Wednesday, July 02, 2008

American Gothic

No, no. Not my cousin, Helen. It's the house. Look at the house behind her. This is the American Gothic House, Eldon's pride and joy, and also the site of a new light-hearted visitor center dedicated to that most-parodied of American paintings, Iowa boy Grant Wood's "American Gothic." Over the last couple of years, it's become one of my favorite places to visit --- and also to show off when visitors turn up on my doorstep.

That's what happened a week ago Sunday when I pulled into the driveway in Chariton to find my way blocked by Helen's substantial white van with Utah license plates. At 86, she's terrifying her daughters again by roaming the country during the summer all by herself. She had made her way to Iowa through Colorado, Kansas and a corner of Missouri in a week; headed deep into Missouri on Tuesday; then moved on to Indiana and Ohio. Before summer's done, she also plans forays into Idaho, Washington and Oregon. Whew!

We headed downriver from Ottumwa on Monday because I wanted to inspect flood damage (moderate when compared to Cedar Rapids, Iowa City and elsewhere, but bad enough) and have lunch at the Bonaparte Retreat in Bonaparte, where I like to grab a window seat and watch the river roll by (and also like the food and the atmosphere, both served up on the main floor of an historic old mill).

Eldon is about half way down Highway 16 between Agency and Iowaville, right beside the Des Moines River, and sandbags still flanked the road at the lowest spot along main street. All the lights in town went out as we drove up the bridge from the Floris side of the river, but I don't think that had anything to do with us. It did make the stop at Casey's General Store for gas pointless, however, since the pumps weren't pumping.

The American Gothic House (and the American Gothic House Center just southwest of it) are located in a high and dry spot in southeast Eldon that's a challenge to find unless (a) you know where you're going or (b) start watching carefully for signs pointing the way just south of the main part of the business district.

Although the house is owned by Iowa's State Historical Society (it is not open to tourists by the way; too small, too fragile and its exterior is the point of this whole exericse anyway), the visitor center is a collaborative effort of the people of Eldon and the Wapello County Conservation Board, which administers it.

Grant Wood came to Eldon in the high summer of 1930 along with others, including Eldon native John Sharp, another talented artist who later moved to the East (and died during 1966 in West Palm Beach, Fla.).

Edward Rowan, director of the Little Gallery in Cedar Rapids, had obtained grant funding that year to experiment with promoting the arts in smaller Iowa towns and picked Eldon, where he rented a house to be used for exhibitions and classes. Wood and Sharp came along for the ride.

Wood reportedly spotted the house while on a tour of the town with John and was amused by the elaborate gothic window under the peaked roof of the simple cottage with board-and-batten siding. He painted it quickly then, and returned home to Cedar Rapids as what became "American Gothic" formed in his head.

The models for the dour couple he placed in front of it were his sister, Nan, and the family dentist, Dr. McKeeby. The house, Nan Wood and Dr. McKeeby at no point posed together --- but were assembled in the mind of the artist. And the rest is history. The original of "American Gothic" is in the collection of the Art Institute of Chicago.

Visit the visitor center and you'll enter a foyer with a large display room to the left. It's lots of fun, but also represents serious scholarship. The highly professional displays focus on Wood, Sharp, the regional school of artists to which they belonged, the painting and parodies. It's just a delight. There's also a small theater where you can watch a video and, across the north end of the building, a great little shop (I came away this time with an "American Gothic" mouse pad and a copy of Steven Biel's book, "American Gothic").

If you like, you can also borrow overalls, an apron and a pitchfork, then head outside for your own "American Gothic" portrait in front of the house.

Want to know more? You'll find the American Gothic Center's excellent Web site here.


Ed Abbey said...

You were practically near my backdoor with this trip. I really love the brined pork chops at the Bonoparte Retreat. I haven't been down to it since the flooding but I heard the water got up to the back door. It must have been spared if it is already open for business. I too have the Gothic House on my list of where to take people on the spur of the moment. The only ones who really didn't appreciate it fully were some Kiwis who had never heard of the painting or Grand Wood.

Frank D. Myers said...

The river surely came close. I walked down the stairs from the Retreat's deck to the riverside and you could see the water line a couple of feet away from the base of the steps in the grass. The stub of an old mill next door, right next to the bridge, had had water in its basement; and it looked like everything on the south side of the street east of the bridge had gotten a good dose of water, too. But there were still sandbags up and down the middle of the street east of the bridge, so couldn't check for sure. If you go that direction any time soon, for heaven's sake take bug repellant. We were nearly eaten alive at Eldon and in the Iowaville Cemetery, but things improved downstream. Upstream from Bonaparte at Bentonsport, they were happy at the Greef Store because water had only gotten half way across the street toward them and it looked like the Mason House was dry behind a sandbag barrier. The park, of course, went under --- as did the old mill foundations north of the bridge.