An electric chandelier hangs in a small gallery at the Cedar Rapids Museum of Art. It looks like other chandeliers, except the branches are curved cornstalks and the flame-shaped bulbs rise from the pointy ends of eight life-size Iowa ears of corn. Each of the ears — which look a little singed, as if roasted — stands in a ring of eight droopy little leaves. Above, on the main stalk, between large, bending leaves, four young ears peep out brightly.
This elaborate copper-and-iron light fixture was designed in 1925-26 for the Iowa Corn Room at the Montrose Hotel in Cedar Rapids. A few years later, its creator, Grant Wood, painted a double-portrait of his sister and his dentist, holding a pitchfork, with a wood-frame farmhouse behind them.
In 1930, that painting, “American Gothic,” won third prize at the Art Institute of Chicago, which bought it. Did anyone imagine it would become the one work in the museum’s collection known by every adult in America (or darn near, as they say on the farm)?
Grant Wood’s 124th birthday would be Feb. 13. (He died from pancreatic cancer in 1942, one day short of 51.) He has been called “American art’s most famous one-hit wonder,” but in fact he’s an artist and a craftsman — a student of Ernest Batchelder in Minneapolis — who gets more interesting the more you see of his work.
And the place to do that is Iowa.
First, let’s get the house out of the picture. At the American Gothic House Center (free; 1-641-652-3352; americangothichouse.net) in Eldon, about 120 miles southwest of Cedar Rapids, they’ll give you the clothes and the pitchfork to re-create the pose of those two sourpusses. On the second Saturday of the month, April to October, tours inside the house will be offered for the first time. Visit June 12-14 for American Gothic Days.
The best cities for viewing Grant Wood’s art are Cedar Rapids and Davenport, 90 minutes apart, if that.
Wood’s most monumental work fills the front wall of the Veterans Memorial Building in Cedar Rapids. A stained-glass window 24 feet high and 20 feet wide, it depicts the Republic as a Greek goddess holding the palm of victory and the wreath of peace. Below, their hats and helmets reaching the height of her sandaled feet, are six soldiers, representing six American wars from the Revolutionary War to World War I.
Beautifully detailed drawings of two of the soldiers are on view at the Cedar Rapids Museum of Art — along with 10 paintings, including the moving portrait of his mother, “Woman With Plants,” and other works ($5; 1-319-366-7503; www.crma.org).
The window itself, by Emil Frei Art Glass of St. Louis (still in business), was fabricated in Munich, which Wood visited with Frei in 1928. The Northern Renaissance paintings he encountered there were to transform his style from one of loose brushwork — like that of the Impressionists — to one of hard edges and fine detail.
The local Daughters of the American Revolution chapter raised a ruckus over having a memorial to U.S. veterans made in a former enemy country. Wood took revenge in an openly satirical painting, “Daughters of Revolution,” now in Cincinnati. A charcoal study is in the Stewart Memorial Library at Coe College in Cedar Rapids.
The library is something of a museum with bookshelves, also displaying the half-charming, half-creepy “Fruits of Iowa” murals Wood painted for the Montrose Hotel coffee shop and works by other artists, including Wood’s buddy, longtime faculty member Marvin Cone. A group of photographs shows Wood and Cone in overalls, pretending to be farmer-painters at the Stone City summer art colony (library.coe.edu).
A fourth Grant Wood site in Cedar Rapids, his studio, was in a former carriage-house hayloft behind a funeral home. Wood lived in this theater-set-like space from 1924 to 1935 with his mother and — until she married — his sister, Nan. Owned by the art museum, the Grant Wood Studio and Armstrong Visitor Center are open to the public on weekends, April to December.
When Nan Wood Graham died in 1990, a trove of her brother’s art and personal effects went to the Davenport Municipal Art Gallery, which reopened in 2005 in a striking, Mississippi River-facing building as the Figge Art Museum ($7; 1-563-326-7804; figgeartmuseum.org).
The devastating floods of June 2008 that forced the University of Iowa Museum of Art to close (a new museum is planned on higher ground) hit Cedar Rapids, too. The National Czech and Slovak Museum and Library ($10; 1-319-362-8500; www.ncsml.org) reopened in 2012 after moving the entire 1,500-ton structure and tripling in size.
Down the hill from the museum is a block of shops and bars called Czech Village. Across the Cedar River, amid open lots where homes once stood, is the New Bohemia neighborhood, rebranded as NewBo — more bohemian than Bohemian.
Grant Wood, who followed his own creative path in a then-conservative city, would have been pleased.
In Cedar Rapids: Popoli (1-319-363-1248; popolicr.com) is named — in Italian — for the restored 1911 People’s Bank building, designed by Louis Sullivan, that it occupies. In NewBo, Bata’s (1-319-261-2355; batasrestaurant.com) serves Midwestern and international comfort food. In Czech Village, try Village Meat Market and Café (1-319-265-6328; villagemeatmarketcafe.com). In Davenport: To experience the retro-trendy Hotel Blackhawk, stop at Bix Bistro (1-563-484-5900; www.hotelblackhawk.com). Downtown Central Perk (1-563-324-9560; www.downtowncentralperk.net) is a coffee shop, juice bar and vegetarian restaurant.
In Cedar Rapids: Sleep in a carriage house the way Grant Wood did at Belmont Hill Victorian Bed and Breakfast (1-319-366-1343; belmonthill.com), hidden in a residential neighborhood. The Hotel at Kirkwood Center (1-319-848-8700; www.thehotelatkirkwood.com), near Eastern Iowa Airport, is a sleek property built for Kirkwood Community College’s hospitality programs. In Davenport: The Hotel Blackhawk (1-563-322-5000; www.hotelblackhawk.com) and the Radisson Quad City Plaza (1-563-322-2200; www.radisson.com/davenport) are top downtown choices.
Terry Robe is a freelance writer on travel and the arts based in Washington, D.C.