University of Iowa plans art colony at Grant Wood home

Grant Wood's masterpiece 'American Gothic.'  Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

Grant Wood’s masterpiece ‘American Gothic.’ Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

IOWA CITY, Iowa (AP) – After American Gothic artist Grant Wood joined the University of Iowa faculty, he moved into an old Iowa City house in 1935. He completed an array of artwork in the home and a barn he turned into a studio before his death seven years later. And he surrounded himself with other artists and visitors, such as the writer Carl Sandburg.

The university has announced plans to allow future generations of artists to follow in Wood’s footsteps by turning the home into the centerpiece of an art colony where painters, printmakers and others will live, work and exchange ideas. Backers of the project envision a cultural hub that will keep Wood’s legacy alive and inspire contemporary artists.

“In a way, this represents the University of Iowa and the School of Art and Art History welcoming Grant Wood back into its fold after 70 years,” said John Beldon Scott, director of the School of Art and Art History. “He died in the early 1940s, but we’re bringing him back to be with us now through this living legacy.”

The plan comes amid renewed scholarly interest in Wood, who died at age 50 in 1942. His work is known for capturing the essence of the Midwest, and his American Gothic portraying a farm family is one of the most recognized paintings in the world.

The art colony is largely owed to the vision and generosity of Iowa City attorney Jim Hayes, who has lived in Wood’s former home since 1975. After Wood died, his sister Nan Wood Graham (the model for the woman portrayed in American Gothic) became the executor of his estate and sold the home to a local doctor. Hayes rented a loft in the old barn that Wood used as a studio before buying the home when the doctor moved.

Hayes, 73, didn’t initially know much about Wood but grew incredibly fond of him as years passed. He notes that Wood made one of his famous oil paintings in his bedroom.

Hayes agreed years ago to donate the property to the university when he died. Since the 1970s, Hayes has slowly bought up adjacent homes that he rented out to students. After he acquired a fourth home two years ago, he and university officials came up with the plan for the colony. The concept harkens back to the Stone City Art Colony that Wood and others founded in the 1930s, in which aspiring artists camped out in wagons in a picturesque area near Anamosa in eastern Iowa during two summers.

The university started an annual program this year to award two post-doctoral fellowships—one in painting and one in printmaking—giving artists a stipend and allowing them to live in one of the homes while they teach classes and hone their craft. Hayes will continue living in the Wood house, but when he moves out it will be used as a cultural center and a place where the university can hold events and host visiting dignitaries. The homes will be connected by gardens and green space, and one or more art studios could also be built on site.

Scott said the goal is to expand the number of fellowships to six or seven in the coming years, and the university is raising money toward that end. Reflecting Wood’s wide-ranging interests, the fellowships could eventually be offered to creative writers, theatrical performers, musicians and other disciplines.

“I think it’s just going to be a great thing for the university, the city, the neighborhood,” Hayes said. “Grant Wood was quite an amazing guy. He’s a great selling point for the university and for Iowa. People just know his works and we’re fortunate that he painted and lived here in Iowa City.”

Scott said the fellowships are prestigious and competitive: more than 150 people have applied for the two spots next year. He said they give artists a chance to launch careers and get teaching experience at a major art school. Ultimately, he said, the colony would inspire the production of contemporary artwork—something Wood tried to accomplish at Stone City.

Hayes said Wood used limestone from the Stone City quarry to build a wall at his Iowa City home. Hayes is planning to use the same material in a series of fences and walls that will join the homes together.

“I’m just ever so pleased that the university is involved right now so that I can see this develop in my lifetime,” he said. “That is pretty cool.”

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Grant Wood's masterpiece 'American Gothic.'  Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

Grant Wood’s masterpiece ‘American Gothic.’ Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons.