Thursday, December 6, 2012

An artist…and a teacher

 American Gothic House Center
After last week’s blog there was a measure of interest as to Grant Wood’s teaching career. How long did he teach, where at, etc., were some of the questions that I received. Since this blog (who invented this label?) is devoted to all things Grant Wood, I thought a brief outline of Wood’s reaching career would be in order.

After graduating high school in 1910 and following a short stint at the Arts and Craft Guild in Minneapolis, where he studied copper work and making jewelry, Wood returned to Cedar Rapids and obtained a teaching license in 1911 and taught at a country school in Rosedale for the 1911-12 school year. Evidently, he had further ambitions of being a teacher as, at the time, teaching at a country school qualified him to teach at a city school without benefit of a college education. Or maybe he just needed a job, who knows?

After his year at Rosedale there is little evidence Wood taught again until after his discharge from the army, when, in 1919, he applied for an art teacher position in the Cedar Rapids schools. He was selected and his first classroom was at Jackson Junior High School. He was a bit short on money to buy the standard clothes teaches wore, so he taught classes wearing his army uniform. There is no doubt that Wood was a novelty at the school with his OD-green garb, but no doubt the kids got a kick out of it.

Teaching must have been a good fit for him as he was soon moved up to the high school level and taught there until 1927—although there were a couple of breaks. One during the summer of 1920 (not really a break as school wasn’t held in the summer) when he traveled to Europe with Marvin Cone, another when he took a leave of absence from 1923-24 returning to Europe to study in Paris.

After his time at Cedar Rapids schools Wood parked his teaching hat for a time while he pursued being an artist (you may have heard of some of his more noted works such as American Gothic, etc.). He did, however, accept an invitation to teach at the University of Iowa in 1934 where he had a measure of success. According to the archives, Wood began as a temporary hire but soon matriculated into a full-time associate professor. The art department also benefitted, as enrollment increased from 550 to 750 after just one year.

His time at U of I wasn’t without conflict, however. Many of his colleagues, miffed by the fact that Wood did not have an art degree, questioned and criticized his work. And he had a running battle with the department as to how much time should be devoted to teaching art history versus the creative work required to earn a Master of Arts degree (Wood, of course, sided with the creative side). The tug-of-war caused Wood so much grief he threatened to quit, but instead took a leave of absence during the 1940-41 school year.

Wood did return to the university in 1941 with the full support of the administration but it was short lived, as Wood died the next year on Feb. 12, 1942. (Taken from

Stories abound of various artists, regardless of the genre, that become recluses and bury themselves in their profession, their art or literature. Given Wood’s subject matter of his paintings—real life Iowans, the landscapes, the rural way of life—it seems fitting that Wood chose teaching as a parallel career. In order to paint as he did, he would have to stay engaged with life, and what better way to do it than teach?

It is inherent in a teacher to want to connect with students, to explore their thoughts and ideas, engage their minds, and, in turn, this engagement stimulates their own thoughts and forms—over the years—a unique, and singular, worldview. I am sure Wood was no different, and this engagement impacted, in some way, his development into, and legacy as, a world-class artist. 

Upcoming events at the Center:

Don’t miss the Gingerbread House Building being held this Saturday, Dec. 8 from 1 to 4 p.m. Plenty of volunteers and goodies will be on hand to fashion gingerbread creations for the holiday season.

Also this weekend is “Christmas in Eldon.” From Friday through Sunday, Eldon offers many activities including “Christmas in Wanderland” at the McHaffey Opera House where over 100 Christmas trees are on display. The Rock Island Depot will also be open and decked out for the holidays. Click here for a complete listing of activities in Eldon for the weekend.

Brian Chambers
Media Coordinator
American Gothic House Center

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
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