The Stone City Art Colony and School 1932-1933
Grant Wood painting his Stone City ice wagon quarters (ca. 1932)
The Stone City Art Colony: An Introduction
The tiny community of Stone City began in 1850 with the discovery of limestone under the Wapsipinicon’s riverbanks; workers soon followed. By 1893, ten quarries were in full-time production along the Buffalo River near Anamosa. Three men became leaders of the industry, and one, John Aloysius (J.A.) Green, would own the most extensive operation in the area. For nearly fifty years, the quarries produced steadily, amounting to more than 4.5 billion dollars in sales. 1896 records indicate 1,000 men employed among the city’s quarries, carving 160,000 loads of stone in a single year with a market value of 3.75 million dollars.
In his most productive years (1869-1890s), J.A. Green operated three quarries [known as “Champion 1,” “Champion 2,” and “John Allen”] using nearby Anamosa state reformatory labor. All provided high-quality stone to the Midwest. Green's various business ventures included other quarries in Iowa, Minnesota, and Missouri, as well as mason supply and sand dredging companies in Cedar Rapids. He was known as the first American quarryman to use hydraulic power to strip the stone, freeing thousands of tons in a single blast. With his financial success and a keen eye for marketing, Green soon envisioned a city made entirely of stone to accommodate the growing population (from 60 to almost 500 by 1880)
First came a three-story, hotel and opera house complex. The structure, known as Columbia Hall, was completed in 1883 and made of 500,000 tons of stone. The theater offered some of the most well known entertainers of the day, such as Jenny Lind and Major Tom Thumb. Overlooking the town, Green built his twelve-room mansion containing seven Italian marble fireplaces, hand-painted murals, two baths, and a conservatory. Once the house was complete, Green erected more of the city – a railway station, a post office, schoolhouse, a blacksmith shop, water tower, and several houses, all made of stone. In the 1880s, Waterloo’s Portland Cement company opened; its product was easier and cheaper to use than stone or granite in construction. Suddenly, Green’s vision of a town of stone disappeared. In a few years, the quarries stopped operating and Stone City waited for another chance at life.
This shrouded community beckoned as an ideal location for the first art colony in 1930’s eastern Iowa. Edward Rowan, director of the Little Gallery in Cedar Rapids, and Grant Wood had spent summer evenings in Eldon, Iowa, discussing the possibility of an artists’ gathering. Wood, during his time overseas, had seen European versions of such colonies and knew of their success on both the East and West Coasts. In his urgency to find an “American” style of art, Wood directed all artists to use their local scenery, to find promise in their own regions.
Rowan and his friend, Adrian Dornbush, former director of the Flint Institute of Art and a Little Gallery art instructor, contacted prominent artists in the Midwest, asking for their participation as faculty. Rowan’s commitment to the venture encouraged the Carnegie Foundation to invest $1000 in the colony’s creation. Wood refused payment for his involvement; he had become an internationally known painter for American Gothic and would teach and infuse the colony with a productive spirit. The Stone City Art Colony’s faculty would consist of:
The summer of 1932 found about 90-110 students willing to pay room and boarding costs to be part of the six-week art experiment from Saturday, June 26, 1932 to Saturday, August 6, 1932. Tuition ranged from $15.00 for a two-week commitment to $36.00 for the entire summer. Because of Depression-era economics and the reality that most people could not abandon their daily lives for such an opportunity, the Des Moines Register headlined its article about the 1932 colony with the title: “Fools Rush in Where Angels Fear to Tread.”
For women living in the third floor of the “dormitory,” the Green Mansion, costs were roughly $1.50 per week with students furnishing their own linens, towels, and blankets. Rooms could be found in town for a minimal cost; some students opted to camp nearby or live in the fourteen recently refurbished Hubbard ice wagons dotting the colony hillsides. Purchased in Cedar Rapids, the wagons were set aside for male student housing and arranged in a clear line from the mansion to the old stone tower. Elaborate landscapes, awnings, and flower boxes decorated the wagons. Wood chose to live in a wagon during his colony stay and frequently shared space with other male students.
Classes were offered in basic and advanced composition, outdoor painting, figure drawing [with live models], lithography, sculpture, and picture framing. Students had classes in the morning and afternoons, ate meals together at a large dining table, spent free time exploring the area and pursuing their art interests. Since the mansion lacked electricity, evenings were often spent outdoors with music, song, and lectures. The group also renovated the cellar storeroom of the Green mansion into a bar named the “Sickle and Sheaf.” The bar was opened to the public for meals and drinks and earned a strong reputation for its delicious chicken dinners.
