AMANA — If Grant Wood were alive today, actor Tom Milligan is certain they would be very good friends.
“Both of us are pursuing our art form in our own state. ... I don’t have a theater degree, he never had an art degree. His mother was a huge influence, and my mother was a huge influence,” said Milligan, 65, of West Amana.
He knows Wood better than almost anyone else, after portraying Iowa’s iconic artist more than 2,500 times in the past 18 years. He expects that number to keep climbing, especially this year, the 125th anniversary of Wood’s birth.
The shy-looking man in bib overalls is not the man Milligan has come to know through “Grant Wood: Prairie Rebel,” an award-winning, 45-minute play by Cynthia Mercati. She was working with Milligan at the Des Moines Playhouse when the script was commissioned for the state’s sesquicentennial in 1996. Milligan now presents the shows through the Humanities Iowa Speakers Bureau.
“(Wood) was really quite a fun-loving guy,” Milligan said, and a much snappier dresser than the usual folksy images of overalls suggest.
Milligan wore bib overalls for the first four years he did the show, then changed up the costume, feeling the bibs portrayed “a narrow window of (Wood’s) experience,” the actor said, noting the artist, born on a farm near Anamosa on Feb. 13, 1891, did wear bibs during his Stone City Art Colony days in 1932 and ’33. He also wore them to blend in with the Quaker Oats workers when he used a space there to lay out plans for the massive stained glass window that has graced Veterans Memorial Building in downtown Cedar Rapids since 1928.
“If you look at pictures of Grant Wood, you’ll probably see three times more pictures of him not wearing bib overalls,” Milligan said. So he switched to something akin to the cream-colored shirt, pants and shoes the artist wore for a photo inside his Clear Lake studio. He worked there the summer before he died of pancreatic cancer in Iowa City on Feb. 12, 1942, two hours short of his 51st birthday. In the photo, he was standing beside his 1941 painting, “Spring in Town.”
Wood often posed with his paintings as a way of “copyrighting” them, especially those created in his home studio at 5 Turner Alley, Milligan said. Wood lived in that carriage house loft near downtown Cedar Rapids from 1924 to 1934, painting his signature “American Gothic” there, as well as “Woman with Plants” and “Daughters of the Revolution,” all of which Milligan cites in the show. He also references “Parson Weems’ Fable,” painted in 1939, when he was emerging from a deep depression in the wake of his divorce.
Milligan has performed the play all across Iowa and throughout the Midwest. He’s performed it at the governor’s mansion in Des Moines, twice at the “American Gothic” house in Eldon, eight or nine times in Anamosa, three times in 5 Turner Alley, at the Iowa State Fair, and on the steps of the State Capitol in 2004 for the unveiling of the Iowa quarter featuring Wood’s “Arbor Day” schoolhouse.
School auditoriums, libraries and museums are his typical venues, but he’s also performed in a bar and grill room adjacent to a noisy video game arcade.
Outside the Corridor, “most people think Grant Wood painted ‘American Gothic’ and died the next day,” Milligan said.
Indeed, the play starts at Wood’s grave in Anamosa, then follows a backward trajectory to his birth. The focus, however, is on the artist’s rebellious nature.
He smoked and drank too much, had a “horrible” marriage and bitter divorce that left him in debt. He was “a dark and complicated man” and didn’t get along with his colleagues during his final teaching position at the University of Iowa.
He defied his father, who wanted him to learn farming; his grandfather, who wanted him to sell cars like his older brother; the art establishment, which wanted him to move to New York City and hire a press agent; and those who wanted him to continue in the French Impressionist style instead of painting his family and the rolling rural landscapes of his roots.
“The show carries a really interesting message toward the end, that you have to be able to, first and foremost, see the beauty around you where you live, and why you live where you live, and the people that are around you,” Milligan said. “That’s the Regionalism coming in.”