Iowa's 'little person' artist drew her way to statewide fame despite lifelong challenges
Before disabled students were mainstreamed in many American schools, before the Americans with Disabilities Act passed, and before societal consciousness grew enough to know that different didn’t mean broken or bad, Carolyn Blattel-Britton found herself out of high school and in need of a job.
An achondroplastic dwarf — or “a little person,” as she preferred to be called — Blattel took up drawing. And when she became a single mother a few years later, her radiant fantastical pen-and-ink artworks became her sole livelihood.
Those drawings took the self-described country girl all across the Hawkeye state, made her a darling of the art show circuit and a RAGBRAI favorite and led to one of her signed prints being archived in the State Historical Museum.
Blattel-Britton died at 64 from lung disease and was laid to rest Saturday in her beloved hometown of Zearing. While the ceremony was well-attended despite the afternoon downpour, a group of Zearing citizens called to tell me that Carolyn’s passing should not — no, simply could not — go without noting.
“She was an icon of Iowa,” said Peggy Obrecht, a friend of the family for 38 years. “At least around here, everyone knows who Carolyn is and everyone loves Carolyn.”
Born in 1955, Blattel was self-taught, getting her start in the Governor’s Very Special Arts program for handicapped artists — though she always bristled at that moniker.
“I never really thought of myself as handicapped,” she told Iowa Columnist Chuck Offenburger in 1992. “I’m just shorter.”
Drawing gave Blattel-Britton a chance to pave her own path and forge a long-term career despite the obstacles she faced as a little person in the late '70s and early '80s.
“The world offers little people such limited opportunities,” said her son John Blattel-Britton, who is also a little person. “We can’t do normal jobs that people do when they get out of school. We can’t work at a restaurant or a gas station or any of those things. So mom found a way to make a living through art.”
Blattel married Ben Britton in 1988 and had another son, Carl, soon after. The family sustained through the art fest circuit — Carolyn would sell her drawings and Ben, his sculptures, which re-purposed old farm equipment into animals or abstractions — but the living didn’t come easy.
“We do struggle financially, but God provides for our daily needs and I love getting to stay at home and color pictures,” she told Offenburger while flashing a toothy grin.
The Iowa Boy and Blattel-Britton's friendship started over her RAGBRAI commissions, but they quick became close confidants. He biked to her house to write the 1992 column and the pair bonded through their shared past of addictions — his was with alcohol and hers with drugs. She told him she had done some things she wasn’t proud of when she was in the throes of dependence, but that she “learned a lot” by making it through to the other side.
“She had a lot of courage,” Offenburger said. “Things did not scare Carolyn. She could cope with challenges, overcome them and then still be this really fun person and fantastic artist.”
Despite difficulties, or maybe because of them, Blattel-Britton’s work radiated happiness. With the intricacy of a "Where’s Waldo" cartoon and the whimsy of a hand-drawn Adventureland map, Blattel-Britton rendered rich, vibrant, detailed depictions of her chosen subjects, including Iowa standards like the State Fairgrounds, the Capitol, Grinnell College and even her hometown of Zearing.
Her most famous piece is “This is Iowa,” a 2-foot by 3-foot map of the Hawkeye state featuring tiny depictions of the claims to fame in hundreds of Iowa towns. She told Offenburger — who is featured as the notable from Shenandoah, Iowa — the piece took 433 hours to finish.
Blattel-Britton was known to tuck hidden messages or funny visual anecdotes into her pieces, said John, now 39.
“She always got a kick out of putting things within drawings and wondering if people would pick up on them,” he said. “Some customers would tell mom that they see something new every time they look at her drawings.
“Not like when you go see the Mona Lisa, which is very nice and famous,” he continued, “but it is what it is, and you see it once and you’ve seen it.”
The Historical Museum’s signed copy of Blattel-Britton’s pop-art interpretation of the fairgrounds was likely obtained with other State Fair posters in the mid-1980s, said Leo Landis, the state curator.
To him, the piece is deserving of its place in the museum because of Brattle-Britton’s notoriety and productivity in the '70s and '80s, but also because of the picture's spot-on presentation of the fairgrounds at that specific moment in time.
“If we did not have this poster and it were offered to us today, I would definitely acquire it,” Landis said.
In her later years, Blattel-Britton turned inward, oft choosing to stay home and eschew art shows for private commissions and local sales.
Still, whenever anyone in town needed anything, Blattel-Britton was the first to reach out and offer help or a free piece to raffle off, Obrecht said.
“They are a simple family and maybe they are different,” Obrecht said. “But they contribute to the community. They don’t just live here, they contribute to making this town better.”
In his 1992 column, Offenburger prognosticated that Blattel would overtake Dick and Paul Sparrow’s 40-horse Belgian hitch as the best-known claim to fame in Zearing (population 600). (Now, if that ain’t the most “Iowa Boy” comparison to ever be written, just slap me with a tenderloin and call me Pork Queen.)
But, seriously, if the fervor with which her town requested her passing be marked is any indication, Offenburger’s premonition has proven true — not only in little Zearing but in all the homes where her art hangs.
After Blattel-Britton’s unexpected death, Ben told townspeople that his wife had held back a few pieces from public view — little gems she kept for herself or drawings she spent hours and hours editing to the best they could possibly be. He hasn’t yet decided what to do with those pictures, but there’s a chance new Blattel-Britton artwork could come out any day now.
And therein lies the only positive that can come from what is most certainly a tragic death: That in Blattel-Britton’s case, her work will live on, acting as a lasting memory of the little person who made her way in the world with a smile, some colored pencils and a whole lot of courage.
COURTNEY CROWDER, the Register's Iowa Columnist, traverses the state's 99 counties telling Iowans' stories. She doesn't own a Blattel-Britton, but makes a practice of buying local art — she suggests you do, too! You can reach her at (515) 284-8360 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @courtneycare.