Cedar Rapids leaders have christened the “Grant Wood Cultural District,” a tribute to the Iowa native who painted the iconic “American Gothic” image in his Cedar Rapids studio in 1930. A two-story tall window Wood designed for the lobby of the Veterans Memorial Building in Cedar Rapids was rededicated earlier this month. Mike Jager is head of the commission that’s in charge of the building and he says the stained-glass images are striking.
“The first row are life-size, six-foot-high figures of veterans of the six wars that had been fought up to that point — the Revolutionary War, the War of 1812, Mexican-American War, American Civil War, the Spanish-American War and World War I,” Jager says.
A giant angel is above the soldiers, holding an olive branch in one hand and a victory wreath in the other. The stained-glass artwork had suffered from age and from flood damage in 2008. Just a few months ago, the window was in about nine-thousand pieces. John Watts, co-owner of the Glass Heritage Shop in Davenport, helped in the restoration. Watts says it was an honor to work on the project.
“I’m a Vietnam Vet. It took me years of therapy just to get to say that,” Watts says. “…Going from being spit on when I got home into being able to work on a project that really honors veterans is really therapeutic for me.” Grant Wood was a World War One veteran, but his stained glass tribute to veterans was the object of some controversy in 1929 when it debuted. Critics complained because the stained glass window was manufactured in Germany, an enemy during World War One. Sean Ulmer, curator at the Cedar Rapids Museum of Art, says in the 1920s, the best-skilled stained glass craftsmen were in Germany.
“He really wanted to be a very good artist, a great artist, and so he wasn’t going to do all of this work and invest all of this time to have it be made in a less than acceptable form,” Ulmer says. The sketches Wood made of the window’s design are now on display in the Cedar Rapids Museum of Art.
The sketches were found above the boiler in the Veterans Memorial Building in Cedar Rapids in 1973, but this is the first time Wood’s huge, full-scale drawings have been on public display. Wood created some of his most famous paintings, like “The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere,” in a studio in Cedar Rapids that’s now part of the Grant Wood Cultural District. His studio is open for tours on Saturday and Sunday afternoons.