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Wood, Grant D.

Published onNov 08, 2021
Wood, Grant D.

(February 13, 1891 - February 13, 1943)

Quick Facts

Well-known Iowa artist and creator of murals “When Tillage Begins, Other Arts Follow,” located in Parks Library, Iowa State campus.

Grant Wood 1941 
Source: Figge Art Museum, Davenport, Iowa

Born February 13, 1891 on a farm outside Anamosa, Iowa, Grant DeVolson Wood was the second of four children for Francis and Hattie Wood. Wood attended Antioch School until his father’s death in March 1901 prompted the farm’s sale and the family’s move to Cedar Rapids. There, they settled into a modest home and constantly faced financial struggles. While a student at Washington High School, Wood illustrated the yearbook. After graduating in 1910, he left for Minneapolis to study with Ernest Batchelder. He briefly studied at the University of Chicago (1916), waived his World War I exemption, and was later stationed at Des Moines’ Camp Dodge.

After completing military service, Wood taught art at Cedar Rapids’ Jackson Junior High (1919-1922) and McKinley High School (1922-1925). Beginning the summer of 1920, Wood made several tours abroad and clearly embraced the German primitives movement in Munich, seeing promise in painting the everyday as significant. Back in Iowa, Wood began to explore this concept while working in his apartment and studio at 5 Turner Alley. Wood also worked as an interior decorator, promoted the local arts community, led an amateur theater group, and produced his most recognizable paintings (1927-1935) including his iconic American Gothic (1930). In 1934, he married Cedar Rapids native Sara Sherman Maxon, and completed Dinner for Threshers. The couple divorced in 1938.

During the early 1930’s, Wood first developed the idea of an eastern Iowa, art colony, where faculty would immerse students in the regional landscape through a communal experience. In the summer of 1932, Wood located and leased a ten acre site in Stone City, and the first summer saw 40-90 students, although the colony struggled financially. The second, eight-week season in 1933 drew more than 100 students but was marked by several students abandoning the experiment to begin their own art collective. Colony debts continued to mount, going unpaid into the fall with creditors threatening to sue. Roughly $1500 was owed. To raise funds, issuing stock to purchase the Stone City site and permanently establish the colony was promoted; none of it came to fruition. Potential relief came in another form.

Wood received a $1000 grant from the Carnegie Corporation to help pay colony costs for 1934. John Cantwell Reid, Cedar Rapids businessman and arts advocate, approached the Carnegie Corporation on behalf of Wood, asking if the board would permit using the grant to pay the colony’s debts. Another Wood supporter, Iowa State College president, Raymond M. Hughes (1927-1936) joined Reid in soliciting the Corporation. Hughes had built a strong relationship with Carnegie through his campus’ public art program. Hughes’ convincing correspondence ultimately led the board to accept this path; debt payments began in the fall of 1934. The colony’s last, financial records show over $1400 in disbursements, with Reid personally paying almost $400 towards bills.

After the 1933 colony closed, Grant Wood accepted an offer from the University of Iowa to join its Graphic and Plastic Arts department and to fill the chairmanship of the Iowa Public Works of Art Project (PWAP) program. Then Iowa State College president, Raymond Hughes, convinced Wood, along with sculptor Christian Petersen, to paint a series of murals at Iowa State College’s Library. Wood’s new university colleagues held him in disdain for his public mural projects and lack of degreed education. Nevertheless, Wood continued work on the “Ames” murals, settling on a series of eight murals and then assembling a team of artists associated with the art colony and the Iowa State Fair’s art salon.

The project, known as “When Tillage Begins, Other Arts Follow,” featured two commissions. The first, found in the staircase leading to the library’s original, upper lobby, is composed of twelve mural panels celebrating engineering, home economics, and agriculture. Wood created the design scheme, its preliminary sketches, and finished, color drawings. His team of student assistants, including Tom Savage, Bertrand Adams, Francis McCray, Arnold Pyle, and Harry Jones, enlarged the drawings onto brown, wrapping paper and then transferred the designs to stretched, canvas panels, using spiked wheels that pounced through perforated outlines. Finally, the canvas was painted with oils. Arnold Pyle’s limited palette complimented the travertine stone of the building. Tom Savage painted figures, McCray created the enlargements, and Adams performed much of the lettering. The work, completed at the University of Iowa’s abandoned swimming pool, was then rolled onto massive metal drums, transported to Ames, and installed in the fall of 1934. The series was dedicated on October 22, 1934.

“Breaking the Prairie Sod,” the second Ames commission, was also designed by Wood and created during the 1936-1937 academic year. Led by Francis McCray, seven student artists made three panels in a studio next to the University of Iowa’s Fine Arts building. The project, depicting Iowa’s pioneer history, began with two years of intensive research to guarantee accuracy in clothing, farming tools, and plant life. Three figures, inspired by phases of Abraham Lincoln’s life, pay homage to the Morrill Act which facilitated the creation of land-grant colleges. “Breaking,” a prelude to “When Tillage Begins,” was installed in 1937 and placed near the library’s front doors.

Wood continued to teach painting and mural design at the University of Iowa, though not without controversy. Wood chafed under the art department’s structure and requested a new “creative art program.” The changes did not come, and he was given a sabbatical for the 1940-1941 academic year. In May 1941, Wood and his personal secretary, Park Rinard, spoke to allegations about his teaching style and work process. All charges were denied, and none were proven. Wood’s response was to leave the university, to focus on his art, and to open a studio at Clear Lake, Iowa. A December 1941 surgery in Iowa City revealed pancreatic cancer; while hospitalized, he signed copies of his final work, the lithograph, Family Doctor. Grant Wood died February 13, 1943. His memorial service and funeral were held at Turner Mortuary in Cedar Rapids. He was later buried in Riverside Cemetery, Anamosa, Iowa, next to his mother, Hattie Wood.

Selected Sources

Carnegie Corporation of New York. (n.d.). Grant Files, ca. 1911-1988: Stone City Art Colony, 1933-1934. Columbia University, Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Butler Library. New York, New York.

Corn, Wanda. 1983. Grant Wood, the Regionalist Vision. New Haven, CT: Yale

University Press.

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

Dennis, James. 1975. Grant Wood: A Study in American Art and Culture. New York: Viking Press.

Evans, Tripp. 2010. Grant Wood: A Life. New York: Knopf.

Grant Wood Papers. (n.d.) Special Collections and University Archives, University of Iowa. Iowa City, Iowa.

John Cantwell Reid Papers. (n.d.). Special Collections and University Archives, University of Iowa. Iowa City, Iowa.

Milosch, Jane, ed. 2005. Grant Wood’s Studio: Birthplace of American Gothic. Munich: Prestel.

Raine, Kristy, Scarth, Linda, and Marilyn Murphy. c2003-2013. “When Tillage Begins: The Stone City Art Colony and School.” Mount Mercy University.

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