The Beauty Shop: Cultural Warriors | Fairfield’s New Cultural Incubator: A Beacon for Warriors Against Boredom

The Beauty Shop, Fairfield’s nurturing haven for creativity in all forms, sets the stage for an explosion of song, art, and joy. Pictured from left to right: Board member Steve Cooperman, Phil Rabalais, Hilary Nelson, Julia Ross, and Dom Rabalais.

What started out as ten die-hard punk fans, a second-story office building, and a guitar amp has quickly turned into a thriving cultural epicenter in Fairfield.

Beginnings at the Bonnell

The room was packed with sweaty bodies and the floor was quaking under the bouncing of hundreds of feet. Dom Rabalais had just returned to his hometown to find that Steve Cooperman and Roland Wells, the kings of community innovation, had a new idea in the works. The semi-vacant Bonnell Building downtown had been purchased in hopes of using it as a container to support projects in the community.

Phil and Dom Rabalais, an unstoppable brotherly duo of musical extravagance, knew one thing: they needed a space for music to happen, a refuge for young people to be free in their creations, and a venue for travelling grunge punk bands to wail distortion into the still of the night.

Simon Brooks, a musical cohort of Dom’s, had also recently returned to town and it quickly became apparent that a reunion was in order, and that it must be shared.

The rest being history, if you look through the Bonnell Building’s three large windows facing the square two years later, you will see a laid-back DIY café, a music venue that regularly hosts touring indie sensations, and a recording studio. Look beyond the physical space altogether and you’ll find what the buzz is really all about.

Learning to Un-learn

Steve Cooperman is the Bonnell Building board member. He doesn’t own a cell phone, and you would think this would hinder the ability to get hold of him and thus the ability to get anything done. Yet, somehow it falls right into the smooth groove of loose learning and the necessity for open searching that the Beauty Shop thrives on.

Wearing his signature blue hoodie, Steve can be found at Bonnell just when you need him. A wizard of opportunity with the casualness of a cow, he’s often working out kinks or plotting a genius plan for community reinvention, coaxing the forge of new territory when it comes to the concept of learning.

Yet like all things, new concepts plant their roots in old ones. The great Sufi poet Rumi was not, as many imagine, a lonesome desert dweller, but a hub of village life and head of a school of mysticism, in which all facets of study were intended to bring one into contact with the Beloved, thereby enriching life and bringing wisdom to the student. The school was based upon a belief that this learning could be engaged in the acts of fasting, feasting, meditating, song, and poetry.

In this day and age, the thought of learning how to wander and let go, wonder at the wandering, and then do something in reaction to that wonder is a refreshing juxtaposition to a dying know-it-all system. This belief is surely in line with the movement of “unschooling” in which learning happens in an organic globular way, encouraging learning through encouraging avenues of existing interests, a philosophy that the Beauty Shop tends towards.

If you ask Phil Rabalais for his thoughts on the philosophy of the Beauty Shop, he will tell you straight out of the gate that in his opinion it has no philosophy; its philosophy is a no-philosophy philosophy.

Phil and his glasses look like they stepped off an ’80s TV set, decidedly nerdy in the coolest way. He’s delicate with his words and his music, yet both are full of conviction and deep thought. Pouring out strange and intricate beats in his room for what could be, in dog years, epochs, Phil is the first to point out how strange it is that a geek like himself, who spends countless hours in his room alone dedicated to the art of electronic music, has been an integral part in spawning a cohesive artists’ community that is writhing and blooming around the Beauty Shop.

Strange it may be, but how necessary and appropriate, for the generous and open mannerisms of both Phil and Dom are what have encouraged and inspired young people in the small town of Fairfield and beyond. They are warm and honest people who like to help others and themselves, and you can feel it.

Seeds to Sprouts

Honesty, warmth, encouragement, and enthusiasm can be added to the invisible list that makes up the Beauty Shop non-philosophy and anything-goes attitude—not to be confused with a belief in no work and all flow. It’s the work hard and have fun and build one brick at a time sort of thing. It’s a do what you love, make what you love, ignite your passions, and shine the light onto those around you sort of thing.

