“All the really good ideas I’d ever had came to me while I was milking a cow.”
With that observation, Grant Wood left Paris and sought inspiration in the place he knew best—Iowa. Born in tiny Anamosa, he was nine when the family moved to Cedar Rapids following the death of his father. After graduating from High School, he attended the Chicago Art Institute and University of Iowa up until the outbreak of WWI. Already a skilled artist, the Army (in what had to be a mistake) assigned him to a specialty that drew on his talent and so he spent the war painting camouflage.
Like so many other American artists, Wood traveled to Europe for inspiration after the war. He associated himself with a group of painters who considered themselves neo-meditationists. These artists believed that one must quietly wait for inspiration. Grant wryly noted that they seemed to do all their waiting in Parisian bars while sipping brandy. He gradually came to believe that modern European art was incapable of adequately expressing the American experience. He later wrote, “I lived in Paris a couple of years myself and grew a very spectacular beard that didn’t match my face or my hair, and read Mencken and was convinced that the Middle West was inhibited and barren. But I came back because I learned that French painting is very fine for French people and not necessarily for us, and because I started to analyze what it was I really knew. I found out. It’s Iowa.”
Back in his home state, Wood, who had been a competent painter, became a great one. With a group of like-minded friends, he founded a movement called Regionalism. Regionalism encouraged artists to take their inspiration from the things they knew best and to express that inspiration in images close at hand. In Wood’s case the images were of the people and places of Iowa. And his vision was idyllic, nostalgic, gently satirical, and ultimately optimistic. It was precisely the right tonic for people living through the Great Depression, and it produced our country’s single most recognizable work of art—American Gothic. (For the record, the house is in Eldon, Iowa, the woman is his sister Nan, and the gentleman is his dentist, Dr. Byron McKeeby.)
We all speak in our own voice and possess a unique authenticity, but like Grant Wood in Paris, it’s seductively easy to lose our way among other sweet voices that tell us how to act and think. The fashion police tell us how to dress, the cultural cops tell what’s hot and what’s not while other, more intimate voices, measure our dreams against their expectations. Sometimes it takes an act of real courage to just stop listening. When we do, we touch home and rediscover what we know, who we are and what we hope to be. That’s the awareness needed to start making a distinctive contribution to the world around us. By tapping into our strengths—into the things we know and do best—we can find the inspiration to vastly exceed our own expectations of what’s possible. At that point imagination thrives and creativity prospers.
Grant Wood went home to find success. It’s a journey we all should make. —Ebert