Celebrating Iowa's most influential artist at Guttenberg Public Library

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Actor Tom Milligan will travel to Guttenberg to perform a one-man show as Grant Wood on April 25 in celebration of the Iowa artist's 125th birthday. (Photo submitted)

By Molly Moser

Iowa artist Grant Wood famously claimed to have come up with all his best ideas while milking a cow. Sitting on a milk stool must have been quite good inspiration, because he went on to paint one of the most well known paintings in the world, second only to the Mona Lisa.

During 2016, Iowa celebrates Wood’s 125th birthday with exhibits, programs, lectures and more across the state in honor of the late artist.  Wood was born in 1891 on a farm near Anamosa, and relocated to Cedar Rapids with his mother at age 10. He lived most of his life in the Cedar Rapids/Iowa City area, becoming the spokesman for the Regionalist painting movement during a time when few artists could afford to travel abroad to study in Europe and thus found the beauty in their American surroundings – pioneering a truly American artistic style.

This month, Guttenberg joins in the celebration with a 45-minute one-man show performed by award winning actor Tom Milligan. The Friends of the Guttenberg Public Library received a Humanities Iowa grant to support the show on Monday, April 25, at 7 p.m. Milligan will act as Wood, chatting with the audience for 45 minutes as if speaking with a group of cherished friends about his life and work as an artist. After the presentation, the audience is encouraged to ask questions of the actor about Grant Wood and his life.

As he alluded in his statement about milking cows, Iowa was more than Wood’s birthplace – its people and places served as both backdrop and motivation for his now famous works. In 1930, Wood visited a small town, Eldon, in southeast Iowa’s Wapello County. There he discovered a plain white house with a pair of Gothic windows fit for a church. He was inspired by the contrast and used the house to set the scene in what would become his most famous painting, American Gothic.  

In this recognizable painting, Wood used his dentist and his sister, Nan, as models for a father-daughter pair of stoic ‘Midwestern types.’ The somber duo represents the hardworking farm families of the Midwest, but when the painting gained notoriety some Iowans took offense, suggesting Wood was poking fun at his neighbors. 

Today visitors stream to the front porch of the American Gothic House (now on the National Register of Historic Places), donning overalls and glasses, aprons and cameos, and carrying pitchforks from the adjacent visitor’s center to have their photographs taken in honor of Iowa’s most well-known artist and his best piece of work. 

Wood is also celebrated in Anamosa, not only as the city of his birth but also because in the 1930s Wood established an artist colony there known as Stone City. While the colony failed in terms of financial success, it was wonderfully well attended and had a very positive reputation. 

Actor Tom Milligan has appeared in hundreds of plays across the state, and for ten years appeared at Iowa's first dinner theater, Charlie's Showplace. He offers workshops on acting throughout Iowa and appears on Iowa Public Television. At the Guttenberg Public Library on April 25, he will portray the man behind American Gothic, sharing the story of how Wood took the moments, the memories, and the people of our state, and showed the whole world the specialness of Iowa. 

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