Thursday, September 20, 2012

Of Masters, Volunteers, Potlucks and a Noble Chief

On vacation to Massachusetts a few years ago, my wife and daughter opted for a day by the pool and I was left to my own devices, which led me to a sparse bedroom, in an old house, in Concord.  I was accompanied by an attractive woman close to my age whom I had never met before and soon found we shared a common interest—Nathaniel Hawthorne. The house was the Old Manse, built by the Rev. William Emerson, father of Ralph Waldo Emerson, in 1770. The woman was the docent.

The bedroom was also Hawthorne’s study while he and his wife, Sophia, lived in the Old Manse, the place where he wrote Mosses from an Old Manse, a collection of short stories which features some of his most famous works. Since I was—and am—a student of Hawthorne, it goes without saying I was a bit overwhelmed by the sense of place, and intimidated knowing that anything I wrote would pale in comparison.

Hawthorne wasn’t the only draw the Old Manse offered. Looking out the window I could see the site where the Battle of Lexington and Concord was fought on April 19, 1775. It is said William Emerson stood in the same room and observed the battle.

I had a similar experience last Saturday when I visited Grant Wood’s studio, No. 5 Turner Alley, Cedar Rapids, Iowa. Like the Old Manse, I was accompanied by a well-informed docent who filled in the details and answered questions. However, he was quite unlike my docent at The Old Manse, who was enamored with Hawthorne to the point that if she could master the time-space continuum, would have married him that very afternoon.

It is one thing to read or view the work of masters such as Hawthorne and Wood, but to stand in the place where they scratched out texts or sketches, throwing away draft after draft until just the right mix was found to create a masterpiece, is quite another.

Closer to home, the Center is gearing up for the annual Volunteer Recognition Night. Since the American Gothic House Center draws visitors from across the United States and around the world, it could not operate without a network of volunteers willing to share their time and expertise to greet and educate visitors on the house, Grant Wood and his life.

Over this past year 49 volunteers have devoted over 1,600 hours to greeting visitors, providing tours and taking pictures of folks in costume in front of the American Gothic House. In appreciation, one evening is set aside to honor these volunteers and their service with a potluck dinner. This year the event will be held on Saturday, Sept. 29 from 5-6:30 pm. at the American Gothic House Center. The theme of this year’s event is “Volunteers are the Seeds to our Success.”

The evening will be normal potluck fare—everybody brings something to share with the others. This year an invitation has been extended to anyone that might be interested in volunteering, as this would be an excellent time to learn about what volunteers do and how much fun it can be. If any of you readers are interested in lending a hand at the Center, cook up your favorite dish and stop by for the evening, or please contact Holly Berg at 641-652-3352 or email

One last note. Just prior to the event, from 3 to 5 pm, the statue of Chief Wapello will be on display in the parking lot. For those of you who are not familiar with the Chief Wapello statue, it held a place of honor atop the Wapello County Courthouse for 118 years until a storm toppled him last summer. The statue is scheduled to be restored this winter, but in the meantime Wapello County Supervisor Jerry Parker is taking the statue on tour around the county allowing an up-close look at the county’s namesake.

Brian Chambers
Media Coordinator
The American Gothic House

The American Gothic House Center strives to become financially independent through gift shop revenue, sponsorships, and by establishing an endowment fund. Funds raised in this campaign will be used to match the Iowa Cultural Trust Endowment Challenge Grant and will become endowment funds to support the Center's annual operations. As a subscriber to the weekly newsletter, you have already shown support for the American Gothic House Center. I invite you to strengthen your role in the valuable experience we provide the community by making a contribution to our fund drive. Click here to give your tax deductible gift, or head to our website for more information. Thank you to all who have donated so far!
        Our Mission: Integrating the puzzle pieces of American Gothic
300 American Gothic St | Eldon, IA 52554 | 641-652-3352 |

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Art is meant to inspire, and move

September Twelfth, 2001

Two caught on film who hurtle
from the eighty-second floor,
choosing between a fireball
and to jump holding hands,

aren't us. I wake beside you,
stretch,scratch, taste the air,
the incredible coffee
and the morning light.

Alive, we open eyelids
on our pitiful share of time,
we bubbles rising and bursting
in a boiling pot.                                                         

X.J. Kennedy

Oddly I ran across this poem yesterday, September 12. I try not to dwell much on the events 11 years ago, although the carnage of that day and the after effects that are still with us make it hard to forget for long.

The poem touched me as I—as well as almost everyone else—is a person in the last two stanzas. Awakening that morning, believing it was just another day, but soon realizing it wasn’t. Riveted to the television, watching with horror the events unravel and wondering when the next shoe would drop. Hurting and aching for the victims and their families, and quietly grateful that my family was close by, safe, and alive. Then later, facing the stark realization there is only but a short time on this earth, living our lives “like bubbles rising in a boiling pot and bursting, never to exist again.”

