Tuesday, October 02, 2012

LGBT History: Iowa & Grant Wood

Gay and lesbian voices from Iowa, or related to our state, almost always (until recently) been edited out or obscured. This is a modest attempt to identify some of those men and women with Iowa links who have spoken through literature, media, the arts and other ways.

WOOD, GRANT: Regionalist painter, arguably Iowa's most famous native son. Grant Wood once said, presumably while clad in the bib-overall uniform he adopted as butch symbolism during later years, that his only good ideas had come while milking cows. That was a lie --- he left the farm before his 10th birthday --- but then so was much of his public persona. Even his art, which has superficial clarity and regionalist majesty, is ambiguous. Until quite recently, his sexual orientation has been edited out of accounts of his life and analyses of his art (see R. Tripp Evans' 2010 Grant Woods: A Life for the exception), piling ambiguity on top of ambiguity.

Born Feb. 13, 1891, near Anamosa, Wood moved into Cedar Rapids with his mother, brothers and sister, Nan, after the death of their husband and father in 1901. He graduated from high school there, then studied art in Minneapolis and Chicago, taught school and worked as a silversmith during the 1920s. During that decade, he also made multiple trips to Europe, dabbling in Impressionism and Post-Impressionism, both of which he later rejected. By 1930, when his masterpiece American Gothic was painted in his Cedar Rapids stuidio against the backdrop of that little house in Eldon, he was firmly in the Midwest Regionalist school, blending affection for the local with parody seasoned with scorn and the realism of the European Northern Renaissance.

At home in in Cedar Rapids until 1935, everyone who knew him there seems also to have known that he was gay, as did the larger art world, but such things could not be spoken of then, certainly not by the artist himself. He helped form the Stone City Art Colony during the Great Depression after joining the University of Iowa Art faculty in 1931 as Iowa director of the Public Works of Art Project. He remained with the university until death, surviving an attempt by fellow art faculty members jealous of his fame and angered by his disdain for modernism to engineer his dismissial by using his homosexuality against him. His own camouflage included those bib overalls, a down-home style (although his affection for down-home people was genuine) and a disastrous and very short-lived marriage to a much older woman.

Wood developed pancreatic cancer complicated by liver problems related to hard drinking and died in Iowa City on Feb. 12, 1942, a day short of his 51st birthday. He is buried in Anamosa's Riverside Cemetery. The conversation  recently has turned to whether or not Wood's artistry would have flowered into genius had he not gone into hiding, in plain sight, in order to live out a life in his native land.

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