Clar Baldus, Belin-Blank Center

Clar Baldus with one of the many toys she keeps in her office. Photo by Tim Schoon.

Clar Baldus believes people need to smile more, laugh more, and definitely play more.

Play is crucial to cultivating creativity, says the 57-year-old Baldus, administrator for arts and innovation at the University of Iowa College of Education’s Belin-Blank Center for Gifted Education and Talent Development.

Her office reflects this mantra. Toys of all types grace her desk and shelves: plush animal finger puppets and an Etch-A-Sketch; kaleidoscopes, squeeze balls, wind-up toys, and a marshmallow launcher. The last often comes in handy as a stress reliever, as her colleagues have learned.

As part of her innovation responsibilities, she is the state coordinator for Invent Iowa, an invention program that serves hundreds of K-12 students across the state and in neighboring states. When wearing her arts hat, she coordinates a multistate regional affiliation of the national Scholastic Art and Writing Awards program, which recognizes and celebrates the talents of young artists and writers in grades 7-12.

The former Jewell, Iowa, farm girl turned scholar and visual artist was honored earlier this fall with the Outstanding Higher Level Art Education Award from the Art Educators of Iowa for inspiring and influencing art instructors across the Midwest.

fyi recently caught up with Baldus to see how she first got interested in gifted education and art and why she feels so strongly about the role of play in all facets of life.

Why is play so important and who needs to play more?

Everyone! I’m really adamant about the fact that people don’t play enough, children especially. And by play I don’t mean Angry Birds. It’s recreational, and it’s fun, but it’s very reactive and passive and, to me, play should stimulate the imagination. I use play all the time in my job to help find solutions to things and to generate new ideas.

How did you first get interested in art and gifted education?

I started out as a kid realizing I could draw well, even as a 5- or 6-year-old. My second thought was, “I wonder how I can do that?” and so at a very early age, I was both artist and cognitive psychologist. Add into that my two imaginary friends, and you have the complete mix—the artistic, the cognitive, and the imagination, which is where I’m at right now. I have all of those worlds that I get to play with in my jobs.

Where did gifted education come into the picture?

In terms of gifted education, as an art teacher, I was naturally attuned to differentiation and talent development. I always had very talented students as well as students who were very intimidated by art—I had the full range of students. I am proud of what my former students have achieved in their careers. Some are professional artists, including one who earned an Emmy award for his animation. Some are art teachers and others are successful in other fields such as medicine and law. It’s fun to see where they’ve all ended up but exciting to know how far they have progressed in their talent areas.

What do you most enjoy about your work at the UI?

I enjoy seeing the product of what we do in terms of support for students, teachers, and their schools. I especially enjoy the recognition ceremony where we invite all the students and their teachers to celebrate what they’ve achieved and where they can potentially go from here. It’s that potential piece.

A few of my favorite things…

Anything my husband cooks: he makes great pizza, and he’s perfected my mom’s recipe for making jelly

Lunch at Wild Bill’s Coffee Shop

Dr. Seuss and Jack Prelutsky books, especially Prelutsky’s poetry book, My Dog May Be a Genius

The Big Bang Theory

The Belin-Blank Center’s website, of course, at

Any of the sports teams that my 29 nieces and nephews and great-nieces and nephews are playing on

The artists Georgia O’Keeffe and Alexander Calder

I also enjoy working with Invent Iowa, Scholastic Art, and the Iowa Online Advanced Placement (AP) Academy through which we’ve served almost 10,000 students who would not have had the opportunity to take AP classes in high school.

Just this academic year, you’ve expanded your role to also serve as a visiting assistant professor in art education for the College of Education. How do you juggle this and how does it all relate?

Juggling for sure! Some days it feels like that, but everything fits well with the arts and innovation piece that I work with here. I’ve now added more teaching back into the mix, which I love to do. I’m relishing the fact that I can teach more and touch back into my roots as an art person since I taught for 17 years as a visual arts instructor at Regis High School and six years as an elementary TAG teacher in Cedar Rapids. I’m currently teaching two courses—“Creativity, Imagination, and Play” and a practicum class—and supervising the art education program.

How did growing up with a large farm family influence who you are today?

I always got teased a lot, being the second youngest of six children, so I blame my siblings for my resilience. Seriously, it was my mom’s and dad’s influence to value education and learning persistence to complete tasks that you really don’t want to do like walking beans and cleaning out the barn. You learn that hard work is important and you have to follow through. On a farm, the first thing you do is feed the livestock. You learn responsibility for taking care of other sentient beings.

What might people be most surprised to know about you?

I have always been athletically active, being a tomboy. I grew up lifting and tossing 80-pound rectangular hay bales. It was good preparation for later in preparing for and competing in natural bodybuilding competitions from 2004 to 2006, a hobby I pursued with my husband, C.J. Ong Jr., before moving into functional strength training for endurance sports. It takes a lot of discipline and time, but it is something my husband and I enjoyed doing together.

What are some of your other favorite hobbies?

I was a rock collector when I was a kid. I still have the original rock collection somewhere in a coffee can. I also have a piece of a meteorite, and a little boy in an elementary gifted class gave me a piece of moon rock. I think hobbies and collections are essential in cultivating happiness.

How do you cultivate your own creativity? What’s your favorite way to play or relax?

I draw and create art as often as I can. I play with my nieces and nephews. I enjoy working in my garden, and I can’t imagine a day without working out with my husband or playing with our Gordon Setter, Lennox. To relax, my husband is a massage therapist!