Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Orr C. Fisher's superlative "The Corn Parade"


Ray Meyer and I made a quick trip to Mt. Ayr Monday afternoon to look at sidewalks --- a story for another day.

The sidewalks --- and other "streetscape" improvements made to the town square 2007-2012 --- are great, but no one should visit Mt. Ayr without a stop at the post office to view hometown artist Orr C. Fisher's magnificent 1941 painting,  The Corn Parade, which hangs high on the east wall of the Mt. Ayr Post Office.

Witty, colorful, beautifully executed --- this has to be one of the best pieces of public art in the south of Iowa.

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The Corn Parade was one of two New Deal-era paintings by Fisher, both commissioned by the U.S. Treasury Department's Section of Fine Arts for Iowa post offices. Often called WPA murals, Orr's painting is oil on canvas (his favorite medium), not a mural, and it isn't exactly WPA either.


The Section of Fine Arts was tasked with commissioning and/or acquiring --- when funding was available --- high quality art to decorate the nation's public buildings.

Fisher's other New Deal-era painting hangs in the Forest City Post Office --- and for a number of years in another life I looked at it almost daily when picking up the mail. It's a good work, but pales a little in comparison to his work in Mt. Ayr.

Both the Mt. Ayr and Forest city post office buildings were brand new in 1941. I believe he was paid $750 for the Mt. Ayr work --- and reportedly used the money to buy a new car.

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Orr was born on a farm near Delphos, also in Ringgold County, during 1885, and he lived for art --- literally --- for nearly 90 years. After his moderately affluent parents retired from farming and built a new house in Mt. Ayr, he moved into town with them --- and although he worked, traveled and painted from one end of the United States to the other --- Ringgold County was his home base until after the 1944 death of his mother.

He attended Drake University and during his time there had the opportunity to work with cartoonist J.N. "Ding" Darling, but formal training came during two stints, one during 1913 and the other in 1921 at the Cumming School of Art in Des Moines as well as through correspondence courses in drawing, cartooning, design and illustration.

He worked for a time as a young man in Wyoming, driving a six-horse freight wagon between Rock Springs and Boulder, and also was employed by the Rock Island Railroad, headquartered at Allerton.

But wherever he lived and worked --- and that included both the east and west coasts --- he painted, joined artist associations and colonies, sold his works when he could, then painted more. He was extremely prolific although a majority of his works lack the distinctive nature of his Mt. Ayr and Forest City works.

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During early 1974, when he was nearing 90, Orr thought often of returning home to Mt. Ayr from Fresno, California, where he was living at the time. If a suitable location could be found, he offered to donate all of the works then in his hands to Mt. Ayr and move back himself.

But before that idea could get off the ground, he became seriously ill and died in Fresno on Aug. 26 of that year.

Orr, who kept his private life private, neither married nor had children. Instead, his possessions were inherited by a niece, Donna Howard, who lived in Oregon. Upon her death during 2014, she willed some 75 of Orr's paintings and 200 or so drawings and cartoons --- and many other items --- to Iowa State University. 

Iowa State distributed some of the art to interested institutions in Iowa --- including the Mt. Ayr Public Library, Ringgold County Extension and Ringgold County museums --- but the bulk of the collection was sold to the public during October of 2015 as a fund-raiser to benefit care and conservation of the University's art collection.


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