The Stone City Art Colony and School 1932-1933
Howard C. Johnson

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Howard C. Johnson (1913-1963) - student

Born in the tiny community of Griswold, Iowa, Howard Johnson was a self-trained artist, specializing in oils, who spent two full summer sessions at the Stone City Art Colony. Following this experience, Johnson enrolled as an art student at the University of Iowa (fall 1934), taking mural painting classes from his former colony director, Grant Wood. He also completed painting and drawing classes at the Little Gallery in Cedar Rapids (1932-1933), the city where he spent most of his life. Johnson would be employed by the National Artists Relief Measure, the Public Works of Art Project (PWAP) from December 1933 to May 1934; he was later affiliated with Treasury Relief Art Program (TRAP) from November 1935 through July 1937.

Despite his limited art education, Johnson exhibited widely – the Iowa Art Salon of the Iowa State Fair (1933-37; various awards); University of Iowa Student Show (1934); Philadelphia Water Color Show (1936); International Water Color Show (Chicago, 1936-37); Great Hall, Iowa State University; Joslyn Memorial Museum, Omaha; and the All Iowa Show at Cornell College, Mount Vernon, Iowa (1938). "Family Reunion," Johnson's featured oil in this exhibition, was later selected to represent the state at the 1938 All States Exhibition (Rockefeller Center, New York City). Johnson also displayed works at the Central Iowa Fair at Marshalltown, Iowa (1936-37); the Art Institute of Chicago (1937); and the Little Gallery in Cedar Rapids. The artist had one-man shows at Cornell College (1939), Iowa State College (Ames, IA, 1939), Younker Brothers department store (Des Moines, IA, 1939), the Ottumwa Art Center (Ottumwa, IA, 1939), and at the Sioux City Art Center (Sioux City, IA, 1940). Iowa Speaks, a national, touring exhibition sponsored by the American Federation of Arts, featured Johnson's oil painting, "Corn Husking" (1934-1936).

Johnson is most remembered for his involvement in three major, mural projects in Iowa. The first, the mural series at Parks Library, Iowa State College (now Iowa State University), found him among a group of student painters selected by Grant Wood. Johnson, like many of the others, had attended the Stone City Art Colony; Wood developed the murals' concept and initial design in late 1933. Johnson, along with thirteen other men, assisted in completing eleven panels for the project -- "When Tillage Begins, Other Arts Follow.” Wood led the creative and work process in Iowa City; the panels were transported to Ames on large, metal cylinders. Installed and dedicated in October 1934, the series was the first PWAP project to be located in an American, educational institution. Capturing the university's agricultural beginnings, the scenes celebrate the campus' academic programs in veterinary medicine, home economics, and engineering. The second project, the WPA mural commission for the Iowa State Fairgrounds in Des Moines, made history for its bitter ending.

Along with Daniel Rhodes, Johnson received the WPA commission for the fairgrounds project in 1937 and completed the panels in 1939. The mural, roughly 110 feet long and 10 feet wide, was built on the same theme used in an Iowa State University library mural panel and was titled "History of Agriculture in Iowa." Presumably, the mural depicted agriculture in various stages – planting, harvesting, production, and even the meat packing industry. Scenes also showed pioneers settling western America. As the artists progressed in their work, passersby would point out mistakes or inaccuracies; the mural’s human figures drew much criticism for their dark faces and solemn expressions. The displeasure of fairgoers and the Fair Board reached a climax in 1946 when the Board secretary, Lloyd Cunningham, ordered the mural destroyed because of its negative portrayal of farmers. The mural was cut down upon orders from the Fair Board and used for scrap lumber at the centennial celebration of the state fair.

