An artsy side of Iowa

Explore art, history, culture, food and drink in Cedar Rapids, now celebrating the 125th birth anniversary of the man behind American Gothic

Life-size statues of the famous couple from Grant Wood’s painting, American Gothic, were created in honor of his 125th birth anniversary. Photo courtesy of Go Cedar Rapids
Life-size statues of the famous couple from Grant Wood’s painting, American Gothic, were created in honor of his 125th birth anniversary. Photo courtesy of Go Cedar Rapids

The stoic Iowa farmer with the pitchfork, the lady in the apron — it’s close to the most-recognized painting in the whole wide world. (It’s actually No. 2, second only to Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa.)

That iconic image, American Gothic, was painted by Iowa native Grant Wood in his Cedar Rapids studio in 1930.

26 life-size versions of the famous couple popped up all over town as part of an exhibit last summer called Overalls All Over: A Grant Wood Experience.

It won third place in the Art Institute of Chicago’s contest that year, and there it resides today. But everything else about Grant Wood belongs to Cedar Rapids — about 4 hours southeast of Minneapolis by car — where his 125th birth anniversary is being hailed all around town.

Like Dorothy, the artist discovered there’s no place like home. After studying at our own MCAD (Minneapolis College of Art and Design) and a stint in France absorbing the Impressionists’ style, he returned to Cedar Rapids to paint what he knew and loved best — those rolling hills dotted with popcorn trees and earnest portraits of the locals.

In an irreverent birthday salute, 26 life-size versions of the famous couple popped up all over town as part of an exhibit last summer called Overalls All Over: A Grant Wood Experience — Warhol-lookalikes Andy & Edie; urban hipsters with their lattes; a General Mills-sponsored Gothic Spoonful duo, to name a few.

Cedar Rapids’ National Czech & Slovak Museum includes colorful embroidered costumes. Photos courtesy of Go Cedar Rapids

Celebrate Grant Wood

Inside the Cedar Rapids Museum of Art you’ll find the real deal — the world’s largest collection of the artist’s work (300 pieces!), which hail his skills as a carpenter and metalworker, too. There’s even a corncob chandelier and a bench produced by students in the high-school woodworking class he taught. It sat outside the principal’s office inscribed with the admonishment: “The Way of the Transgressor is Hard.”

But it’s the paintings that cause your jaw to drop — Woman with Plant (his mom in 1929) and landscapes like Young Corn of 1931 with its corrugated rows.

Also the works of his BFF, fellow painter, Marvin Cone, the kid who’d come by the local Carnegie Library where a teenage Grant would sleep to guard its artworks. Marvin would toss pebbles at the window and yell, “Wake up, Grant! We’ve got to go to school.”

A few blocks away stands Grant’s miniscule loft apartment-turned-studio (Grant Wood Studio and Visitors Center), which he designed in a sort of Surrealism-meets-Frank-Lloyd-Wright style with curvy walls and built-ins (but no stove, only a hot plate).

He shared the digs with his mother and his sister, Nan, his frequent models. (Nan is his gothic farmwife.) A docent, who was standing nearby on my visit, was eager to share a naughty story about his get-even-with-Conservatives painting of the ladies of the D.A.R. (You can giggle at a copy of his Daughters of Revolution at our own Black Forest Inn in Minneapolis.)

Grant’s front door, fashioned from a coffin lid, flaunts a clock-face dial that indicates his whereabouts — taking a bath, throwing a party, etc.

Brucemore estate tours cover a century of Cedar Rapids history through the lives of the three families who called the mansion home.

Brucemore tours

Only a mile and a half up the road is Brucemore estate with its Queen Anne mansion, also open for tours.

Here, after retiring from teaching to pursue art age 35, Grant was hired to decorate a sleeping porch for the family’s daughter — a bower of plaster-relief roses and forest creatures for which, in 1924, he was paid $182 (currently worth: $3.5 million).

A highlight — or lowlight — of the gorgeous mansion is a man-cave in the basement called the Tahitian Room, an exuberantly tacky homage climaxing in a rain wall. And where other manly men might keep only a hunting dog, one of the home’s former residents, Howard Hall, kept a lion as a pet — and not just any lion, but the one from the MGM logo.

