Grant Wood’s Studio, a place of inspiration and work

Sean Ulmer, Executive Director of the Cedar Rapids Museum took time to show my mom and me around Grant Wood’s fascinating Studio during our visit to Cedar Rapids. Here on a press trip for an article about art in Cedar Rapids, for Senior News & Times, the Grant Wood studio was on our radar.

The property served as both Grant Wood’s home and studio from 1924 to 1935. Located at 5 Turner Alley, the studio is owned and operated by the Cedar Rapids Museum of Art. “Wood produced his major works of art here and developed his mature style of Regionalism,” Sean Ulmer explained. “We acquired the property in 2002 as a gift, and then worked preparing for a show (about Grant Wood) in 2005. We opened in 2004.”studio

The lower level of what was a carriage house is now the visitor’s center and the upper level is where the studio was located.

Wood is a native Iowan. Born in Anamosa, Iowa in 1891on the family farm, after his father’s death, the family moved to Cedar Rapids when Wood was ten. Wood’s talent was clear early on in grade school. While in high school he designed sets for plays and illustrated student publications. After graduating in 1910, he attended the Minneapolis School of Design and Handicraft.

A tour of the studio shows off some of his skills besides painting. He learned to work with metal and jewelry as well as build furniture. When he moved to Chicago in 1913, he used these skills to make a living while also taking correspondence classes at the Chicago Art Institute. Grant Wood returned to Cedar Rapids in 1916 when his mother became ill. To make ends meet, he took a job as a grammar school teacher to support her and his sister Nan.

Sean Ulmer explained the timeline of the home and the carriage house. The studio is located next to what was once a former mansion and funeral parlor. “George B. Douglas’ father was one of the founders of Quaker Oats, while he founded the Douglas Starch Works. A few years later, construction begins on the Douglas’ new residence and carriage house. The architect’s identity is not known. In 1906 George B. Douglas completes a deal with Caroline Sinclair, owner of Brucemore, to exchange the Douglas mansion for the Brucemore mansion. The Sinclair family eventually moves into 800 Second Avenue. At some point during their tenure here, the Sinclairs have the entire carriage house moved about 40 feet to the east. “

Later in my visit at Cedar Rapids I learned that Wood had completed a wonderful sleeping porch at the Brucemore the mansion that George Douglas traded with Caroline Sinclair. That room is now considered a truly valuable piece of art. During our stay, I found references to Grant Wood almost everywhere we visited in Cedar Rapids!

Sean continued with the studio chronology, “In 1923 John B. Turner, who established his mortuary business in 1888, and his son David Turner acquire the property from the Sinclairs and being the process of converting it into Turner Mortuary. It opens to the public in 1924 and The Gazette reports Grant Wood “was responsible for the decorating and furnishing of the interior, and the landscaping of the grounds. He not only personally supervised the work, but also did much of it himself.” Wood also designed the iron gates at the front entrance. The brick barn in the rear of the property was converted into a “modern garage, with space for six cars.” It was in 1924 at the suggestion of the Turners that Grant Wood begins to build a studio and residence above the garage. The ability to live rent-free means Wood can eventually give up teaching his job at McKinley High School.”

In this picture, Wood poses as he often did in bib overalls.
In this picture, Wood poses as he often did in bib overalls.

“Grant Wood realized a few modifications to the space and he both lived and worked there. He moved in 1925,” Sean said,” and brought his mother and sometimes his sister who had a unique marriage.”

Wood’s sister Nan served many times as a model in his paintings. The modifications he made to the space are nothing short of amazing. He added a fireplace for heat and used an upside down metal basket as the fireplace hood. The carriage house had a very cool cupola that added wonderful natural light for Grant Wood to paint by. The studio is set up like it was (except for a few changes made after he moved out) when he lived there.fireplace

He built a bathroom, shelves and made his own metal handles. He even designed a lovely metal punch work offering visitors a view of how broad a spectrum Wood’s talent ran. “Grant usually painted on Masonite,” Sean said pointing to replicas of some of his greatest works on display.punch work

While living at the studio, he created his most famous painting, American Gothic, which shows a farmer (modeled after Wood’s dentist) and a woman who is either his wife or daughter (modeled after Wood’s sister) standing stoically in front of a white farmhouse.  Other representative works of the style that Sean referred to as Regionalism, include Woman With Plants (1929) where his mother was the model, The Appraisal (1931) and Daughters of Revolution (1932).

“We have the world’s largest collection of his paintings,” Sean said talking about the wonderful exhibit at the Cedar Rapid’s Art Museum.

Besides his art, Grant Wood was responsible for starting the local community theater. The Community Players produce their first play before a tiny audience in Grant Wood’s studio. This group later became the Theatre Cedar Rapids. It was in 1935 after John B. Turner died at the age of 74 that Grant Wood moved out. Earlier that year he had married Sarah Maxon, a singer. They would later divorce in 1939. The couple and Grant Wood’s mother all moved to Iowa City.

While in Cedar Rapids, Grant Wood was looked on as the honored son, but life was a bit more challenging in Iowa City where he taught art at the University of Iowa. He was not treated well by his fellow professors who looked down on Wood for his lack of academic credentials. “He was on the lecture circuits as the voice of Regionalism. He was embraced by Hollywood, but 1935 to 1942 was not the happiest times, he had a lot of turmoil.”

While the output was not as high, while in Iowa, Wood created the paintings Death on Ridge Road (1935), Parson Weems’ Fable (1939) and Iowa Cornfield (1941).  Sadly he died at a young age of cancer.  He passed away on February 12, 1942, at age 50, and was buried on his family’s plot in Anamosa.

The studio is a great way to see the varied talents that Grant Wood had turning a carriage house loft into a working studio and home. The studio also offers a view first hand his devotion to his family where he made room for his mother and at times his sister in this cramped space.

Visitors can see the Grant Wood Studio Saturdays and Sundays April – December from 12-4, or they call for appointments. “We are open 9 months of the year on weekends and the tour is free of charge,” Sean said.

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