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Ness, Zenobia Brumbaugh

Published onJul 30, 2021
Ness, Zenobia Brumbaugh

(Dec. 19, 1876 - June 27, 1943)

Quick Facts

Ness was a great advocate for the young Grant Wood, the artist that would bring worldwide attention onto the arts in Iowa.

Source: Carroll, Gaynold (1939) "Home Economics Women Take the Air," The Iowa Homemaker: Vol. 19 : No. 2 , Article 4.

Zenobia Brumbaugh was born in Eaton, Ohio in 1876 and it was her remarkable support of young and upcoming Iowa artists that made her a significant part of the Iowa arts community and Iowa State College. Ness had the foresight and vision to understand the importance of art in education and that Iowa had wonderful art, especially in the 1920s and 30s when she was a great advocate for the young Grant Wood, the artist that would bring worldwide attention onto the arts in Iowa.

As a young woman, Ness attended several schools, including the New York School of Fine and Applied Art, the Art Student’s League of New York, the University of Chicago, and the Art Institute of Chicago. She first taught school in her native Ohio and in 1912 was an art teacher at the First District Agricultural School in Jonesboro, Arkansas. She then went on to become the Head of Home Economics and Art and Dean of Women at the Arkansas Agricultural and Mechanical College (known today as University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff). While in Arkansas she met her future husband, Henry Ness, who was a professor of biology and horticulture. Henry Ness graduated from Iowa State College (now University) in 1905 with a degree in animal husbandry and taught at Iowa State for a few years before leaving for Arkansas, but would return with Zenobia in 1918 to become the Assistant State Entomologist.

As part of the Iowa State College extension, Zenobia Ness appears on the Iowa State faculty lists in 1924 as an instructor for Two-Year Home Economics and by 1925 as a Home Economics instructor. In 1928, she was listed as an Instructor of Applied Art. Ness hosted a radio program, the “Homemaker’s Half Hour”, which was heard on the WOI radio station from 1925-1939. Her radio program was heard by thousands of Iowa women and as part of this show she discussed art and those young Iowan artists whose artwork she appreciated. Homemaker's Half-hour was broadcasted five times a week and during the year, each member of the home economics faculty had an opportunity to speak for 10 to 20 minutes on some subject relating to her line of work.

Ness in front of Grant Wood’s “River Bend”, Iowa State Fair, 1935

Outside of her work at Iowa State she was the chairman of the Art Division for Iowa Federation of Women’s Clubs and also the General Federation of Women’s Clubs. She also co-wrote the seminal publication Iowa Artists of the First Hundred Years with Louise Orwig in 1939. It was Ness’s involvement with the Iowa State Fair, where she served as the superintendent for the Iowa Art Salon from 1927 to1939, which allowed her to make an even more considerable impact on the state of Iowa’s arts. In all of her occupations Ness was constantly working to advance the arts in Iowa and she successfully helped to garner national attention for the Iowa arts when she was able to bring notable modern art curator René d’Harnoncourt to be a judge for the Iowa Art Salon in 1933.

In 1927, Ness took over the direction of the Iowa Art Salon and helped to reinvigorate the arts that were seen during the Iowa State Fair. Her selection of modern artists and judges were both heralded and often derided by more conservative art connoisseurs, but they were always noticed. Ness gave wonderful encouragement to many emerging Iowa artists and often provided them with the confidence they needed to get their art noticed, by both her words and ability to have their art exhibited. Her support of the artist Grant Wood was a major boost to his career and he noted his great admiration of Zenobia Ness in many letters and also in his foreword written for Iowa Artists of the First Hundred Years. Ness included Wood in an exhibition in the late 1920s in Sioux City, Iowa, one of his earliest, and then went on to invite him to show his paintings at the Iowa Art Salon at the Iowa State Fair, where he won first and grand prizes for four consecutive years from 1929.

Ness believed in Wood’s developing Regionalist style of art, but also many other young artists that were associated with this style or working in Iowa. While at Iowa State she was able to have several of these artists’ paintings installed on campus in high traffic locations such as the Memorial Union. Her position with the Iowa Art Salon allowed her to annually bring the winning artworks to exhibit on campus and also purchase some works of art for what would become known as the Art on Campus Collection. This was the 1930s and money was scarce, but with her insistence art was purchased or given to this campus and helped to further the belief that the visual arts were an important resource for the curriculum and education of the many young Iowans who would attend Iowa State.

Zenobia Ness understood the great importance of art as a way to educate and believed in the art of Iowa. Through both her work with art exhibitions and her radio program she was able to change the perception of Iowa art and prove its worth in the realm of modern American art. Without her tireless support and encouragement, many of those significant Iowa artists that are revered today may never have had the chance to put their art on exhibition. Her work at Iowa State helped to bring a love of art to many of the students of her time and to understand the importance of art to their education. The lasting legacy of Zenobia Ness continues to be seen at Iowa State University with the Art on Campus Program, which fills our campus with all forms of artworks, becoming a great tool in students’ educations and enjoyed by all who visit this campus.

Zenobia Ernestine Brumbaugh Ness passed away June 27, 1943 and is interred at the Ames Municipal Cemetery, Ames, Iowa along with her husband, Henry.

Selected Sources

Chris Rasmussen, “Agricultural Lag: The Iowa State Fair Art Salon, 1854-1941,” American Studies 36, no.1 (Spring 1995).

DeLong, Lea Rosson. When Tillage Begins, Other Arts Follow: Grant Wood and Christian Petersen Murals. Ames, IA: University Museums, Iowa State University, 2006.

Special Collection archival files and University Museum files for Zenobia Ness.

Grant Wood papers, 1930-1983. Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.

Carroll, Gaynold (1939) "Home Economics Women Take the Air," The Iowa Homemaker: Vol. 19 : No. 2 , Article 4. Available at:

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