Friday, June 17, 2005

American Gothic vs. Stone City

Steven Biel, in his new book about American Gothic, calls it "America's most famous painting." I haven't read the book, but as a former Iowan, I've always been a bit sensitive about Grant Wood's "masterpiece." People outside the Midwest see it as an indictment of or the straight-laced rural Iowa. Ironically, the models for his painting were his sister and his Cedar Rapids dentist--hardly rural rustics.

For me, Wood's masterpiece is Stone City, painted in 1930, the same year he produced his better-known picture. The hard, stern faces of American Gothic contrast with the undulating, sensual landscape of northeast Iowa. And where American Gothic reinforces a stereotype about Iowa, Stone City demolishes the biggest one--that Iowa is flat. The late Laurence Lafore, a Philadelphian who came to Iowa in the 1970s to teach history, wished he could carry "a pocket-sized reproduction of Grant Wood's Stone City, an Iowan version of View of Toledo" whenever anyone said Iowa was flat. ("In the Sticks," Harper's, Oct. 1971.)

Stone City was a quarry town, which lost its main industry after the introduction of Portland cement. Wood had an art colony there in 1931 and 1932. During the late 1940s and early '50s, Paul Engle, director of the Iowa Writers' Workshop, made it into a summer writers' colony. When his big house there burned down in the late '50s, Stone City's days as an art center were over.

I doubt whether anyone will write a book about Stone City, but for me it remains Wood's masterpiece. It is the truest statement of his love for the Iowa land, and an image which reminds exiles like me exaclty why we consider ourselves exiles.

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