One Midwestern community stays connected through hand-sculpted Blooms
Words and Photos by Claudia Williams
Walking into the Isabel Bloom showroom in Davenport, Iowa, is like walking into someone’s home. A fireplace with big, cushy chairs invites you in to shop and lounge around with a fresh cup of hazelnut coffee. The store is filled to the brim with one-of-a-kind sculptures so cute it is almost impossible to resist making a purchase. Whether you’re in the market for a garden gnome or an Easter egg for your holiday décor, Isabel Bloom has just what you are looking for.
Isabel Bloom sells concrete-casted figurines made in the heart of the Midwest. The company started in Isabel Bloom’s basement in the late 1950s after the artist decided to share her love for sculpting with the community. Since then, the company has expanded to four showrooms, with statues being sold in over 70 stores throughout the Midwest. Although Bloom sold the company in 1981, she continued sculpting until she passed away in 2001.
Donna Young, the current sculptor for the company, started her work right after Bloom sold her beloved business.
“I would finish a lot of her sculptures,” Young said. “In fact, she was 93 when she died, so as she got up there in years she was able to block pieces out but didn’t really see real well and her hands weren’t steady enough to do the detail on the faces. So there are several of her last angels that I completed for her. She was helping me get started and I was helping her continue to do it for a little longer.”
As the only sculptor at Isabel Bloom today, Young pulls inspiration from the everywhere she can. Some sculptures have been inspired by the rich history she finds on her trips to Italy, while most of her ideas come a place closer to her heart. “I get my ideas and inspiration from everyday life,” Young said. “From customers to employees to my family, they are just ideas that I jot down on a napkin when I’m out somewhere.”
Each figurine, or “Bloom,” goes through a lengthy process, but they always start with Young. “I have a little studio at home and I am surrounded by lots of pictures and lots of clays that are in process and a window that looks onto my backyard,” Young said. “It is very peaceful and I can play my music.” After Young is finished with her part of the process, the sculpture is passed along from hand to hand until it is ready to be displayed and sold.
Kristi Hillier, who has been a finisher and tour guide at Isabel Bloom for almost 24 years, can recite the process step-by-step. “When Donna is finished with the clay sculpture it goes to the mold-makers to coat with layers of latex and form plaster to make a master mold,” Hillier said. “Then all production molds are made off of that master. Those are what we use to cast the sculptures in a two-day process. They then come to the finishing department for up to 3 days depending upon what finish the sculpture is going to get. The final step is a clear coat finish to add sheen and protection to the sculptures.”
Once the process is finished, the sculptures are ready to be sold to their future homes. “It is rewarding to see a bare piece of concrete ‘come to life’ as you finish it, whether it be in the application of colors or stones or the final finish of it,” Hillier said.
On top of creating and selling figurines, Isabel Bloom also contributes to local charities, nonprofit organizations and festivals. “We do a lot for the community and the community does a lot for us,” Young said. “It’s a great partnership.” The company has raised money for causes like domestic violence, breast cancer and animal rescue organizations.
Kim Gibson, an Isabel Bloom fan, says the company has tied her family together for generations. “We were raised here in the Quad Cities, and it seems like everyone that was kind of has a fondness for the Isabel Blooms,” Gibson said. As a devoted customer, Gibson has over 200 of the Blooms, some including original signatures from Bloom herself while she was still working in the shop. One thing Gibson loves about the statues is that a lot of the stones come from the Mississippi River, which creates a strong connection to the Quad Cities even after they are distributed all over.
In order for the community to celebrate the life and accomplishments of Bloom, the company started the “Village in Bloom” festival in the East Village of Davenport, where the original studio was located. “They did so much for the community and I thought, we need a festival to honor them,” Young said.
During the festival, the small streets are filled with people dancing, painting murals, performing and chalking all over the sidewalks. This year, the festival will take place on May 6 as the company celebrates its fifth annual arts festival.
“I feel like we don’t just make concrete sculptures — we make memories and we make peoples lives better,” Young said. “With these sculptures, we support events, and we support people, and we support causes, and we bring comfort to people in bad times and we help people remember good times. I feel like Isabel Blooms are part of peoples lives.”