Hall — who clearly had connections — was allowed to visit the set while Gone with the Wind was being filmed, and to bring his home movie camera.

Today in the visitors center you can see the resulting footage, capturing Clark Gable sneaking a smoke and Olivia de Havilland touching up her lipstick.

Off the beaten path

Speaking of movies, a gorgeous downtown movie palace of 1928 has been restored as home of Theatre Cedar Rapids, where Wood was a founding member. Nearby, the Paramount — another ultra-Deco beauty — also has been reclaimed to host musical performances. Continue to the pretty campus of Coe College, whose library sports a mini-museum of works by Marvin Cone, who established its Art Department in 1934.

You’ll also find Wood’s portrait of Cone as well as Wood’s seven immense mural figures, originally painted to decorate a coffee shop. (Yes, that’s Mrs. Cone posing as a farmwife.) In the library, check out works by Picasso and Matisse.

At the Iowa Masonic Library, cut a path through its collections, donated by eccentric hobbyists, to gaze at Wood’s The First Three Degrees of Freemasonry of 1921.

And do not miss the Veterans Memorial Building, where Wood lobbied to create an immense stained glass window depicting six soldiers — one for each American war — including the shirtless figure representing 1812, rumored to be Wood’s boyfriend.

The artist had never worked in glass before, but sped off to Munich for a crash course, which irked Cedar Rapids’ citizens no end — like sleeping with the enemy so close to the end of World War I.

SAMSUNG Raygun peddles its own snarky, sometimes political, T-shirts and other gifts in Cedar Rapids. Photos courtesy of Go Cedar Rapids

Czech Village

Of course, there’s more to life in Cedar Rapids than the works of Mr. Wood.

Take the Czech Village, for starters, anchored by the National Czech & Slovak Museum, with its Immigrant House of the 1880s, complete with an accordion, gas lamps and an enameled dishpan. Continue to the museum’s Freedom exhibit, where figures of the 19th and 20th centuries “speak” of why they fled here (serfdom, then a Communist dictatorship).

The story of the Czech and Slovak people is told from the ninth century onward, climaxing in a vivid flurry of embroidered costumes and a collection of stylish blown glass, a favorite Czech art form.

The surrounding village boasts a treasury of bakeries (think kolaches), antiques shops and the Lion Bridge Brewing Company (tour, sip and eat).

NewBo City Market — housed in a revamped industrial building in Cedar Rapids — is where locals serve up homegrown foods, art and events.

Cross the iconic Lion Bridge to NewBo, aka New Bohemia, and its meeting place, the NewBo covered market, built during a rehab after the city’s disastrous 2008 flood and today also hosting free gatherings such as yoga classes and bike crawls.

Across the street, a bookstore rests under a performance space and, beside it, Brewhemia, an artist-forward coffeehouse (featuring breakfast bonanzas like cinnamon rolls far too big to be legal).

Nearby is Raygun, a retail space sporting snarky designs for mugs, towels and T-shirts with bold slogans like “Cedar Rapids: More Than Just Sex Appeal” and “Listened to NPR Before It
Was Cool.”

Lion Bridge Brewing Company in Cedar Rapids’ Czech Village sells small-batch beers and pub-style fare.

Where to eat

Start munching at The Class Act in the design-y Kirkwood Hotel, starring scallops paired with bulgur salad and tomato, preceding bacon-wrapped rabbit; duck breast with parsnip puree and pickled cherries; or deconstructed pot pie.

Head to White Star Ale House for brews galore, abetted by entrees featuring the kind of pork (shank, chop) that put Iowa on the map.

And don’t miss a breakfast at the ultimate diner, Riley’s Café, famed for eggs-plus-meat-plus-biscuits-plus more, with waitresses that call you “Baby” and keep the coffee coming.

Obama ate here in 2012 and signed the wall to prove it.

Carla Waldemar is an award-winning food/travel/arts writer. She edits the annual Zagat Survey of Twin Cities restaurants and writes food and travel articles for publications around the world. She lives in Uptown.