A Prairie Artist in a Prairie Town

It was a fitting location for a fitting tribute.

In the final four years of a career that would be cut short at the age of 51 by pancreatic cancer, Midwestern artist Grant Wood turned his attention away from his rich, colorful oil paintings to black-inked prints produced from slabs of limestone.

The idea for the prints came from two New York art dealers who had formed the Associated American Artists. Beginning in 1934, during the Great Depression, Reeves Lewenthal and Maurice Liederman approached more than 25 artists with a unique plan: each artist would create an original scene on polished limestone that would be shipped to a printer who would publish an edition of just 250 prints, which would then be shipped back to the artist for approval and signing. The prints were then sold via mail order across the country for $5 each, enabling middle class families to have original works of art in their homes.

Grant Wood, who was then dividing his time between painting and teaching at the University of Iowa, embraced the idea and so over the course of nearly four years created 15 black and white originals for the Associated American Artists project. By this time in his career nearly every oil painting which Wood produced went directly to a museum or a wealthy collector, as his reputation had blossomed since the 1930 iconic painting American Gothic, a part of the permanent collection of the Art Institute of Chicago.

Today, if you wanted to see examples of all 15 of the prints which Grant Wood created, you would not travel to the Art Institute of Chicago, you would not make a journey to one of the major art museums in New York City, San Francisco, St. Louis, or Los Angeles.

You would drive to the modest public library in Tipton, Iowa.

As an orphan, Roger Leech spent much of his time hanging out in the Tipton library. After a successful career, Leech passed away in 1976, leaving the Tipton public library more than $200,000 and his extensive art collection, including 15 signed examples of Grant Wood lithographic prints. Unaware of the importance of the collection, the library sent a volunteer to Chicago who transported the lithographic prints, as well as two of Wood’s earliest oil paintings, back to Tipton in his pickup truck.

While my family never owned one of Grant Wood’s prints, I grew up seeing reproductions of his paintings in my aunt’s home in Illinois. I lived in Iowa City for nearly a decade, during which time I began researching Grant Wood’s career and visiting his hometown, as well as his early studios in Cedar Rapids and Stone City, and admiring a few of his lithographic prints on display in the Davenport Art Museum.

But it was not until a few months ago, while continuing my research, that I learned of the collection of lithographs housed in the Tipton public library, located about thirty minutes east of Iowa City.

And so while visiting my family in Illinois last week I borrowed by father’s car and drove to Tipton and spent a hour staring at the walls of the public library, seeing for the first time all 15 of Grant Wood’s black-and-white lithographs on permanent display in one room.

And the only place you can do this is in Tipton, Iowa.

A small town out on the Iowa prairie, on those same rolling hills amid the gentle, caring people who served as the inspiration for much of Grant Wood’s work.

A fitting location for a fitting tribute.

Until next Monday,

Have a great week!