The Ottumwa Courier

April 7, 2014

Great Depression-era artists create affordable artwork

Courier staff writer

---- — ELDON — A rejection of European abstract art led to a chain of events that brought the newest Grant Wood artwork to southern Iowa.

At Sunday's lecture series Regionalist Art during the Great Depression, Mark McWhorter, director of the Indian Hills Art Gallery at Indian Hills Community College, explained this connection the impact the Great Depression had on the Regionalist art community.

From the 1920s to 1940s, Regionalism was the reaction to European abstract art, cubism for example. Their philosophy was, "If you don't understand it, you probably won't like it."

"They were trying to do a rural art of the scale they had seen in urban areas," McWhorter explained. "They were continuing in the tradition in the United States of landscape painting."

During the Great Depression, times were just as traumatic for artists as they were for other industries. Associated American Artists began in 1933 as a means to create art the general public could afford and help the artists support themselves. Grant Wood and other Regionalist artists were paid $250-300 to create an original work such as a lithograph, etching or wood engraving. It was then printed in a limited number of 250 prints. Each print was usually sold for $5-10.

"When you think that a loaf of bread cost 50 cents, a farmer in Kansas would still have to think about spending that much," McWhorter said.

This is where the American Gothic House Center's newest artwork, "Fruits," originated. The lithograph is from 1939 and holds a special connection to the center because Wood's sister, who was the model for "American Gothic," was instrumental in hand-coloring the lithograph series. This extra work, says Center Administrator Holly Berg, meant Associated American Artists could charge $10 for it.

"Fruits" is now on display at the Center as part of the "Grant Wood and the American Associated Artists" exhibit. It's official opening was held Friday evening prior to Sunday's lecture.

The Indian Hills Art Gallery has about 100 of the Associated American Artists works, which came from Helen Fahrney's donation to the Sisters of Humility. The are kept as a separate collection in the college's permanent collection and are shown every other summer. Some are also on display on a rotating basis in the gallery annex.

— Follow reporter Laura Carrell on Twitter @CourierLauraC