. Rensink told the audience “… it has been a pleasure for the DOT to have a hand in making a true landmark to be enjoyed by everyone for many years to come … and we are proud to have this lady grace our grounds."9

Reactions of Ames residents to the return of "Woman's Head" to Grand Avenue and Lincoln Way were mixed. Doris Hohl, in an October 1998 letter to the Ames City Council, described herself as "pretty excited about the planned redo of "Woman's Head."10 John Cunnally, upon learning of the return of "Woman's Head" in 1999, wrote the Ames Tribune saying the wooden structure had been a “… ghastly piece of kitsch and was glad when it disappeared."11 The Ames Tribune, seems to have agreed with Cunnally, when it printed an editorial that included the statement that the original looked like a "totem pole carved with an ax that you see displayed around gift shops in western vacation areas."12

Despite the voices against the sculpture, Hammer told the Ames Tribune he received many calls from people wondering where the sculpture was and when it was coming back.13 The controversy surrounding the work seemed to please Patton. After someone had shot three arrows into the "Woman's Head" (1976), Patton told a reporter, "I thought that was very human, very telling, and wonderful. Someone took their emotions out on it." 14

And of "Woman's Head" (1999), Patton said, "I don't make drive-by-art. If you like for whatever reason - even if you don't like it - stop your car, get out, and look at it."15

As noted above, art and transportation exist in a dynamic world, of changing environments and needs. We should add to that list: changing tastes.


1. Iowa Department of Transportation, "Woman's Head" (1976) (Ames, Iowa, September 2013),

2. Dennis Patton, "In Transit" (Cedar Rapids, Iowa, 992),

3. Iowa Department of Transportation and Dennis Patton, "Agreement for Re-creation of ‘Woman's Head'," Ames, Iowa, October 20, 1998.

4. Octagon Art Center and Dennis Patton, "Agreement of Original Transfer of Work of Art between Octagon Art Center and Dennis Patton," Ames, Iowa, August 22, 1976.

5. Iowa Department of Cultural Affairs, "Art in State Buildings," (Des Moines, Iowa, 2013),

6. Iowa Department of Transportation, Lee Hammer's letter to Bruce Williams, Iowa Arts Council, November 20, 2000.

7. Carrie Rodovich, "Woman's Head to Get Face Lift," Ames Tribune, October 21, 1998.

8. Iowa Department of Transportation, "Vertical Clearance Restrictions on Primary Routes" (Form FO81 [230015] 2-95), 12.

9. Darrel Rensink, "Woman's Head Ceremony" (prepared speech), Ames, Iowa, October 6, 1999.

10. Doris Hohl, letter to the Ames City Council, October 28, 1998.

11. John Cunnally, "DOT statue is not public art," Ames Tribune, June 29, 1999.

12. Ames Tribune, "A Piece of Public Art Returns to DOT's Lawn," June 25, 1999.

13. Jamie Smith Hopkins, "Heading Home: the sculpture of a woman's head near the Iowa Department of Transportation office will return - new and improved," Ames Tribune, June 22, 1999.

14. Radovich, ibid.

15. Hopkins, ibid.

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