Working Over Wood
Iowa State University's Parks Library is home to two major murals that were designed by Grant Wood and executed by a group of Iowa artists through the federal Public Works of Art Program in the 1930’s. These murals, entitled “When Tillage Begins” and “Breaking Prairie,” depict a kind of visual timeline of the agricultural, educational, and technological history of Iowa, emphasizing the strengths of Iowan culture through a series of symbolic figurative vignettes. The murals are impressive in their own right – larger than life size figures, minute details depicting the tiniest nuance of prairie grass, farming equipment, or bridge construction. Commissioned by Iowa State President Raymond Hughes in 1933, the murals served to reinvigorate the campus through the celebration of Iowan history (“Breaking Prairie”) and through the illustration of Iowa State’s then current areas of specialty (“When Tillage Begins”): Veterinary Medicine, Farm Crops, Animal Husbandry, Home Economics, Ceramics and Chemical Engineering, Mechanical Engineering, Aeronautical Engineering, and Civil Engineering. Interestingly, Lea Rossen DeLong, author of "When Tillage Begins, Other Arts Follow: Grant Wood and Christian Petersen Murals", gives evidence that Wood intended to create six more murals for Parks Library (specifically for the Reference Room) to celebrate each of the six fine arts (defined at that time to be painting, sculpture, architecture, poetry, music, and theatre) that “follow” the original nine applied arts.
There are several uncanny parallels between the climate of 1933 Iowa State and of 2012 Iowa State: both suffer greatly from financial turbulence, uncertainty of funding, a strong decrease of state support, and a general sense of unrest. Hughes took discouraging circumstances to build one of the largest collections of public art on any campus in the nation and introduced fine art courses into the general curriculum, citing the appreciation of beauty to be integral to the education of every Iowan. Ironically, those faculty and students in the departments contributing to the development of future artists, writers, performers, and musicians often find themselves stripped of institutional support with severe budget cuts, layoffs, and strong encouragement to increase class sizes for increased tuition dollars.
I have created smaller versions of the original nine murals of When Tillage Begins on steel panels (each panel is 6’H x 2½’W) in order to make them magnetic, and thus open to change. Accompanying each of these panels are a few hundred magnets, which I and participants created from found objects, masonite and paint. The initial focus of the magnets was to somehow suggest, embody, or declare the presence of these “lost fine arts” on campus, and to open a dialogue about how those arts are still relevant. I sent out an informal survey to several faculty members and students within the Architecture, Integrated Studio Arts, Theatre, Music, and English departments, and many of the magnets stemmed from their thoughts. My goal for these pieces is to celebrate and call attention to the fine arts on Iowa State’s campus, departments that are often shorted financially in a land grant institution. In addition, the magnets span a large spectrum of content, from references from the history of Iowa State, to images referring to contemporary events and issues on campus and in the greater Iowa community.
This project was generously funded by the Iowa Arts Council, Prairie Center of the Arts, Art Farm, and the New York Mills Cultural Center.