May 312013

John and I are not all-day or all-night travelers. At most, we drive five or six hours at a time because we like to get out of the car and stretch our legs, and to admire the sights as we encounter them. As a result, we took two-and-a-half days to get to Knoxville, Tennessee when we volunteered at Destination Imagination Global Finals this last week (see previous post). We took three-and-a-half days to return home to Des Moines simply because we wanted a day to rest, give our sore feet a break, and do a little exploring.

When we arrived in Knoxville last week Monday, very few Destination Imagination® (DI) teams had arrived. For the most part, it was Instant Challenge Head Appraisers and Affiliate Directors who checked into the downtown Hilton Hotel on West Church Street. After we got our identification badges and officials’ shirts, we took advantage of the unscheduled time to have dinner at the Downtown Grill & Brewery on South Gay Street.  If you enjoy craft-brewed beers, then this is the place for you. And even if you don’t drink (which pretty much describes me), you’ll love the copper-and-mahogany bar and the hardwood floors that create a warm, casual dining ambiance. The food is appetizing and filling, and the service is great. From the look on John’s face, you can see he is having a good time.


After dinner, we split a decadent brownies-and-ice cream dessert. We weren’t too worried about calories because we knew we’d be spending almost 12 hours a day on our feet for the rest of the week.


We also knew that we’d be taking a long walk after dinner. We spent the next two-and-a-half hours wandering through the downtown/campus area, which is really lovely. The temperature was 82 degrees, and the humidity was in the low 40s. Who could complain? Market Square, the local pedestrian shopping district, sports a city park next to it called Krutch Park. The park, with its gentle stream, play water fountains, flowers and shrubs, is the result of a bequest left by Charles Krutch, a photographer-turned-benefactor who worked for the Tennessee Valley Authority. When he died in 1981 at the age of 94, his will stipulated that $1.3 million be used for  “a quiet retreat with trees, shrubs, flowers, and other planting for the pleasure and health of the public.”


At the entrance to the park, engraved in the sidewalk, is a short biography of Charles Krutch. Around the edges of the sidewalk engraving appear the words of Charles’ younger brother, Joseph Wood Krutch, a writer, critic and naturalist:

We need some contact with the things we sprang from. We need nature as a part of the context of our lives. Without cities we cannot be civilized. Without nature, without wilderness even, we are compelled to renounce an important part of our heritage.

Sidewalk Engraving

Besides flowers, Krutch Park is strewn with large-scale outdoor sculptures that can be sponsored or purchased through Art in Public Places, a Knoxville program of Dogwood Arts, whose mission is to promote the region’s arts, culture and natural beauty. The origin of Dogwood Arts is kind of amusing. In 1947, a reporter named John Gunther from New York visited Knoxville and wrote, “Knoxville is the ugliest city I ever saw in America, with the possible exception of some mill towns in New England. Its main street is called Gay Street; this seemed to me to be a misnomer.” In 1955, members of the Knoxville Garden Club set out to disprove Gunther’s words with a public beautification project called the Dogwood Trails. The spirit of their efforts is alive and well today in the non-profit organization known as Dogwood Arts.

As John and I walked through one of Knoxville’s public beautification projects, Krutch Park, I noted especially “Madame Butterfly,” designed by Mike Sohikian, which earned 2nd place in the 2012-13 Art in Public Places Knoxville public voting contest. Each sculpture has a plaque with a QR code that viewers can scan with their smart phones, and then use to vote for their favorite outdoor sculpture. “Madame Butterfly” is made of steel, concrete, aluminum and wood.

Madame Butterfly

“Love Arch,” designed by Andrew Denton and made of painted cast aluminum and steel, earned third place in the same contest.

Love Arch

As we strolled on campus, we discovered other outdoor sculptures that are part of the Art in Public Places effort. You can view many of the sculptures, in fact, by visiting the Facebook page HERE, and discover how the sculptures were moved and assembled for exhibition purposes. The sculpture below, “Oak Leaf Horizon,” can be found in front of the Knoxville Convention Center. Designed by Jim Gallucci, it is made entirely of galvanized steel.

Oak Leaf Horizon

Knoxville is not the only place where we enjoyed art. As we have done in previous years, we stopped at the Kentucky Artisan Center in Berea, Kentucky. According to a 2012 American Style list, Berea ranked 21 in a list of 25 small cities of fewer than 100,000 people, representing “arts destinations.” Indeed, you’ll find regional art well represented not only at the Artisan Center, but also in the town of Berea. This year the Kentucky Artisan Center celebrates its 10th anniversary with exhibits by 52 artisans who have worked with the Center since its opening in July 2003. The treasure I took home with me from the Artisan Center this year is the trivet below, although it will never be used in that way in my kitchen, but will instead be displayed on a wall or a stand. The trivet is a scroll saw sculpture designed by Louisville, Kentucky artisan Bob Diehl, who took his fascination with the German paper cutting art called Scherenschnitte to his material of choice: Baltic Birch.