As work on the fairgrounds project closed, Johnson was assigned to the Ottumwa Art Center (Ottumwa, IA), working for the state's Federal Art Project director (WPA), Francis Robert ("Bob") White. His general duties included teaching painting and drawing classes for adults, as well as providing gallery talks and hanging exhibitions. In April 1940, Johnson was released from his Ottumwa appointment and that summer, joined the staff of the new Des Moines Art Center as its assistant director. There, he supervised exhibition hangings, marketing efforts, and general maintenance of the facility, all the while employed as a member of the creative division of the Iowa Art Project. In August 1940, Marion Gilmore received Johnson's assistance in applying gesso to the Corning (IA) wall that would soon bear her "Band Concert" mural. In 1941, Johnson became acting director of the Des Moines Art Center; he then began experimenting with silk screen printing and lithography.

Johnson was also employed by the Treasury Relief Art Project (TRAP, 1935-1937) as a project assistant to Bob White, organizer of the Cooperative Mural Painters Group of Cedar Rapids. The team was responsible for the Linn County, federal courthouse mural commission. The project was inspired by the work of Mexican muralists and was destroyed after years of complaints about its subject matter. The mural's four panels featured expansive scenes of American, pioneer life, the rise of the Industrial Age and growth of cities, the use of early medicine to treat disease, and most notably, a series of images focusing on frontier justice, including a lynching. Johnson was later transfered from the TRAP program to the Iowa Works Progress Administration (WPA) Art Project in the summer of 1937.

Local criticism also greatly impacted a 1937 mural project, a gift for the Sunshine Mission, Cedar Rapids' original homeless shelter, founded in 1895. Johnson and Bob White were assisted by Harry D. Jones, a member of the cooperative. The trio painted scenes that employed contemporary images to convey Bible stories. Threats to paint over the mural reached their height in February 1938, when the state ACLU chapter's involvement allowed the work to finish and ultimately, to defer to the mission's leadership as the final arbitrator. Johnson lived for several years in the city's Granby Building, home to many artists’ studios. Later, he worked for Collins Radio Company (Rockwell-Collins International) as a security guard. He died in Cedar Rapids in January 1963.

One wall of the mural in the former federal courthouse (now being converted to become the Cedar Rapids City Hall) has been restored. It is a handsome, colorful depiction of several aspects of settlement and development of the Midwestern United States. The next page (click here) has a larger version on the entire wall. Use the scroll bar at the bottom of the page to see the entire image.

The first scene on the left is about the Native Americans.

This is followed with the pioneers.

Next slavery and European immigrant labor are depicted.

The railroad, Asian workers and the beginnings of industrialization are the next scene.

Farming and abundance follow.

Modern heavy industry and a comment on the lives of workers are in the last section.

The following four works by Howard C. Johnson are used with the permission of the family of Tom, Christine, and Laura J. Barta, Ames, Iowa.

"Day in March" (watercolor, undated). From the private collection of the Thomas Barta family.

"Open Country" (pen and ink drawing, 1942). From the private collection of the Thomas Barta family.

"Black Over White" (watercolor, 1941).  The painting was exhibited in the 44th Annual Watercolor and Print Exhibition (1946) at the Philadelphia Academy of Fine Art (PAFA) and retains its original exhibit entry form on the back of the frame. From the private collection of the Thomas Barta family.

“Abandoned Quarry” (oil on canvas, 1937). Shown in the American Paintings and Sculpture 48th Annual Exhibition (1937-1938) at the Art Institute of Chicago. The work’s gold plate notes a first place award at the 1938 Iowa Artists Exhibit at Cornell College in Mount Vernon. From the private collection of the Thomas Barta family.

Howard C. Johnson -  From the large group photo of The 1932 Stone City Art Colony and School found on the Artists: 1932 page.

Howard C. Johnson. From the large group photo of The 1932 Stone City Art Colony and School found on the Artists: 1932 page.

Photo taken at the Stone City Art Colony.

Undated photo.



When Tillage Begins: The Stone City Art Colony and School
Published online October 2003 by the
Busse Library,
Mount Mercy University
Cedar Rapids, Iowa
Telephone: 319-368-6465
Fax: 319-363-9060

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