CEDAR RAPIDS, IOWA — Trundling along the gravel roads of eastern Iowa, through valleys planted with neat rows of corn and over rolling, wooded hills, you can easily understand how the land inspired artist Grant Wood.
Driving along the one-way streets of downtown Cedar Rapids, past a familiar mix of banks and office buildings built of stone, you would be hard-pressed to believe that just last year many of these streets and buildings were underwater.
In one of the worst natural disasters in American history, the storm-swollen Cedar River burst its banks in June 2008, covering 10 square miles of Cedar Rapids with muddy water. No one expected it to reach the Cedar Rapids Museum of Art, but it did, prompting a scramble to rescue the world's largest collection of Grant Wood paintings.
"We moved up, but not out," curator Sean Ulmer says of the successful effort to rescue thousands of pieces of art, Wood's included, from a basement filling with sewage.
"We daisy-chained works up the stairs," he adds. "There was no electricity, so we worked in absolute darkness with a couple of flashlights."
It took a year for the museum to get back on its feet. Now reopened, the museum showcases several of Wood's classics in various media in a new, permanent gallery devoted to Cedar Rapids' favorite son.
Wood, best known for "American Gothic," his Depression-era painting of a stoic farm couple, was born and raised near Anamosa, a small town northeast of Cedar Rapids that's best known as the home of the state's largest prison. When Wood was 10, his father died and the family moved to Cedar Rapids. He taught art in the public schools before creating "American Gothic" and his fanciful landscapes of the rolling Iowa countryside.
Wood painted many of his most famous works in a converted carriage house in Cedar Rapids. The first floor became his studio, and the second floor became living quarters he shared with his mother and sister.
"American Gothic" hangs in the Art Institute of Chicago, but several of Wood's other popular paintings can be viewed in Cedar Rapids. "Woman With Plants" is a portrait of his mother against a rural backdrop. "Young Corn," an idyllic landscape, speaks to Wood's rural upbringing.
"Grant Wood was very much a champion of the Midwest," Ulmer says. "He believed there was a lot of subject matter in the Midwest that was worthy of being painted."
But, as the Cedar Rapids Art Museum makes clear, Wood was much more than just a talented painter.
"He was an artist working in many different media at the same time," Ulmer explains. Besides Wood's paintings, the gallery has examples of his wood and metal work.
"A true art expression must grow from the soil itself," Wood wrote in 1932. It's, therefore, no surprise that the gallery is illuminated by a grand chandelier Wood created for an Iowa hotel chain. The lights sprout from atop golden ears of corn.
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IF YOU GO
Capturing the essence of Grant Wood's inspiration is best done by spending a couple of days in eastern Iowa.
Grant Wood Art Gallery
Start at the Grant Wood Art Gallery in downtown Anamosa. The gallery reveals the history of Wood's life through photographs, newspaper and magazine clippings, and prints of many of his paintings. A selection of gifts features Wood's portrayals of the surrounding countryside.
The gallery is open from 1 to 4 p.m. seven days a week, year-round. Donations are welcome.
Volunteers such as John and Cecilia Hatcher gladly direct guests to nearby sites associated with Wood. They include Stone City, the village where Wood helped run an artists colony during the Depression. A two-week course cost $15. A room was $2 a week; (319) 462-4267, www.grantwoodartgallery.org.
Cedar Rapids Museum of Art
The Cedar Rapids Museum of Art is open every day except Monday. Admission is $5 for adults; children 18 and under are admitted free; (319) 366-7503, www.crma.org.
The "American Gothic" farmhouse
The backdrop for Wood's famous painting is near Eldon, Iowa, 2 1/2 hours south of Cedar Rapids. The house is mainly used as a backdrop for couples wanting to strike a grumpy pose for a photograph.
Open daily; donations welcome; (641) 652-3352, www.wapellocounty.org/americangothic.
-- Jay Jones