Baltic Birch Sculpture

On Memorial Day, John and I took a day off from our trip home to visit Bloomington, Indiana, home of Indiana University. We stayed at the Hilton Garden Inn, which is conveniently located near the Courthouse Square. The Monroe County Courthouse, built in 1907, was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1979.

Monroe County Courthouse

Surrounding this historical icon are ethnic and vintage clothing stores, jewelry shops, a corner bookstore, cafes and restaurants, and attorneys’ offices. Nearby are the Waldron Art Center and Wonderlab science museum. Unfortunately, because it was a holiday, both of these museums and most shops were closed. However, that didn’t stop John and me from exploring the area, making a list of places we’d like to visit in the future. These include the Tibetan Mongolian Buddhist Cultural Center on the edge of town, as well as the university, and further away—Brown County State Park and Bluespring Caverns Park.

One of the places in town where we enjoyed eating breakfast was the Village Deli, which during the normal work week is so busy that people stand in line outside it, waiting to be served. Inside the restaurant is a sign reminding people that “Eat & Get Out Specials” are available. For two mornings in a row, I enjoyed a tasty buttermilk waffle, dotted with strawberries and sprinkled with walnuts, drenched in maple syrup. Yum! I ate it so quickly that I forgot to take a photo, but John snapped a picture of me, and you can see that I am more than satisfied with my breakfast.

Eat & Get Out

For his part, John learned a new term in Bloomfield, yarn bombing, when we visited Yarns Unlimited on Walnut Street and he saw a tree outside the shop, garbed in crocheted and knitted blocks of colorful yarn.

Yarn bombing

Before we headed out of town for the final leg of our journey home to Des Moines, I persuaded John to stop at The Hidden Closet on East Kirkwood Avenue. It was the sign itself that convinced me to enter the store. “Gild your lily and your pad,” read the sign, and in smaller print another sign announced, “Semi-scientific studies suggest that people who shop at The Hidden Closet are above average in every way.” How could I resist entering?

The Hidden Closet

The owner of what turned out to be a vintage and consigned goods shop told us that the lady pictured on the sign is her alter ego. She grew up in the Bloomington area, but often visits the Southwest. As a result, her shop includes native American jewelry of truly exceptional craftsmanship. John located a lovely dragonfly pin for me, as well as a 1930s-era floral brooch that is probably resin, but looks a lot like ivory.


Floral Brooch

On our way home to Des Moines, the skies darkened and our smart phones kept sending us flood and severe thunderstorm warnings. Apparently, we missed most of the bad weather while we were away, but were greeted by rain as we entered the outskirts of Urbandale, where we live. That’s not a bad photo below, by the way, but instead what hard rain looks like from a moving car when you snap a picture!


Our next trip will involve a cabin retreat at Backbone State Park, but that’s another story. Meanwhile, I have lots of laundry to wash! Thanks for letting me share our wanderings with you.

© 2013 Judy Nolan. All rights reserved.


May 302013

I began writing this post as we were leaving Destination Imagination Global Finals, making our way home from Knoxville, Tennessee to Kentucky, Indiana, Illinois, and finally Iowa early yesterday afternoon. When we left Knoxville, we had swollen feet, achy knees and gritty eyes. In a word, we were exhausted, but it was a good kind of exhaustion because we knew we had done our part in helping kids from around the world demonstrate their creativity at Destination Imagination’s annual creative problem-solving competition held at the University of Tennessee-Knoxville. This was John’s and my 8th consecutive year, officiating as Instant Challenge Appraisers. Instant Challenge is the part of the Destination Imagination® (DI) program that involves on-the-spot problem-solving skills. A team of two to seven students enters a classroom, is presented with a completely unfamiliar task- or performance-based challenge, and has 3 to 10 minutes to solve it using creativity, teamwork and problem-solving skills.

Every single team at Destination Imagination Global Finals passes through the Humanities Building at the University of Tennessee-Knoxville to solve an Instant Challenge. That means lots of teams (nearly 1,250 teams from 42 states and 14 countries), and many officials and translators. In addition, all teams select one of six competitive Team Challenges that are either technical, scientific, fine arts, improvisational, structural or service learning-based, and solve that over an extended period of time (several months). They demonstrate their solution through a skit at competition.

In the video below that won the Show Us Your Skills contest, a Destination Imagination team member describes what the DI program has done for her.

John and I are wearing one of the blue shirts below, which represents a Head Appraiser role. There are so many Instant Challenge officials, however, that I suspect we are nearly impossible to locate in this photo. If you look carefully on the left side of the photo, you’ll see both John and me in the 4th row from the bottom. I am standing slightly behind and to the right of a lady wearing a large-brimmed hat. Two ladies stand between John and me.

