Rock (art) Stars: The Most Famous Iowans You Don’t Know

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DES MOINES, Iowa -- In a bright corner of downtown, there is a love affair rekindled.

Margo Nahas picked up her airbrush for the first time in 30 years.

“It feels like a tool that can bring all of my visions to life,” she says, sitting at her easel.

It was with this tool, and those visions, that Nahas put the art in the commercial.

"I started off doing logos first," she remembers, "and then I did a lot of illustrations for magazines.”

Commercial work paid the bills, but she still did pieces for herself. Little did she know, it was one of those which would ultimately punch her ticket.

“I decided to do an angel smoking candy cigarettes," says Nahas, holding her original print, "and my girlfriend had the perfect little cherub baby, three years old; Carter Helm.”

The smoking angel caught the eye of the multi-platinum band Van Halen, who was looking for an album cover.

They bought Nahas' angel and 10 million copies later, "1984" is still going strong.

“I have to go back and say ‘Wow! I did that!’” Nahas laughs.

Others lined up including Autograph, Sammy Hagar and even movies.

“They’d give me [the work order] on Friday and wanted it on Monday," she said.

The work cut into her family life until finally she'd had enough.

“I said ‘I don’t care how much they’re going to pay me, I’m missing all of this wonderful time with my children,’” Nahas remembers.

So after three decades, her children grown, here she goes again.

If Nahas isn’t the most famous graphic designer anywhere near Des Moines, it’s because Jay Vigon is right down the hall.

“It’s all stream of consciousness,” says Vigon, his finger tracing the intricate lines of an abstract ink drawing in his studio.

Same story here — if you don’t know him, you almost certainly know his work.

His tour de force also happens to be an album cover -- Prince's "Purple Rain."  It was Vigon who invented the iconic purple lettering.

“I presented it to Warner Brothers," Vigon remembers, "they presented it to Prince, everybody loved it. They loved it so much that they asked me to do an entire alphabet.”

The 80s were that way for Vigon -- graphics and logos, one job to the next.

It's hard to believe these icons were once just clients.

“A lot of people that I worked with, I was doing their first album," says Vigon. "Tom Petty, Bon Jovi and these people — I didn’t know they were going to be famous.”

He did know that Star Wars was famous, but he didn’t think the logo for the third film (then titled "Revenge of the Jedi") needed to look so “spacey."

“I thought ‘what about doing something really classic?’”

It worked. In fact, Vigon’s design has kept coming back in the franchise.

Like Nahas, Vigon’s art is in billions of dollars of products.

“I was the first American to be asked to do two Swatch watches,” he says, pointing out the super-sized version of another 80s icon hanging on his wall.

That they’re in the same hall here at Mainframe Studios is no coincidence. They’ve been together since the day they walked home from art school in Los Angeles.

“He looked at me and said ‘Oh, jeez!'" Nahas laughs, "and so I said ‘I’m not following you’ and he was like ‘really?'”

“I said to myself at that very moment ‘I’m going to marry this person,'" adds Vigon. "We’ve been together 47 years.”

So why would native Californians, revered in the Los Angeles art scene, now live in Iowa?

“You know, everybody asks ‘why are you here?’ And we always say now ‘well, we have a grandson here,'” Vigon explains.

At age 70, they don’t have to look for work -- it finds them. And they’re at it seven days a week.

“This is at Prairie Meadows, right here,” says Vigon, showing off a large work hanging on a wall outside the Polk County casino.

Some work is commissioned and some is pro bono.  They say they’d welcome the chance to do public pieces for Des Moines.

“Very few people know that we’re here,” Vigon admits.

We do now.

There are icons that Iowa shares with the world — and perhaps those the world shares with us.  These two arrived late, but just look what they brought. Chops, hits, and tools to share.

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