116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
Any tour of Grant Wood-related sites in Iowa would be woefully incomplete without a visit to the Cherry Building in Cedar Rapids, where Wood, in 1925, had his first big commission as an artist.
The building, at 329 10th Ave. SE in the NewBo District of Cedar Rapids, is home to dozens of artist studios, arts-focused businesses and small business start-ups. The proprietors there are supported by locals intent on helping hometown businesses succeed.
Artists always have struggled to make ends meet while developing their craft. Service jobs and side hustles are obtained to pay the bills. Putting in the work to find gigs within the arts is a constant exercise in creative entrepreneurship.
That's a fair description of Grant Wood in 1925. He was 34 and struggling to find a steady paycheck, let alone a distinctive style of painting to call his own.
Thomas Hoving, the late director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, called Wood's painting style leading up to this period 'easygoing, soft … and blurry.” Wood was several years deep into dabbling with impressionism. Before that, he had experimented with other styles.
Having taken art classes but never finishing any type of formal art schooling, Wood's attempts at being some kind of career professional ranged from jewelry making to teaching, with side forays into writing, carpentry and interior design.
Local supporters of his art and services allowed him to continue painting and figure out his style. He went full-time with art that year and won his first big commission.
The J.G. Cherry Co. was founded in 1880 as a dairy equipment manufacturer. The existing building was built in 1919 - a near clone of an adjacent building built eight years earlier. The two were connected by Cedar Rapids' first skywalk. Railroad tracks ran underneath.
In 1925, the company picked Wood to create a series of paintings showcasing its machinery and industrial might.
Wood painted the exterior of the building and seven scenes of dairy equipment being manufactured. He included people - workers in the plant - which he was more interested in, but complied with the charge to portray machinery accurately.
Cedar Rapids' industrial presence was growing.
In November 1925, the Cedar Rapids Republican editorialized about the city's industrial development while mentioning Grant Wood's painting, 'Adoration of the Home,” as a symbol of the city's collective soul that balanced its machinery and smokestacks.
That balance is captured expertly in Wood's J.G. Cherry series of eight paintings.
'The series … in a way celebrates that connection between human and machine,” says Sean Ulmer, director of the Cedar Rapids Museum of Art. 'They can peacefully coexist … it's not an either/or proposition.”
Seven of the Cherry Building paintings are among those on display in the 'Grant Wood Revealed” exhibit at the museum through May 16. The eighth painting, 'The Covermaker,” hasn't been seen in decades, its whereabouts unknown.
Artistically, the Cherry series anticipates Wood's mature style of painting.
Somewhat loose strokes depict a Cherry worker doing his own painting of a completed coil machine in 'The Painter,” but within the series itself is an evolution toward harder, tighter edges.
'Ten Tons of Accuracy” depicts a sheet-metal worker fabricating copper covers for cooling machines with an almost photo-like quality.
The series is one of the first times Wood concentrated on the human figure, something that was a big part of much of the later work he became famous for.
'The machinery is beautifully rendered, but the people in these works are just stunning,” says Katherine Kunau, associate curator of collections and exhibitions at the Cedar Rapids Museum of Art. 'They are beautiful portrayals of the workers - their bodies, their hands and their relationship to their work.”
Fittingly, it was the people of Cedar Rapids - friends, art patrons, journalists and even agribusiness executives - who celebrated Wood and kept his career going.
Five years after painting the J.G. Cherry series, the popularity of 'American Gothic” made Wood famous - a bona fide household name across the country.
Joe Coffey, a freelance writer and content marketer in Cedar Rapids, writes this monthly column for The History Center. Comments: firstname.lastname@example.org