The Stone City Art Colony and School 1932-1933
Francis Robert White

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Francis Robert White (1907-1986) - student

Perhaps the most controversial artist from the Stone City Art Colony, "Bob" White was born in Oskaloosa, Iowa and pursued his art studies in various locations - the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts (Philadelphia, 1924-25), European studies in Rome, Genoa, Venice, and Paris (1925-1929), the New York Art Students League (1932-33), and night classes at the Art Institute of Chicago (1934-1935). He initially studied the craft of stained glass at the Wilkes Barre Campus of Penn State University and then opened a glass design studio in New York City. His work there resulted in a Guggenheim Fellowship and overseas study opportunities in England, France, and Italy from 1930-31.

A student at the Stone City Art Colony in 1932, White initially followed Grant Wood's leadership and artistic style. During the 1933 session, he had clear differences with the colony founder and sparked a debate over Wood's teaching influence and methods. An all-colony meeting, led by Adrian Dornbush, reiterated its policies and expectations. Despite the challenge of leaving under such conditions, several students broke with the colony, followed White to Cedar Rapids, and then began their own collective.

Formally organized in 1934 as the Cooperative Mural Painters of Iowa (later known as the Cooperative Mural Artists), the network was a division of the WPA's Treasury Relief Art Project (TRAP). In Cedar Rapids, White gathered a small group of artists about him - Howard Johnson, Everett Jeffrey, Harry Donald Jones, Arnold Pyle, and Don Glasell. These men would then dedicate two years to complete a single, controversial project -- the mural installation for the Linn County federal courthouse in 1936. Collectively, the five men discussed and decided on the mural's subject matter; figure scale and color palette was synonymous, even as each man designed and created specific portions of the mural. Inspired by Mexican artists, the courtroom's murals, on its four walls, were the largest American art project to date.

Behind the judge's bench, at the front of the room, was an actual courtroom scene, roughly 48 feet long and five-and-a-half feet high; the wall highlighted the legal system's mechanisms for protecting individuals. White would complete this section. At the rear of the courtroom, American culture was depicted through the eyes of archeology, culiminating in Aztec history, references to ancient, cliff dwellers, and industrial progress; Harry D. Jones executed this section. The side walls, roughly sixty feet in length, focused on the rise of law with culture. Here, the project's controversial images were clearly seen -- vigilantes, mob violence, fires spawning police patrols, primitive medicine practiced on the American prairie, and a lynching scene. Don Glasell and Everett Jeffrey completed the side walls, and Glasell was also responsible for a group of six grisailles, small, monotone scenes appearing at regular intervals above doors, windows, and exhaust vents. Egg tempera was applied directly to the walls; the mural was completed in June 1936. After almost twenty years of complaints about the content, particularly for side-wall scenes directly across from the jury box, the court ordered all of the mural to be painted over immediately. Despite another Iowa mural project having a dubious ending, the cooperative continued to thrive, expanding across the state, eventually including thirty members.

White won numerous awards at the Iowa State Fair's Art Salon (1933-1937), including both first place and the Sweepstakes prize for "Ages of Man," (oil, 1937). White had a one-man show at the Younkers Tea Room Galleries (Des Moines, IA) in 1934, a well-respected local art forum. He later assumed the directorship of the Little Gallery, Cedar Rapids (1935-1937) after Edward Rowan accepted his national WPA post in Washington, D.C.

In spite of public opinion over the courthouse project, White continued his own campaign for improved conditions for Iowa artists. In the early 1930s, he led an Iowa Cooperative Artists' boycott at the Iowa State Fair, demanding rental fees instead of cash prizes. Viewed as "left-wing" by much of the art community, he would eventually become the director of all WPA federal art projects for Iowa (1937-1939), assuming that role from Grant Wood. White led the art program from the Sioux City [IA] Art Center, where he served as director. He would conduct the Clear Lake [IA] Summer School of Art and worked on a Chicago WPA project in 1933. White was briefly stationed in Cody, Wyoming as a recorder and artist for the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) and served as an art supervisor for the Navajo Indian Agency, Window Rock, Arizona (1940).

White had a private mural commission at the Russian Inn of Philadelphia, PA (1927) and federal WPA mural commissions for the Missouri Valley, Iowa post office (1938) and the Algona, Iowa post office (1941). The Whitney Museum of American Art granted White a commission for a stained glass window in 1929-1930. Following World War II, White relocated to Chicago and opened a private, stained-glass studio (1952) that remained in operation over thirty years. The Creator Window, located at the First Presbyterian Church of Mason City, Iowa, was one of the studio's commissions - the largest fused glass window of its time (ca. 1971-1973), made from over 200 blocks of glass. White designed and constructed all of the church's windows over a twelve-year span, including two 25-foot tall windows. Other notable Mason City, Iowa glass projects include the St. Peter and St. Paul windows of the Greek Orthodox Church of the Transfiguration and the Meredith Willson Chapel Windows at the First Congregational Church.

White was exhibited widely, including the Art Institute of Chicago, the Corcoran Gallery (Washington, D.C.), the Kansas City Art Institute, Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, the New York City World's Fair, and the Whitney Museum, New York City. He was a member of the American Artists Congress and died in Chicago in 1986. A memorial service in his honor was held in Mason City in August 1986.

Online Resources for Francis Robert White:

" Bethlehem Lutheran Church." (DeKalb, IL) -- altar crucifix

"The First Congregational Church, Meredith Wilson Chapel." (Mason City, IA) -- window commission

"The Grand Lodge of Iowa, A.F. & A.M." (Cedar Rapids, IA) -- commissioned for all library windows.

"The Holy Name of Mary Church." (Chicago,IL) -- window commissions

"The MacNider Art Museum." (Mason City, IA) -- featured artist

"The Missouri Valley, Iowa, Post Office Mural." Available:

"North Shore Unitarian Church." (Deerfield, IL) -- window commission.

"Up the Tracks" (nd). Image courtesy of the Mason City Public Library Historical Collections.

"Fall Landscape, Portland" (1933) was shown at the 1933 Iowa State Fair Art Salon. The entry tag is still on the back of the painting. Image courtesy of the Mason City Public Library Historical Collections.

Francis Robert White. Self-portrait Christmas card, 1978. Sketch provided by Lea Rosson DeLong.

Francis Robert White. Self-portrait Christmas card, 1978. Sketch provided by Lea Rosson DeLong.

Robert Francis White, ca. 1930.  Photographer unknown. Holger Cahill papers, 1910-1993. Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.

Francis Robert White, ca. 1930. Photographer unknown. Holger Cahill papers, 1910-1993. Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.

When Tillage Begins: The Stone City Art Colony and School
Published online October 2003 by the
Busse Library,
Mount Mercy University
Cedar Rapids, Iowa
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