Copyright 2003 By Bob Hibbs
Saturday December20, 2003 

Saturday Postcard 224: Grant Wood – an Iowa City institution

grant wood

University of Iowa art professor Grant Wood (left) shares coffee and conversation with poet, author and historian Carl Sandburg
 at Wood’s Iowa City home about 1935. Sandburg came to lecture at UI. Photo courtesy of Ted Rittenmeyer.


By Bob Hibbs


Iowa’s most famous painter, rural Anamosa native Grand Wood, lived and worked in Iowa City as a celebrity from 1934 until his death from liver cancer in February 1942 at age 50.

His most celebrated work – his 1930 “American Gothic,” which some say is not his best – now resides in the Art Institute of Chicago where Wood was a student during 1913-1916. He also painted “Stone City” during the same period. It now hangs in the Joslyn Art Museum in Omaha.

Interestingly, many of his works are owned by the Cedar Rapids school district where he taught before coming to Iowa City. A massive mural was painted in the Iowa State University library in Ames as part of his effort as director of the depression-era public works of art projects, a federal Civil Works Administration effort.

During the 1920s, Wood made four trips to Europe, visiting and studying in Italy, France and Germany. His most important discoveries seemingly were in Germany, where in Munich he was impressed by a “new objectivity” movement which favored orderly realism and rejected abstraction.

Wood also is said to have admired Flemish and German painters who depicted biblical scenes using contemporary settings and clothing. Wood developed and advocated a “regionalism” style, using Iowa scenery and subjects in his work. Regionalism as a movement essentially died with Wood.

However, he influenced many students, including several who worked at his early 1930s art colony located in an old limestone quarry at Stone City located west of Anamosa. Two nearby quarries still operate today, providing considerable stone used locally for garden walls and walks.

Among his most famous Stone City students was the late celebrated Isabelle Bloom whose commercially-produced garden statuary still sells nationally from her shops in the Quad Cities. Bloom met her artist husband John Bloom at Wood’s art colony.

In Iowa City, Wood lived at 1142 E. Court St., a still-existing 1850s two-story built by pioneer brickyard owner Nicholas Oakes. The Oakes brickyard was established by Sylvannus Johnson in 1839 on the southeast corner of the Burlington-Linn streets intersection now occupied by a five-story building which for many years served as the local Northwestern Bell Telephone headquarters.

In his 1975 “American Classic” book on Iowa City architecture, UI history Prof. Laurence Lafore describes the Oakes-Wood home in Iowa City as from the “Basic American House” tradition, a description which seems suited to Wood’s artistic inclinations.

Wood came to Iowa City as a celebrity plum for the University of Iowa, but brought his huge ego with him. The next year – 1935 – Princeton-trained art historian Lester Longman was recruited to head the UI art department. Unfortunately, he also was accompanied by a huge ego, setting up a continuing clash between the men.

Longman emphasized historical and critical elements in the UI art curriculum, which Wood saw as coming at the expense of the creative side. Longman viewed Wood’s style as representing poster art which he thought shouldn’t dominate the UI program.

Artistic controversy raged about Wood projecting pictures onto a canvas and painting over them. Although critics said he was compensating for his own lack of skill at drawing, he required his students to try the method. Nearly 70 years later, some art historians now claim “the old masters” used the technique centuries earlier.

The battle royal between Longman and Wood even boiled into the state’s newspapers, including the rumor that a 1940-41 leave taken by Wood represented his firing.

In his 1990 UI history, Yale-educated UI history Prof. Stow Persons writes that “When (Virgil) Hancher became president at the end of 1940, one of his first tasks was to settle the Wood controversy.”  Persons notes that a year later Wood offered his resignation from his hospital bed, “which the university in all decency refused to accept.”

Wood’s talented work survives him.

Next Saturday: Nile Kinnick, Iowa’s greatest football player.

Bob Hibbs collects local postcards and researches history related to them.

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