AMES, Iowa — Nestled near the intersection of Ninth Street and Keosauqua Way in Des Moines, the Mainframe Studios building is hard to miss — the façade sports geometric shapes in shades of aqua, gold, orange and red. The colorful building serves as a beacon of creativity for central Iowa.

Lydia Nong laughing with an attendee during First Friday.

On the first Friday of every month, Mainframe Studios comes alive when more than 200 local artists invite the community to view their current projects and products. Among those creators are Iowa State University College of Design alumni Lydia Nong and Lorena San Elias Martinez.

Nong, from Urbandale, and San Elias Martinez, from Des Moines, both graduated with their bachelor of fine arts in integrated studio arts in May 2023. They’re now completing a year-long residency at the nonprofit arts organization that was made possible through a collaboration between Mainframe Studios and the ISU Department of Art and Visual Culture.

The two share a third-floor studio space they’ve been able to use free of charge throughout the residency. During First Friday events, the space is bustling with visitors asking questions about a painting propped on an easel or a piece hanging on the wall. Every conversation provides an opportunity for the artists to network.

Lorena San Elias Martinez showing her artwork in her shared studio.

“I have found myself getting lost in conversation with people or being presented with opportunities to showcase my work,” Nong said. “I also love to hear how people perceive my work; it’s interesting to see how they relate my art to their own lives.”

“I’ve learned the easiest way to spark conversation with the community is to paint during First Friday,” said San Elias Martinez. “The public likes to see my work in progress. And I think having attendees see my process really sets the stage for some meaningful discussions about my work.”

Passing the paintbrush

Established in 2021, the collaborative program initially offered a one-year artist residency at Mainframe Studios to a recent graduate of the Iowa State master of fine arts in integrated visual arts program. The residency program has now expanded to include bachelor of fine arts in integrated studio arts graduates.

I Am The Change by Lorena San Elias Martinez.

In addition to providing rent-free studio space, the program allows participants to interact with community members and other resident artists through the monthly First Friday event and at the weekly Monday Skill Shares and Coffee Workshops, said Mainframe Studios executive director Julia Franklin.

“This partnership is extremely beneficial for Mainframe because it falls in step with our mission and vision,” Franklin said. “Young artists are changing narratives and experimenting with ideas and materials in innovative ways. It’s important for practicing artists to see what emerging artists are creating.”

For the ISU art and visual culture department, the artist-in-residence program seamlessly transitions students into their professional careers by teaching them how to manage their time, take risks, express themselves and think outside the box, said associate professors Emily Morgan and Barbara Walton, the department’s current and former directors of graduate education. Both have mentored and encouraged students and recent graduates to apply for the residency program.

Nong and San Elias Martinez follow Paige Holzbauer, who received her MFA in integrated visual arts and master of design in sustainable environments in 2021, and Cameron Gray, who received his MFA in integrated visual arts in 2020, as the latest Iowa State alumni to participate in the residency and enhance their careers as practicing artists.

Cultivating confidence

Exodus by Lydia Nong.

The residency has been a boon to San Elias Martinez’s confidence in herself and her artwork, which is deeply rooted in her experiences as a Latina woman in the United States. She also draws inspiration from her imagination and the highs and lows of her own life.

“This program has shown me that I should never give up on myself,” she said. “I’ve learned new painting techniques, I’ve started planning my work and I know how to utilize my studio. It’s so important for young artists to realize where you start, isn’t where you finish.”

When she completes the residency at the end of June, San Elias Martinez will continue exploring different mediums and topics through her artwork.

A body of work

Something About The Moon by Lydia Nong.

For Nong, this program has been about self-exploration and pushing her artistic abilities.

“I draw inspiration from my dreams and daydreams, where I can immerse myself into a place with endless possibilities steeped in raw, unfiltered emotion,” she said.

Having dedicated studio space at Mainframe Studios has allowed Nong to pursue more large-scale pieces, many of which incorporate human anatomy because she sees the body as an inexhaustible form of inspiration.

“There is so much to be said in how we conduct ourselves,” Nong said. “My art captures the impulses of the soul through bodily movement and demeanor.”

After completing her residency, Nong plans to stay at Mainframe and rent studio space to continue establishing herself as an artist. She is also looking into short-term residencies across the U.S.

Making meaningful connections

The College of Design is expanding its relationship with Mainframe Studios this summer. Work by current students and recent graduates will be featured in two public exhibitions in June and August, curated by the college’s gallery manager, Rachel Connell.

“Effervescence: Perspectives from Iowa State University’s LGBTQIA+ Community and Allies” runs from June 4–24 on the third floor of the building. An opening reception in conjunction with First Friday will be from 5–8 p.m. Friday, June 7. The August exhibition will highlight photography.

With student success and career development at the crux of this partnership, Iowa State faculty say this local creative workspace is the perfect place for students and graduates to reach their full potential.

“This is just a really great space to create those organic connections,” said Morgan. “It also shows our alumni that after graduation, they can continue to make art and be successful artists.”



Lydia Nong, 2023 Integrated Studio Arts Graduate,
Lorena San Elias Martinez, 2023 Integrated Studio Arts Graduate,
Emily Morgan, Associate Professor and Director of Graduate Education, Art and Visual Culture,
Julia Franklin, Executive Director, Mainframe Studios,
Lauren Johnson, Communications Specialist, College of Design,