Strangely, in the same collection of poems I ran across another that hit home, and again it was contingent on the date, as the next day—today—is my youngest daughter’s birthday. This is the second year in a row that we are not together on this day, as she is away at college. No more cake and ice cream and balloons around the kitchen table, now a box in the mail, a text and later a phone call. The following poem is for any parent that has stood in the driveway and watched a child drive away into adulthood.

To a Daughter Leaving Home

When I taught you
at eight to ride
a bicycle, loping along
beside you
as you wobbled away
on two round wheels,
my own mouth rounding
in surprise when you pulled
ahead down the curved
path of the park,
I kept waiting
for the thud
of your crash as I
sprinted to catch up,
while you grew
smaller, more breakable
with distance,
pumping, pumping
for your life, screaming,
with laughter,
the hair flopping
behind you like a
handkerchief waving

Linda Pastan

The American Gothic House Center is devoted to art, primarily the art of one’s man’s ability to place a brush on canvas. But in the bigger picture, here, as well and hundreds of similar institutions across the country and the world, art in general is recognized as something that touches enough to move, to stir an emotion, to tread lightly on the soul. Paint on canvas has that ability, but also poetry, literature, motion pictures, the list goes on.

Embrace art in all of its many forms. Seek it out, observe it, read it and touch it, then, most importantly, allow it to touch you.

 Brian Chambers
Media Coordinator
The American Gothic House Center

Thursday, September 6, 2012

Good old days? Hardly.

American Gothic House Center
 If you are wondering what the image of the arcane wrench on the left symbolizes and what it could possibly have to do with Grant Wood, there is a connection; although admittedly remote. However, the explanation will come a bit later.

I have never been one to buy into the aphorism “the good old days.” I am a product of these so-called days and I remember well as a kid descending the stairs into our creepy basement, opening the door of the even more creepy coal room and shoveling coal into the big, scary furnace. Then at least once a week shovel out the clinkers from the bottom of the furnace into a bucket, walk up the outside steps to the gravel street and fill the potholes. Needless to say I haven’t done that for a while.

Years later, when I owned an older home, it was almost an occupation getting it ready for winter. It was an annual ritual to cover the windows with plastic using lath boards to secure the sides and stack bales of straw around the foundation to keep the wind from blowing through the floor. This was in the middle of what I refer to as “my” recession, as I was a carpenter in the early 80s and couldn’t buy a job. Consequently wood was the fuel of choice and necessity in order to save on gas, and for at three consecutive winters every weekend in the fall and winter was spent in the timber to ensure the fire kept burning. Now to get ready for winter I shut my windows. Good old days? I think not.

I can say with conviction that those times were simpler. Times before computers, dish television with a choice of hundreds of channels (I had three growing up and into my adult years), cell phones making instant contact the norm, and, of course, before smart phones. (I can remember when I used to be smart, not the phone.) So instead of “good old days,” I believe “simpler old days” is much more accurate appraisal of years past. However, there is still simplicity in the world, if you know where to look. And if you haven’t guessed it yet this is where the wrench comes in.

Recently I had to rework my kitchen sink as a leak had developed around the strainer basket and found myself in need of a spanner wrench for the strainer nut (the thingy that holds the basket in place). I hadn’t bought one in many years and wondered what new-fangled type wrench I would have to buy. I went to the hardware store and found the exact same type of wrench I had bought around 30 years ago, imagine that. The handle was embossed with “STAINER NUT WRENCH” in case there was any doubt what it was. Simple. No change in 30 years, just your basic, utilitarian, no-nonsense tool. Other things remained the same—and simple—about the project, I still had to get on my back and cuss a few times as usual before the job was done, but I actually knew what I was doing and found it refreshing that no new skill set was required, no buttons needed pushed and no website needed accessed. Sweet.

One could believe that Grant Wood might have believed in the “good old days” as his paintings reflect wholesome, idyllic images from an earlier era, images that are devoid of modern conveniences that would do little other than clutter up the landscape. The good old days, perhaps?  I think not. Simpler days? Definitely.

Wood lived through times of enormous change, as we have. His life began simply, but hardly easy, on the farm where in the late 1890s life was difficult at best. He witnessed the dawn of a new century, lived through and was a part of World War I—the Great War as it was called back then. Witnessed the decadence of the 1920s, fell into near poverty, then finally found his place in life by framing what he knew, simple things, not necessarily better, but definitely simpler. I believe Grant Wood would appreciate the strainer nut wrench.

Brian Chambers
Media Coordinator
The American Gothic House Center