Rest area art installation a window into Grant Wood's Iowa

Facility opened Aug. 9

The Grant Wood Rest Area, on northbound Interstate 380 south of Cedar Rapids, is the Iowa Department of Transportation’s tribute to regionalist painter Grant Wood, replacing a decades-old visitor facility that could best be called “minimalist.”

You can:

- Rest your feet on a hay bale-shaped bench.

-Picnic under a steel replica of an ice wagon.

-Contemplate the graceful shape of a Gothic stained glass window that changes colors with the seasons.

The new rest area opened Aug. 9, although art installations to carry out the Grant Wood theme weren’t completed until last week. Inside and out, the rest area is covered with artistic references to Wood’s work.

Art and art criticism go hand-in-hand, and reviews on the rest area aren’t yet in.

Those inclined to view the rest area as a disgusting waste of tax dollars should first weigh the artistic influence of Wood, a native son born Feb. 13, 1891 east of Anamosa, who lived most of his life in Cedar Rapids and died at the age of 51 in Iowa City.

Wood was best known for his painting “American Gothic.” It depicts a dour-expressioned, bespectacled man in overalls holding a pitchfork and a stern-looking woman in front of a house with an arched Gothic window above them. Widely parodied, it’s one of the world’s most recognized paintings.

“American Gothic” is echoed in the stained glass gothic windows outside the rest area building, and in images of the painting’s male and female characters inside the rest area, which provide a visual clue to distinguish the men’s and women’s restroom.

Wood’s painting “Arbor Day,” showing a rural one-room schoolhouse, is represented on Iowa’s state quarter. It is reproduced at one of the rest area’s entrances.

The entire art installation is called “The View from Our Window: Grant Wood in Iowa.” The inspiration came from public artist David Dahlquist.

Dahlquist, creative director at RDG Dahlquist Design Studio in Des Moines, has developed art concepts and designs for many Iowa rest areas. He saw an opportunity to fuse art and economic development by featuring Wood’s work.

“Very few people across the United States ever knew Grant Wood came from Iowa, or how important he was to the regionalist art movement, or that this is the area where he painted American Gothic,” Dahlquist said.

“I thought it was wonderful that we could pay homage to art, and he’s arguably the best-known Iowa artist.”

Photographer David Van Allen, professor emeritus of art at Mount Mercy University in Cedar Rapids, didn’t hesitate long when asked what he thought of Dahlquist’s idea.

“Why not an artist?” he asked. “Artists tend to be more interesting characters than, say, CEOs.”

Wood “did a lot of landscapes, a lot of Iowa landscapes,” Van Allen said. “Rest stops tend to be in the middle of a landscape, so there’s some appropriateness there.”

Van Allen said the pop culture adaptations of “American Gothic” have little to do with Grant Wood’s place in the history of art. Wood emerged during the peak popularity of abstract expressionism, but became a key figure in the regionalist movement that realistically depicted people and scenes of Middle America that the artists knew intimately.

“He’s famous largely because he was so influential,” Van Allen said.

Van Allen said Wood’s landscapes were “more like memories than perception,” with lollipop-shaped trees and other simplified elements. He called them “psychological landscapes,” which tended to make you feel you were in a specific place.

Cedar Rapids Museum of Art Executive Director Terry Pitts was one of the people Dahlquist consulted before proposing the Grant Wood art theme for the rest area. Pitts believes the Wood-themed rest area will inspire some travelers to spend time in the Cedar Rapids area, visiting Wood’s Five Turner Alley studio, his former art colony site in Stone City, a collection of his work at the museum, or his stained glass installations in public buildings.

Pitts said there’s plenty to see and learn about in the area regarding Wood, who is only known widely for his painting even though he worked in stained glass, wrought iron, silver, wood and other mediums.

Since his death, Wood’s work has also gained historical importance, Pitts said, documenting a bypassed simpler era of agriculture in which fieldwork was performed by hand or with draft animals.

“He was a real character,” Pitts said. “People loved him and admired him. He had this funny little smile.”

Dahlquist said he uses a self-developed scoping technology to identify artistic themes for the rest areas that connect them to the surrounding communities. He said the work at the Grant Wood rest area took a team with diverse skills ranging from graphics to ceramics to metal fabrication.

Contributing staff members from RDG Dahlquist included Brian Fredericksen, Don Scandrett Chris Rodi, Jennifer Woida and Reinaldo Correa.Among the other project contributors from Iowa were Iowa Metal Fabrication of Indianola and Mingo Products of Mingo.

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