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Grant Wood Studio Spare but Full of History PDF Print E-mail
News/Features - Arts News
Written by Johanna Welzenbach-Hilliard   
Tuesday, 18 January 2005 18:00
A small brick building, crowned with a chipped and peeling white painted cupola, sits at the back of the Turner Funeral Home parking lot in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. At first glance, one mistakes it for a large garage with an apartment overtop.

This isn’t far from the truth. Up until four years ago, that’s exactly what it was. Now this building is the restored studio of Iowa artist Grant Wood, where he painted his most famous picture, American Gothic. Unfortunately, there is no signage to indicate the nature of the building.

Once a carriage house for the Douglas Mansion, in 1920 the structure housed hearses for the Turner Funeral Home, owned by John Turner and his son David. At that time Wood was working for Sullivan Builders as an interior designer, and he was called upon to use his skill to transform the mansion into a funeral home. His original design features can still be seen there. The Turners, already collectors of Wood’s paintings, so admired his talents that they offered him the hayloft above the hearse garage to be converted into a studio. The artist happily embraced the idea and turned the hayloft into an efficient, cozy, bright, and airy art studio cum apartment.

Grant Wood occupied this studio for a decade, from 1924 until 1934. Other paintings done in this time period include: Woman with Plant, 1929, which is currently on display at the Cedar Rapids Museum of Art; The Night Ride of Paul Revere, 1931; Daughters of the Revolution, 1932; and Dinner for Threshers, 1934.

Up close the studio is an unassuming structure. The exterior looks old and weathered, and not very well preserved. The upstairs interior, however, is quaint and imbued with a sense of history and love. The ground floor, which was once the garage, has been completely refurbished by the Cedar Rapids Museum of Art. A new, slate-gray concrete floor was poured, and where a supporting wall had once been removed, the building has been shored up to prevent it collapsing. The ducting has been redone, and new, modern lamps hang from the ceiling. All vestiges of the garage, save its huge door, have been erased.

Grant’s former living quarters are reached by a steel stairway on the side of the building. Inside, one is then led up another flight of stairs. These are old, wooden and a little rickety. Unfortunately, the studio cannot be made wheelchair accessible.

My first impression upon entering the famed studio was not one of awe, but rather: “Is this all?” It is empty except for the original furnishings made by Grant Wood himself: a built-in table and benches, roll-away beds, large rolling casements in which he stored his paintings and art supplies, a few iron lamps, and galvanized sheet-metal radiator covers cut out with an eagle design.

The floor is made of sturdy wood planks hammered with large wood nails, and the ceiling and walls are whitewashed. The original iron window casements and small fireplace are still there. Brown, white, and black are the only colors found throughout the entire studio, which might explain my subdued reaction. Also, except for one small oil painting and the radiator covers, there are no embellishments, decorations, or pieces of art anywhere. The curators did provide one easel and two old leather chests that had once inhabited the abode.

It took me a few moments to overcome my initial disappointment and get into the feeling of the place. Once our guide started giving us the history and telling us anecdotes, the studio began to take on a special charm. Wood was inspired to paint here because of the cupola, which provides much light in the center of the studio. With windows on every side and the skylight overhead, even on a gray day the room is bright and cheerful.

My favorite story is the one about Grant Wood and the amateur theatrical company, of which he was a member, performing plays in the studio. That same amateur company became what is known today as the Theatre Cedar Rapids (TCR). In fact, the director of TCR, J. David Carey, and his wife had the privilege of living in the studio for 13 years. One of the conditions of living there was that they not alter the structure or furnishings in any way, with the exception of installing one window air-conditioning unit to alleviate the sweltering heat.

Due to its historic value, the Cedar Rapids Museum of Art has had control over the studio’s interior since the 1960s. The museum received full ownership of the studio in 2002.

Even though I have a vivid imagination, I would still liked to have seen some props to liven up the studio. I even asked the facilities manager, Carlas Faurot, who was kind enough to show us around, if they intended to display art work and art supplies, put some period pieces in the kitchen, put a vase of flowers on the table – anything to add color and texture. He answered that the purpose of the studio is informational, not exhibitional. Because the studio is not climate-controlled the museum cannot exhibit Wood’s original paintings there.

Even so, I countered, couldn’t you put up some posters, lay some paints and brushes on the easel to make it look like it’s being used? What would a coffee cup hurt to give the place some ambience, make it look alive? He shook his head but did concede that they would be displaying black-and-white photographs of how the studio looked while Wood occupied it. Black and white? The problem here is that it needs some color!

As the Cedar Rapids Museum of Art is charging $5 general admission, and $3 for students and seniors, I feel they should offer more than a “tour.” One does not tour the studio; one stands in it and looks around. It would just be more fun if there were more to look at.

The studio is open to the public on Saturdays and Sundays and also by appointment. For more information, call the Cedar Rapids Museum of Art at (319) 366-7503 or visit (http://www.grantwoodstudio.org).
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