The Stone City Art Colony and School 1932-1933
Leon Zeman

Home - The Project - The Colony - The Artists - Resources - Credits

Leon Zeman (1893-1979) - student

A native of Davenport, Iowa and of Bohemian heritage, Leon Zeman was known as both an artist and teacher. His father, Joseph, disapproved of Leon's interest in studying art, wanting the young man to join his established automobile dealership. Despite his father's opinion, Leon enrolled at the Art Institute of Chicago in 1915, attending for two years before enlisting in the U.S. Army to serve during World War I, hoping to see Paris while abroad. With his extensive background in automobile mechanics, Zeman's appointment to the Ordnance and Motor Transport Corps kept him stateside. In 1919, Zeman was discharged with the rank of Top Sergeant. He immediately re-enrolled at the Art Institute of Chicago, completing further studies. While there, Zeman's father severed financial support. The young artist studied under Lorado Taft, Wellington Reynolds, and Albin Polachek. Immediately prior to his potential graduation date, Zeman left the Art Institute in February 1923 when an art teaching position came available in Cedar Rapids, Iowa.

Zeman joined the Cedar Rapids School district, employed there from 1923-1943, first as a senior high school art teacher, eventually becoming the supervisor of all the system's art programs. He also served as director of the art school for the Cedar Rapids Art Association and was a well-known exhibitor at the Iowa Art Salon (1930-1931) and at the Iowa Federation of Women's Clubs (1932). While living in Cedar Rapids, Zeman also taught art at St. Ambrose College in Davenport, Iowa. Several private mural commissions in Cedar Rapids and Des Moines expanded his endeavors. Zeman was employed as the sole illustrator for both Cedar Rapids, Iowa newspapers (ca.1938-1943), spent time in commercial artwork (late 1930s), and did a bit of clay modeling during this period. Zeman led painting classes for the Tri-City Art League in Davenport. One of his students at Washington High School, Conger Metcalf, attended the art colony and became a professional artist. While exhibiting, Zeman completed commissions for the Tama Indian Reservation (Tama, IA) and attended the 1932 session of the Stone City Art Colony, a direct result of his friendship with Grant Wood.

The original location for the Turner Mortuary in Cedar Rapids, Mansfield House, was given to Grant Wood in the late 1920s. To foster a community art program, Wood rented the house to male artists and musicians, including Zeman, who used part of the second floor to run the Cedar Rapids Art Association’s school. The artists, known as the Fine Art Studio Group, were dubbed the “Studio House” by Wood and local residents. Zeman advocated life model classes for painting, and once Wood agreed to the idea, volunteers wore flesh-colored bathing suits to maintain propriety. However, the suits did not prevent the local police from visiting the house on several occasions over charges of nude models. Leon was also a member of the Garlic Club, a lunch group (organized by Wood) that met at the Travel Inn, Cedar Rapids to share stories. Zeman would eventually leave Studio House when he was to be married in 1928, wanting to pursue more steady work. During much of his professional endeavors, Zeman maintained a close friendship with the Iowa author MacKinlay Kantor, winner of the 1956 Pulitzer Prize for his novel, Andersonville.

In 1943, Zeman resigned from the Cedar Rapids school district, taking his family to Oakland, California, where he worked for Kaiser Cargo, Incorporated. There, Zeman served as a field engineer in the company's Richmond, California shipyards, where he prepared drawings for radio and radar shipboard installations. While an employee, Zeman exposed significant problems in the company's hiring practices, resulting in better operations. From 1946-1949, Zeman worked as an architectural draftsman. In 1949, he became a visual aids consultant at the Twelfth Naval District Training Aids Center on Treasure Island in San Francisco. There, he combined his art and technical experience to develop the prototype program later used for all U.S. Naval training aids centers. Zeman gave demonstrations, teaching naval officers from other nations about the districts' sphere of operations; personnel from Central America, South America, and the far east attended the sessions. The work was in support of the People to People program (1950s), begun in the Eisenhower administration, an effort to promote world peace through relationships in the United States and other nations.

Zeman remained in Richmond, California for the rest of his life, taking on private, occasional, mural commissions. His work as a U.S. Navy Training Aids consultant continued until 1963, when he retired the day after his seventieth birthday. He later participated in San Francisco studio classes, and became active in the World War I Veterans' Barracks, eventually elected post commander. He also returned to polishing semi-precious stones, a hobby harkening back to his childhood, spent along the Mississippi River. Zeman was a member of the local gem society and designed the group's logo; he died in April 1979.

Mary Zeman (Mrs. Leon Zeman) ca 1930. Image courtesy of Robert Zeman, Alamo, California.

A self-portrait of the artist, created while he was in his late seventies (ca. 1965-1969).

"The Drawing of Eunice,"a pencil sketch created at a San Francisco art studio (ca.1940-1950).

Barn near Shellsburg, Iowa, 1936.The artist lived in the small community while working in Cedar Rapids.

Unnamed grove. Location and date unknown.

Canning factory (ca. 1930s, Shellsburg, Iowa)

"Near Shellsburg" (ca.1930s)

Zeman demonstrates reproduction processes to visiting naval officers as part of Treasure Island's (San Francisco, CA) People to People program in the 1950s.


"Figure in Butternut." (undated)

Artwork images courtesy of Robert Zeman, Alamo, California.

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

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

A studio photo of the artist, circa 1932.

The artist, at age 24, home from basic training (1917), photographed with his mother.

The artist, employed as the sole illustrator for both Cedar Rapids, Iowa newspapers, at work (ca. 1938-1943).

The artist at age 84, Post Commander of the World War I Veterans Barracks of Richmond, California (ca. 1978).

Portraits of the artist courtesy of Robert Zeman, Alamo, California.

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

Researcher & Author: Kristy Raine
Library Director: Marilyn Murphy
Editor & Web Designer: Linda Scarth
©Busse Library 2003-2017