Tuesday, March 20, 2018

My weekend with Grant Wood

Grant Wood, 1941, Figge Art Museum
The goal wasn't to get stuck here in a Grant Wood-related mode for three days, but a couple of interesting (to me) things happened --- so here's a third post. The last I think for the time being.

It started with a Sunday morning post, Grant Wood and the Story of "Sultry Night," about two current retrospective exhibits of the Iowa artist's work and, specifically, the story of a lithograph entitled "Sultry Night," featured in both. The image of a farm hand bathing by moonlight alongside a stock tank is the most graphic work Wood is known to have produced, penis (gasp) clearly evident.

Quite unexpectedly, that post went --- in the modest terms of this obscure blog --- "viral" --- more than 8,000 views before the link I'd posted to an Iowa history-related site was taken down by its administrators the next morning.

By comparison, the usual number of daily views for the blog is somewhere in the upper hundreds, a thousand-plus on a busy day. That total includes hundreds of views related to earlier posts that have turned up among 12 years of posts as browsers "Googled" for information on one topic or another.

That link was shared, then reshared --- which accounts for the total. And it generated quite a few interesting comments --- nearly all of them productive --- on the Facebook page itself, all gone now.

There were four or five mild complaints about the nudity and/or the fact the post referred to Wood's homosexuality and a couple of funny ones (to me) from folks who contended that art was not related to Iowa history. And finally, a little snarkiness developed among commenters and that probably was what doomed the link, although the aforesaid nudity, etc., may have made some of the administrators nervous, too.

But all in all it was a positive experience and I was happy that that so many people still were interested in Grant Wood and his work and gratified that a few, hopefully, are now more familiar with the lithograph in question.

It's always been one of my favorite Grant Wood works --- not because of the nudity but because of the subject matter. It reminds me of my late father.

Just out of high school in the 1930s, depths of the Depression, and wanting to farm but flat broke, Dad started his independent working life as a hand on the Slater farm, south of Russell. The Slater family --- among the most affluent in the Russell area --- consisted at the time of bachelor brother Ray Slater, maiden sister Mary Slater and sister Elba (Slater) Sikes, who ruled the roost.

My dad really liked Ray, with whom he worked daily, but wasn't especially fond of the sisters. Mary taught school in Des Moines, returning to the farm on weekends and during the summer; Elba also lived in Des Moines, but spent a great deal of time at the farm, too. Dad characterized her as a "battle axe."

In any case, Dad was given a bed in the attic of the big Slater house and allowed to eat in the kitchen, but was forbidden to use the bathroom --- and there weren't that many bathrooms around in rural Iowa back in the 1930s. So he used the old outhouse and bathed during the summer, when farm work was hot and sweaty, by moonlight in a stock tank, using a bucket to douse himself, then rinse off.

A wonderful couple who lived just up the road, Lloyd and Bessie May, kind of adopted Dad and saw  to it that he got a couple of good meals during the week and had someone to talk to. And since he had Sundays off, he could go home then (his mother did his laundry).

I'm a fan of much of Grant Wood's work --- especially those images with people in them. He was very good at conveying character and incorporating thought-provoking detail. If you pay attention. And of course he was a far more sophisticated guy than the aw-shucks, bib-overall-clad public persona he sometimes adopted suggests.

To the commenter who asked, "did farm hands really bathe naked like that?" Yup. And "Why didn't that guy turn his back so we didn't see his, you know what?" One of the many marks of a great artist is the ability to catch his or her subjects unaware.

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