As put by Julia Ross, who left a day job where she was always on a computer to become a business-minded force of project coordination and folk-pop inspiration, “It is extremely liberating to work on something full time that you enjoy, having fun and doing something productive. When you have a space to create opportunity for yourself, you’re creating opportunity for others, and the trail of growth that sprouts from that is tremendous.”

Joey Del Re, a talented musician and young entrepreneur, sums up a common sentiment: “For me [the Beauty Shop] has been a light at the end of the tunnel. There is a way to actually do stuff. There is a place where you can facilitate your ideas. Inspirational. I’ve lived in huge cities where that didn’t really exist. It got drowned out by all the junk.”

Roland Wells, the other half of the guiding and protecting forces of the Beauty Shop, is a man of many talents and is always willing to share them. As Dom mentions, “Roland can do anything. He is a perfect person.” With a cut-off t-shirt and homespun haircut, Dom looks a far cry from the floral cotton dress he wears to jump from stage to speaker to piano, spitting haikus into the microphone and rapping under the alias Lil Ruckus.

With a Puck-like grin, Dom states matter of factly, “Roland has the power and Steve has the answers. Power and glory forever and ever, amen.” Dom is dramatic, which is why we love him, but Roland’s magical powers are nary up to debate. The gruff-bearded superdad, responsible for all precursors to the Beauty Shop, lays his thoughts out succinctly: “There’s a huge importance to the health of a community around music and celebration and having a place to do those things that can be claimed, especially for youth. The Beauty Shop offers that. ” 

In a short fit of seriousness, Dom spits out, “It’s really cool to have an emblem, a flagship like that in a community that’s a pudding of proof that you can do what you want. Do what you love and live what you want.”

beauty shop cafe, bonnell building, fairfield iowa

The Beauty Shop cafe is a welcoming haven that offers good eats, business advice, and a place for creative reverie.

Julia Ross chimes in that you couldn’t really ask for a better space for your kid to be hanging out. Everyone’s encouraged to do what they love and work hard for it —in a substance-free space. The opening of the café, created by powerhouse Melissa Gurney, has created a safe basket, a nest of sorts, an incubator, a physical home for ideas and feelings that might other­wise get left out in the cold without the encouragement of others. Her daily presence supports people with ideas (young bakers with start-up businesses, a bagel shop), one pot of jasmine tea at a time.

If there is a belief that the entity of the Beauty Shop runs on, the grime and grit of what makes it all tick, it’s that whoever is there, in that moment, working on whatever project is happening, those are the right people. Having that belief gives a certain ease of existence. There is no time spent worrying that the wrong thing is happening. Forget portfolios—if unfiltered honest work is created, then honest and unfiltered people will flock. Those are the guidelines Hilary Nelson follows for choosing art shows, a passion project of hers that finds itself booked through May 2012.

beauty shop cafe, bonnell building, fairfield iowa, dovekins

Indie bands like the Dovekins trek from near and far to play on the Beauty Shop stage.

Ears for Unsung Voices

A woman scientist recently discovered that mice scuttling across the pine needle floors of the forest of Canada were singing to each other in ultrasonic frequencies too low for human ears to detect. To jumpstart this analogy, if we take a moment to notice, there are songs to be heard and songs to be sung. This sparked the idea for the Beauty Shop compilation CD, coaxing out unheard talent from the woodwork of Fairfield while also providing an opportunity to learn sound engineering. With the help of AppleSeed Studios, the longstanding project just reached its fundraising goal, thanks to the incredibly generous support of many, and a CD release performance will be held at the Sondheim Center on Saturday, June 4, 2011.

Perhaps it’s the lack of white noise here in the gently rolling Iowa fields that allows the brave Beauty Shop goers to gently coax the unrecorded and undetected tunes of youngsters into the streets of Fairfield, or to create everything that has been created thus far. No matter why or how, it is happening and spreading tendrils of joy and hope out in all directions. All glory to Iowa. 

—Edited by Julia Ross

For more information, visit The Beauty Shop or go to the Beauty Shop Facebook Group

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