The Grant Wood Tour of Iowa: Part I

I started my Grant Wood tour on Thursday with two main goals: Visit the God Bless America sculpture inspired by Wood’s famous American Gothic painting at the Dubuque Museum of Art and tour the Grant Wood Studio at the Cedar Rapids Museum of Art. I also wanted to view the Grant Wood collections at both museums.

What I learned was A) there is way more Grant Wood art and history in Iowa than I ever knew about, B) there is too much Grant Wood art and history in Iowa to do in just one day, and C) the Grant Wood Studio isn’t open on Thursdays.

I also found that it was hard to stick to the task at hand, what with all the distractions along the way.

My first distraction occurred while I was driving along Hwy. 20. As I neared Waterloo, I saw a sign for La Porte City. My stomach rumbled. La Porte City, according to a friend who lives there, is home to a shop that creates donuts of unrivaled deliciousness. I hadn’t eaten breakfast. Why not? I drove south nine miles to the small town and hoped I could find the donut shop.

It wasn’t difficult. I turned down the town’s main street and, sure enough, there was the La Porte City Bakery. I parked out front, went in, and ordered two donuts (one for breakfast and one just in case I got hungry later). The total for a yeasty sugar donut and a huge cinnamon twist? $1.35. Such a bargain. And the cinnamon twist was perhaps the most delicious thing I ever ate in my whole life.

Back on Hwy. 20, I managed to stay on task all the way to Dubuque, although I briefly considered veering off at Dyersville to visit the famous Field of Dreams.

Dubuque is a Mississippi River town that has so many charming characteristics and things to do that it was hard for me to drive straight to the art museum. There’s the National Mississippi River Museum and Aquarium and the Cable Car Square with its Fenelon Elevator (all of which I’ve done in the past), plus the Mines of Spain Recreation Area, which sounds very exotic. I stayed focused, however, and drove straight to the Museum of Art (7th and Locust).

Standing next to the museum is Seward Johnson’s God Bless America, a 25-foot sculpture that’s been on display in Chicago and Mesa, Ariz., among other places. I saw it in Chicago but was eager to see it again in Iowa, where it belongs. It seemed very out of place on Michigan Avenue.

The sculpture of the iconic American Gothic painting does seem quite at home in Dubuque, but if you want to see it there, go soon. Its exhibition ends Sept. 1. Unlike many of the parodies of the famous painting, God Bless America does not attempt to satirize Wood’s art but rather enlarges and adds dimension to it. The sculpture shows the famous couple full-length with a large suitcase at their feet. I think it’s wonderful.

Inside the museum (admission: free) there’s a small but quite nice collection of Grant Wood paintings, some created in Europe prior to the adoption of his well-known American Regionalist style. The museum is small but has a few other holdings, including current exhibits by Edward S. Curtis (images of North American Indian children), Jiawei Gong (“Celestial Writings”), and 9/11 quilts.

After touring the museum, I couldn’t help but walk around the downtown area with its great old river-town architecture. It’s really delightful.

Back in the car, I headed on Hwy. 151 toward Cedar Rapids. Along the way, I couldn’t help but stop in Anamosa and take a look at the spectacular architecture of the state penitentiary there. Known as the “White Palace of the West,” construction of the structure began in 1873 with the dolomite stone quarried at nearby Stone City. The building is on the National Register of Historic Places. It’s a real beauty.

I attempted to take a further detour and tour the Penitentiary Museum, but it wasn’t open. Wouldn’t that have been fun? I grabbed a brochure that touted the museum’s features: a replica cell, contraband created by prisoners, a detailed model of the prison carved by an inmate, and information about infamous residents of the penitentiary. Hours are noon to 4 p.m., Friday through Sunday. I put this on my list of things to do another day.

But Anamosa also turns out to be hard-core Grant Wood country, so it’s a good thing I stopped, right? I spent about half an hour in the Grant Wood “Art Gallery,” which is stuffed with weird Grant Wood memorabilia, photos, prints, knickknacks, postcards, and a gazillion framed (and unframed) American Gothic parodies. I talked to the nicest old guy in the gallery, who was very eager to help me with my quest to find more Grant Wood history in Iowa.

He sent me to Stone City (the same Stone City where the penitentiary rock was quarried). The “city” used to be home to nearly 1,000 inhabitants back in the late 1800s, many of whom worked in the rock quarries. Later, Stone City became the inspiration of many of Grant Wood’s famous paintings, and he chose the site for his art colony in 1932. The area still features a large stone church, general store building, and several other stone structures located along the picturesque Wapsipinicon River. If you go there, be aware that the road to Stone City directly from Anamosa is currently closed due to construction, but I took County Road 34 and the signs led me in a round-about way to Stone City (about 8 miles).

I should mention that this whole area looks just like a Grant Wood painting, so it was a fun drive.

But enough of the side trips. On to Cedar Rapids.

The Cedar Rapids Museum of Art houses the largest collection of Grant Wood’s work, although not all of it is on display. The museum is not large, but it’s quite nice. Some of the Grant Wood paintings and drawings are in a small Grant Wood room; the rest are mixed within a very good “American Century” exhibit. Rounding out the current exhibits are “Shout Freedom!” (black-and-white American photography), “Like Mother, Like Son” (photographs of Joan Liffring-Zug Bourret and David B. Huesinkveld), Mauricio Lasansky (prints), and Treasures from the National Czech & Slovak Museum & Library, which was shut down following the floods of 2008. The Czech and Slovak exhibit was especially nice. The museum has free admission through the end of the month.

As I mentioned, I was most looking forward to seeing the Grant Wood Studio that, I learned too late, is only open Saturdays and Sundays from noon to 4 p.m. (until Dec. 31, when it closes for the winter). Well, live and learn. The studio will be on my itinerary for Part II of the Grant Wood tour, along with the American Gothic House in Eldon and perhaps the Grant Wood exhibit at the Tipton Public Library…and whatever else I find along the way.

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1 comment so far

  1. Stacey Borrenpohl on

    Great post and I’m glad to have seen your blog. As avid day-trippers and explorers, I will enjoy reading your blog! I grew up in LaPorte City, and yes, the bakery is divine! I presently live in Dubuque and (blush) have not yet been to the art museum…but will have to go soon!

    Happy travels!


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