Instant Challenge Appraisers

To guarantee that no team knows in advance what Instant Challenge it will solve, we are not allowed to take photos of either the teams solving their challenge, or our competition rooms. Because of this, I can only give you a sense of what we experienced by sharing with you some other photos, starting with our arrival in Tennessee.  We always know when we are getting close to Knoxville because there’s a sign announcing the Cumberland Gap about a half hour away from the city.

Cumberland Gap

We also know we’re in the South, where grits are served, when we see a Waffle House.

Waffle House

As we took the Henley Street exit toward our hotel, the Sunsphere greeted us on the right. The Hilton Hotel, where all of the Appraisers and Affiliate Directors stay, looms in the background.

Henley Street Exit

Every official who is selected to volunteer at Destination Imagination Global Finals is provided with room and board if they can get themselves to Knoxville. John and I had a very nice room on the 17th floor of the Hilton Hotel, although we did not spend a lot of time in it because of the hours we worked. We boarded a bus for the Humanities building at 7:00 or 7:30 a.m. each day, and returned to the hotel between 5:45 and 6:30 p.m.

Hilton Hotel Collage

Everyone who attends DI Global Finals, whether you are an official, a participant or a spectator, wears an identification badge. Even if you are just wandering the campus, as we did on the day we arrived, you wear your badge.


One of the main centers of activity on campus is the Knoxville Convention Center, where teams trade pins with each other, browse through the Innovation EXPO where exhibitors from NASA, National Geographic, 3M and other companies or organizations interact with around 18,000 visitors. They provide hands-on activities or educational presentations for everyone. In 3M’s Explore the Uncharted event, for example, teams raced through an underwater adventure  to uncover clues, discover marine life and hunt for hidden treasures, at the same time learning about the effects plastics have on our beaches and oceans. They also simulated water clean-up activities.

Knoxville Convention Center

Some of the competition also takes place in this building, and of course there is a shopping area where you can purchase souvenirs, games and DI apparel. I picked up a CD filled with 100 Instant Challenges, an improvisational game, and a few pins as remembrances of this year at DI Global Finals.


Near the Knoxville Convention Center, John and I ascended an elevator to the 4th floor of the Sunsphere, which is where its Observation Deck is located.  The Sunsphere was the theme structure of the 1982 World’s Fair site and was designed by a local architectural company called Community Tectonics. This company’s idea was to tie a representation of the sun to the event’s energy theme.


The Sunsphere provides a panoramic view of the downtown Knoxville area. On one side you can see the University of Tennessee Conference Center, where officials and Affiliate Directors enjoyed an “after party” following Closing Ceremonies. There is a skywalk that takes you from the Conference Center to the Knoxville Convention Center, although you can’t see the skywalk in this photo. Notice the Hilton Hotel in the background, which is where we stayed.

UT Conference Center

On the other side of the Sunsphere’s Observation Deck, you can see the World’s Fair Park, where DI held a “Glo-Ball” for secondary and university level teams one week ago on Thursday night. The World’s Fair Park is a work of art in its own right.

World's Fair Park

Before competition began on Wednesday of last week, a dinner was held for all Instant Challenge Appraisers at the University of Tennessee Conference Center. It was great to meet new Global Finals officials and renew friendships with returning ones. As we entered the buffet line, a pseudo ice sculpture greeted us.

Ice Sculpture

One of the goals that all officials strive for at DI Global Finals is to create a fun, festive atmosphere for the kids. You’ll see all kinds of crazy hats at the event, both during competition and at Opening and Closing Ceremonies. John, in fact, decorated his competition classroom with a fiesta theme, and I decorated mine with a cinematography theme.

Hat Collage

Left to right: Matt Elder (California), John & me, Megan Malone (Texas)

So, what did the kids in our Instant Challenge rooms do? Again, I do not have photos, but I can tell you that in John’s room, elementary teams were challenged to prevent 60 marbles from falling from a funnel into a bucket with nothing more than note cards and twine. The funnel was attached to the center of an over-sized table, with four-by-fours serving as table legs. In my room, another set of elementary teams was asked to design a device with lightweight materials, attach it to a wheel, and make the wheel spin with an electric fan.

We were amused, entertained and convinced more than ever that there is a need for a program like this, where children’s imaginations are stretched and a “how can we do this?” mindset, instead of a “can we do this?” attitude, is encouraged. As these kids make their collective creative problem-solving journeys, they learn life skills such as time management, collaboration, conflict resolution, and creative and critical thinking. Competition is only one aspect of this program; there are many teams that solve Destination Imagination Team Challenges and Instant Challenges as part of a community program, an after-school program, or within their classrooms—yet they do not participate at tournament. I know I am sounding a bit like an advertisement, but if you don’t have a DI program in your own community, visit Destination Imagination for more information. New Challenges are released on September 1st each year, and it is easy to get started.

Stay tuned for my next post, where I’ll discuss the “side trips” we took both in Knoxville, Tennessee and on our journey back to Iowa.

© 2013 Judy Nolan. All rights reserved.