The Stone City Art Colony and School 1932-1933
Stone City Art Colony Painting Class, ca. 1932-33.
The Project’s History: An Introduction
This website, in part, was born from misdirection. After almost two months of researching Iowa visual artists, our reference staff realized the topic was too broad and could only hope to mention a fraction of artists from 1860-1950. During a May 2002 visit to the Grant Wood Art Gallery in Anamosa, I paused in front of several photos of the Stone City experiment, all taken by the Cedar Rapids photographer, John W. Barry, Jr. A week later, I saw a 1932 colony group photo and an accompanying description of the colony. The roster was incomplete; each face certainly had a story to be told.
In short, I soon discovered a missing piece from the research body about Grant Wood – no book-length discussions on the colony, or more importantly, about the students. No attempts to capture their stories as a communal experience, to show their relationships and the colony’s effects on their lives. Quick fact checking revealed many of the colony’s students had died in the last ten years. While corresponding with the Davenport Art Museum (now, the Figge Art Museum) about the painter John V. Bloom, I received a message from their curator; they had found my email on the night he died. The city was mourning the loss of a celebrated artist, and I was now determined to honor his memory, as well as those of the other students, by sharing their stories.
The Scope of the Project
Determining how to limit the project proved easy. I was loaned a folder of original newspaper clippings on Grant Wood-related history by Cecilia Hatcher, an Anamosa businesswoman and Wood enthusiast. Hatcher’s treasures included Cedar Rapids Gazette articles from 1932-33 showing enrollments for the colony; articles featured participants’ names and hometowns. By 1933, the student group was so large (100+) and intermittent that profiling the 1932 group seemed a manageable task. Hatcher also directed me to a signature sheet in the Grant Wood Art Gallery – a paper passed among the students, showing their signatures and addresses. When compared with the 1932 group photo, the two artifacts suggested a prime opportunity to add to the body of Wood research.
The project’s format was soon established – a website that functions as an electronic book, offering biographies of the 1932 colony participants. Coupled with each profile would be Internet resources and photographs. I maintained a complete bibliography of referenced works and a list of consulted individuals. The project grew to include a narrative on the colony’s history and its demise, bibliographies on icons of art, and standard book features – table of contents, index, etc. Encompassing both the faculty and students, the website would attempt to identify every person in the 1932 group photo and to follow each artist’s career. A biography would include birth and death dates, residency, education, art training, major works or commissions, employment or career history, awards and memberships, exhibitions, and other special items. How to gather such information proved to be a journey of its own. What was thought to possibly last five months proved to be years of research – written correspondence, emails, books and journal articles, and one discovery after another.In the fall of 2007, the project's long-awaited expansion began, seeking to capture the stories of students who attended the colony but are not featured in its photographic history. These individuals, grouped by their state of residence (as declared in 1932 or 1933) are listed here. Priority has been given to Iowa-based artists, and research is ongoing for other states. Our intent, as always, is to bring stories to the public, engaging visitors with profiles of men and women who made significant contributions to Midwestern and American art history.
The Research: Tribulations and Revelations
Genealogists employ many of the tools used to research the artists’ profiles. The men and women of the colony, some of them forgotten, had made significant contributions to art in Iowa and tracing their histories began with an elemental start – locating their cities/dates of birth and death. To this end, the Social Security Death Index (SSDI) (http://ssdi.genealogy.rootsweb.com/) is a wondrous tool, composed of records for most people who held a Social Security card and are now deceased. Searchers will find SSNs, last known residences, dates of birth and death, and other details. Elements within the database’s tables narrowed searching considerably, and in some instances, produced a single match. Verifying the last residence or locating an obituary was routinely found by contacting that city’s public library or newspaper. If those resources lacked information, a county or city historical society might locate texts or offer referrals to other community resources. For some artists, every SSDI record with a similar name was checked before yielding the correct person.
Internet searches using Google (http://www.google.com/) produced many starting points and confirmations. Using full names, pieces of addresses, and locations did result in documents about some artists. The statistical chances of finding useable data was high for many entries, slim to none for others. Yet it is those improbable searches that made the chase incredibly wonderful – a genealogy listserv that produced a family member, an alumni newsletter that located a relative, a one-line notation that confirmed military service. The greatest delight came in locating family members of colony participants – spouses, children, grandchildren – all willing to share stories of their loved ones and all enthusiastic about the project. Handwritten letters and words of encouragement were constant; personal artifacts were passed along to me with acceptance. Public libraries across the United States were prompt and thorough in helping my searches; many small, rural library directors spent time outside of work to handle my inquiries. I remain impressed with all of them, willing to help a librarian bring a Depression-Era art experiment back to life.
Even as the project embraced technology for searching, there were many traditional tools. James M. Dennis’ monumental work, Grant Wood: A Study in American Art and Culture, played a key role in deciphering Wood’s history, motivations, and lifestyle. Lea Rosson DeLong and Gregg R. Narber’s publication New Deal Mural Projects in Iowa became my primary text, a perfect companion to the research since many of the colony’s participants created post office murals in Iowa. I was fortunate to meet DeLong during a brief Cedar Rapids visit in February 2003. She emphasized that the project was important and was astounded at my mountain of paperwork. Iowa’s history journals, notably The Palimpsest, Annals of Iowa, and The Iowa Journal of History and Politics, offered in-depth research on Wood and the Stone City colony, but few stories of the students.
Many of the artist profiles would be grossly incomplete without records contained at the Smithsonian Institution’s Archives of American Art (AAA). In its efforts to trace the New Deal Era, the museum commissioned a comprehensive WPA artist collection – print and recorded interviews, photographs and letters. All materials are held at the Archives and much is available for loan or viewing. Edward Rowan, director of the Cedar Rapids’ Little Gallery and a colony founder, would eventually serve as assistant director for all WPA programs. His personal correspondence (held at the AAA) revealed summers with Grant Wood in Eldon, Iowa, a rural community best known for its most famous landmark, the home in Wood’s American Gothic. Rowan’s letters describe the colony’s organization and financial struggle, as well as Wood’s enthusiasm. Similarly, the few financial records left from the 1933 colony year, all vividly showing the crumbling finances and Wood’s inability to manage the costs, can be seen in the John Cantwell Reid Papers, held in the Special Collections Department of the University of Iowa Libraries in Iowa City.
The heart of this project is to locate and share stories of men and women who made significant contributions to Iowa’s history and to American art. The Stone City art colony’s spirit can never be replicated, and our efforts have tried to capture a small amount of the students’ and faculty’s talent and innovation. If we have succeeded in this one goal, we hope the website is a fitting memorial to these artists, honoring both their lives and their accomplishments.
When Tillage Begins: The Stone City Art Colony and School
Researcher & Author: Kristy Raine