Despite its idyllic setting, the Stone City colony was not without controversy. Students thrived under the criticism and attention from the professional faculty and some began to imitate their instructors’ styles, mostly with a predilection toward Wood. With the addition of Sunday art sales and public crowds coming to view and marvel at the colony, faculty members grew less tolerant of the visitors and the students’ production of “little Woods,” as David McCosh, a faculty member, called them.
Among the students, Francis Robert White sparked a small revolt over Wood’s leadership style and broke with the colony, bringing a small group of students with him. These artists would later form the Cooperative Mural Painters Group and paint the WPA-sponsored [TRAP division] mural at the Cedar Rapids’ federal courthouse, a highly controversial project later destroyed via a court order.
In the midst of dire economics, the colony’s income relied upon student tuition and board for its expenses. The 1932 session proved a resounding success but lost money. With an expanded eight-week session (Tuesday, June 27 to Tuesday, August 22, 1933), hopes were high for additional enrollment and recouping some costs. Appointed faculty returned for a second year to a group of over 100 students. The program was accredited by Coe College in Cedar Rapids and sponsored by the Little Gallery and the Iowa Artists Club. However, unable to become self-sufficient with such a large student body, the colony was forced to close in August 1933 for financial reasons. Debts were settled at three-fourths of value; the colony’s property owner, Frank Nissen, father-in-law to poet Paul Engle, donated $150 towards settling rent fees. The wagons became chicken coops for local farmers; the mansion would become Paul Engle’s summer home and be destroyed in a tragic November 1963 fire. Grant Wood would soon be appointed an instructor in the art department of the University of Iowa and assume leadership of all Iowa Works Progress Administration (WPA) projects. The grand experiment had ended, and Stone City had come alive for a brief time, reaching national prominence.
Students associated with the colony would become the core of Iowa artists creating government-funded projects during the 1930s. Under the Department of the Treasury, the Works Progress Administration (WPA) provided wages and expenses for artists’ projects in public buildings – schools, post offices, courthouses, etc. Many of the Stone City colony students would receive WPA commissions in the 1930s, and some, for multiple projects. Many exhibited and won prestigious awards at the Iowa Art Salon of the Iowa State Fair; Wood selected a small group to assist him with the Iowa State University Parks Library mural project. Some joined university faculties, pursued second careers, exhibited nationally, or operated successful galleries or businesses. In total, the colony produced some of Iowa’s most prominent artists of the 1930s-1980s.
Brigham, Johnson. "John Aloysius Green." From Iowa: Its History and Its Foremost Citizens. (v.3) Chicago: S.J. Clarke Publishing, 1916.
The Scope of the Project
This electronic book aims to present thorough biographical profiles of students and faculty who participated in the 1932-1933 Stone City art community. Attendance figures for the colony have ranged from 80-120 students for the first year. 1933 articles from the Cedar Rapids Gazette specifically cite over 100 participants for that session, and many more may have attended intermittently or briefly.
No definitive total exists for enrollment, and persons highlighted within the project are widely documented as attending the colony and are found within colony photographs. For each chosen individual, a narrative composite was built from a group of core elements:
No entry seeks to be exhaustive, merely to encapsulate significant information on an artist. Core, narrative elements may not have been available for all colony students. Public libraries, museums, galleries, and historical societies were contacted for details, and in certain cases, were able to supply missing data. Both traditional print and electronic resources were employed to create all profiles. We welcome and encourage information that you may have and be willing to share with us to continue the development of this work.
In the fall of 2007, the project's second phase began with an emphasis on creating profiles for artists who attended the colony and are not featured in its photographic history. A listing of these persons is found here. Continuing research has prioritized Iowa artists as the first set of biographies to be published, with other Midwestern states to be released as circumstances warrant.
Profiles may be accessed in several ways: from the large group photograph and the list on The Artists page, and from the index on the Resources page. Each profile’s electronic references can be found on the person's page, as well as on the Individual Bibliographies page that includes print and electronic resources. The Background Information Bibliography includes resources on the Stone City Art Colony that may have information on individuals.
When Tillage Begins: The Stone City Art Colony and School
Researcher & Author: Kristy Raine