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You don’t have to be an artist to appreciate art, says Nancy Mortimore, a volunteer docent for the Cedar Rapids Museum of Art for the past 16 years.
“I’ve always loved art, but I’m not an artist,” Mortimore said. “Back in 2005, the CRMA had a giant exhibition on Grant Wood. The museum’s education director at the time was a friend of mine, and when I heard they needed help from volunteers, I signed up.”
The exhibition that year celebrated the opening of 5 Turner Alley — the historic studio apartment above a former carriage house in Cedar Rapids where famed Iowa artist Grant Wood lived and worked from 1924 to 1935. The exhibit brought more than 170 of Wood’s works back to Cedar Rapids and also brought in droves of visitors.
WHAT A DOCENT DOES
The Cedar Rapids Museum of Art has more than a dozen docents on rotation, who typically meet monthly to learn about new exhibits and artists and to set their schedule for the next month.
Docents take museum visitors on tours of the museum and Wood’s studio, talking to them about the styles, history and relevance of the art the guests are viewing.
“I fell in love with the position,” said Mortimore, a retired teacher who lives near Swisher.
“I give tours for school children anywhere from second grade to college-age,” she said. “I also give tours for adult groups from clubs or organizations or even just groups of friends. It’s not uncommon to give tours to people from outside the U.S.”
With a rotation of new artists and exhibitions coming through the museum each year, the docent work always holds her interest.
“The reason that I keep doing it is that I love art, and I learn so much by being there. It’s always changing. Every time they have a new exhibit, I learn so much — there are artists and works I’m not familiar with, and the museum does an excellent job training us,” Mortimore said, adding she always does a bit of her own homework on the artists as well.
“I love interacting with everybody and all the different kinds of people who come through,” she said. “Every tour, I might have my own plan, but it’s always ends up different, depending on who is in the group. I always learn something from them as well. Some of them are maybe longtime residents of Cedar Rapids or have parents or grandparents who have unique stories or perspectives.”
While she generally appreciates all of the artists and works at the museum, she admits to a particular passion for Wood and his studio.
“A hefty percentage of all of his most famous works were painted at 5 Turner Alley, including ‘American Gothic.’ We have reproductions of some of his most famous paintings there,” Mortimore said.
She also has special memories from her docent work.
“I really enjoy it when I’m giving a tour and someone will say something to me that connects them with Grant Wood,” she said. “At the end of one of my tours at 5 Turner Alley, one woman said ‘I lived here when I was a little girl.’ Her father was an intern in mortuary science at Turner Mortuary next door, and her family lived in the studio while he was an intern there.”
She also recalls a moment early in her docent career that still makes her smile.
“During the 2005 exhibit, another woman pointed out the ‘Spring in Town’ painting that shows the back of a man with his shirt off getting his garden ready for spring planting,” Mortimore said. “The woman said ‘That’s my husband in the painting.’ They had been neighbors of Grant Wood, and he came over one day and asked if he could use her husband as a live model. He gave him a spade and had him pretend he was spading the ground.
“Little experiences like that are what make it so special to be a docent,” she said.
She also enjoys the lighthearted, joyful outlook children bring when they visit.
“Kids give you wonderful insight into a different perspective,” she said. “They’re not into dates and names — so instead, I ask them questions about what they see in the paintings they like.
“I was talking about ‘Woman with Plants,’ and the children said, ‘It looks like a grandma.’ We came around to the fact that it was Grant Wood’s mother, and they told me, ‘She looks tired, but she’s really nice.’ It was so sweet that they would recognize that.”
Mortimore encourages anyone who hasn’t visited the Cedar Rapids Museum of Art to do so this summer, when admission is free from July 1 through Aug. 31, and three special Wood exhibits are offered.
“Now is a great time to go,” she said.
“So many people are familiar with Grant Wood, but I think with the current exhibits, it will amaze you to see how versatile he was,” Mortimore said.
More docents are always wanted and needed.
“Don’t be shy about jumping in and doing this,” Mortimore said. “I’m not an art major. I really never did take an art appreciation class in college, so I didn’t have any training. But believe me, you will learn. If you appreciate art, then you will learn. And that’s part of the fun of it.”
Grant Wood exhibits now at the C.R. Museum of Art:
Seriously Funny: “American Gothic” Parodies, through Aug. 22
Grant Wood’s “American Gothic” is probably the world’s most parodied American painting, second only to Leonardo’s “Mona Lisa.” This exhibition looks at some of the many parodies — some in the flesh on the gallery’s walls and many others digitally projected — in an attempt to share the incredible reach of this iconic painting. From Bill and Hillary Clinton to Leonardo and Mona Lisa to RuPaul as male and female, the parodies speak to how this one painting serves as the basis for looking at contemporary people and issues.
Grant Wood Revealed: Rarely Seen Works by an American Master, through Sept. 5
Grant Wood was constantly exploring styles, techniques and media. This exhibition brings together works from both the Cedar Rapids museum’s collection as well as from private. Rarely seen paintings are joined by metalwork, drawings and studies to offer a fuller view of Wood’s genius.
Americans in Paris: Grant Wood and Marvin Cone’s 1920 Trip to Paris, through Oct. 10
For three months in the summer of 1920, Grant Wood and his best friend and fellow artist Marvin Cone traveled to Paris to see great art, soak up the sights and paint. This brief sojourn proved to be pivotal for both artists, enhancing their interest in Impressionism and painting outdoors. What the artists did, saw and painted is outlined in Cone’s diary of the trip.
Museum hours: noon to 4 p.m. Tuesday, Wednesday, Friday and Sunday; noon to 8 p.m. Thursday; 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday; closed Mondays
Admission: $8 adults; $7 seniors (62+) and college students; $3 children (6-18) and free for children 5 and under. Admission is free to all visitors July 1 through Aug. 31, thanks for sponsorship by Cedar Rapids Bank and Trust, Transamerica, TrueNorth and UFG.
More information: crma.org or call (319) 366-7503
UI Stanley Museum of Art seeks docents
Program relaunches to prepare for fall 2022 reopening
IOWA CITY — In anticipation of its fall 2022 reopening, the University of Iowa Stanley Museum of Art is relaunching its docent program.
Museum docents will be ambassadors to the community and serve as tour guides at the new museum.
Formal or informal experience teaching K-12 students is required. A background in studio art or art history is helpful but not mandatory.
Information on the docent program and application process is available at https://stanleymuseum.uiowa.edu/about/opportunities/call-for-docents