Taking It For Granted

Cedar-Rapids

Cedar Rapids skyline. All photos courtesy of Cedar Rapids Area CVB

Factoid for the day: The most recognized, and lampooned, painting in the world is the Mona Lisa. Coming in a strong second is Grant Wood’s American Gothic, a stoic Iowa farmer and his spouse. The Chicago Art Institute snapped it up for $300 back in the day and ain’t selling. But fans of the founder of Regionalism can bask in his painted celebrations of flatly-rolling hills dotted with popcorn trees or earnest portraits cached in his hometown of Cedar Rapids.

The city’s art museum represents a melding of a former Carnegie library with an avant new addition sporting “Grecian” pillars in baby-blue and a palm-studded conservatory lounge. It sports the world’s largest collection of the artist’s works—almost 300—which include jewelry and a rough-hewn bench produced by the students in the high school where Wood once taught woodworking; it sat outside the principal’s office and bears the inscribed admonishment “The Way of the Transgressor is Hard.”  But it’s the paintings—those paeans to Middle America—that cause your jaw to drop.

NewBo City Market

Like Dorothy, Wood discovered that there’s no place like home. After studying at our own MCAD, and a stint in France absorbing the Impressionists’ style, he chose to return to Cedar Rapids to paint what he knew and loved best. A few blocks further on stands his miniscule loft apartment-cum-studio, which he designed in a sort of Surrealism meets Frank Lloyd Wright style—curvy white walls and built-ins (but no stove, only a hot plate), which he shared with his mother and, often, sister Nan, his frequent models. As a docent points out, the famous Lady with Plant painting on display is mom holding her potted mother-in-law’s-tongue, whose very spears reappear today on the receptionist’s desk. (The docent also shares a wicked story about his get-even-with-conservatives painting of Ladies of the D.A.R., one of whom appears to be George Washington in drag.)

Grant Wood also fabricated a Lady Victory stained-glass mural in the V.A. building, damaged by the great flood of 2008 and soon to reopen to visitors. You can also find an example of his work in the magnificent Brucemoor Mansion, set amid 26 wooded acres. Owned by a succession of three families, its matriarchs designed the estate to favor their talents: one an avid gardener, one a musician (a mural of Wagner’s Ring Cycle circles the entry hall), another a bookbinder who filled the library. A daughter begged for a swimming pool and was told to expect a surprise beginning with P when she returned for boarding school. And here’s where Wood comes in again: Surprise, Barbara—the artist designed and decorated a porch for your room. (She later got her pool.)

Not to be outdone, Dad got his man cave in the basement, the Tahitian Room that looks like Hawaii gone awry, complete with rain wall. And where other manly men might keep a hunting dog, this guy kept a lion—and not just any lion, but the one from the MGM logo.

Zins café

Speaking of films, the fellow, who clearly had connections, was allowed to visit the set while Gone With the Wind was being filmed—and bring his home-movie camera. Thus, the visitors’ center runs the reel catching Clark Gable puffing a ciggie and Olivia de Haviland getting her makeup refreshed.

Speaking of refreshing, that monumental flood of 2008 devastated much of the town. Everywhere I went, the high-water mark was painted higher than my head, such as on the walls of Zins, a stylish café where small plates flourish, such as brunch’s benedict Oscar, chicken-fried steak, and eggs with andouille gravy or dinner’s almond trout, mojito lamb lollipops, and sweet-potato gnocchi.

FEMA funding and a major burst of civic spirit have turned those floodwaters to lemonade, allowing for widening downtown sidewalks to accommodate outdoor tables and installing a new riverside amphitheater. The classic Paramount Theater of 1928 is ready to re-open with its gorgeous chandelier and bronze doors repaired, alongside a 21st-century wish list of amenities. A new library, fronting a Saturday farmers market, replaces the old site of drowned books. The riverside Czech and Slovak Museum has been repositioned and expanded to showcase a gift shop of Czech glass, from delicate Christmas ornaments to art and dinner ware. Its current exhibit of Czech artist Alphonse Mucha’s Art Nouveau posters (think Sarah Bernhardt) makes its only North American stop before visiting Japan.

Cedar Rapids Art Museum

The African American Museum of Iowa depicts that floodline, too, but again has been refurbished and enlarged to tell its story, from slave ships to plantation life, from Iowa’s underground railroad and slave owners in Dubuque to sit-ins at a Des Moines drugstore.

CSPS, originally a Czech social hall, now rises anew from the slime as a new arts center, hosting theaters, galleries, a coffeehouse, and a bookstore. And across the street here in NewBo (as in Bohemia), an indoor market is poised to open, incorporating 23 vendors, from cheese to cupcakes, artisan bread to artisan beer and wine, along with live music and a cooking-class facility operated by Kirkwood Community College, which also owns and runs the vibrant, new Kirkwood Hotel, outswanking any W. Its restaurant—rightly called Class Act—again salutes small plates, such as truffled gnocchi with crab and sweet corn, crab cakes with pineapple salsa and Creole remoulade, and tacos carnitas.

Davenport, an hour or so east, is the arts-forward component of the Quad Cities of Iowa and Illinois that coalesce on the banks of the Mississippi, so it’s the next stop for those channeling Grant Wood. The Figge, launched in 2005 as a showpiece art museum that “out-Walkers” the Walker, displays Wood’s self-portrait, his actual easel, palette, and suitcase, along with those iconic little, round spectacles, his silver cigarette case, and his baby spoon. It also showcases works of fellow Regionalists like Marsden Hartley, Thomas Hart Benton, and Frank Lloyd Wright (Okay, non-Regionalists like Chagall and Picasso, too.)

Restaurant at the Kirkwood Hotel

A few blocks away, Bucktown Center for the Arts salutes the Quad’s up-and-comers. The cooperative rents its 15 galleries to local artists who, in turn, are free to sublet a wall or three to fellow artists—painters, photographers, weavers, a sculptor (he’s 14), and more, who create elegant-to-edgy art for our times.

Then cross the bridge to Moline, a company town, and that company is John Deere. Trace Deere’s history from John’s invention of a horse-drawn plow with a metal blade replacing the typical wooden one on up to the $500,000 combine onto which visitors are free to scramble. Tour the founder’s elegant mansion if you wish, then head to the corporate headquarters where—surprise!—corridors are lined with life-sized drawings by Grant Wood of the working-class folks who populated his world.

To plan your trip, visit www.cedar-rapids.com and www.visitquadcities.com.

Gay Cedar Rapids
Club Basix (www.BellesBasix.com) open till 2 a.m.
Remember, some of these drag queens might be married; it’s legal in Iowa!

Gay Davenport
Connections Night Club—check out the tiki bar.
Mary’s, anchoring the Rainbow District (800 block of W. 2nd St.): two dance clubs: Club Liquid with three-level dance floor, pool tables and drag shows; Club Fusion; and a restaurant, 811:Lockdown

Gay Pride: June 1-2, 2013

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