July 29, 2021

As the world's largest annual bicycle ride rolls into Anamosa on Thursday, the town is planning a big welcome.

In fact, it's a 25-foot-tall welcome — a towering sculpture with a pair of statues that depict the home-spun characters in native son Grant Wood's most famous painting, "American Gothic."

Organizers are expecting to see the statues featured in a big batch of selfies posted by cyclists riding the Register's Annual Great Bicycle Ride Across Iowa.

"It's a great photo spot," said LeeAnne Boone, head of the Anamosa Chamber of Commerce.

The sculpture temporarily has been erected in Wood's hometown for RAGBRAI in hopes that riders will help keep it there permanently.

Big sculpture has had a big story

The sculpture, formally known as "God Bless America," was the work of prolific American sculptor Seward Johnson.

Johnson, who died last year, was best known for a very different kind of sculpture: life-sized bronzes of everyday people in everyday activities.

The sculpture in Anamosa, is part of a later series based on iconic images. Many are what Seward called “monumental scale.” The series has been exhibited around the U.S. and the world.

The series also includes monumental scale interpretations of Marilyn Monroe in the steam grate scene from "The Seven Year Itch" and of “The Kiss,” based on the iconic photo of a sailor locking lips with a nurse in Times Square on VJ Day in 1945.

While the Chicago Tribune called "God Bless America" a “knockoff” when it was exhibited there in 2009, it has won praise as well for making art accessible.

Aside from being three-dimensional, it differs from Wood's original in that the painting showed the two figures only from the waist up. Johnson also added a suitcase covered in travel stickers at their feet.

Given the sculpture's travels, a viewer could be forgiven for taking the stickers as a literal history of where it has been. In fact, they provide a metaphorical map of places American manufacturing jobs have moved overseas.

RAGBRAI is BIG in Anamosa this year

In part inspired by the sculpture, organizers of  the Anamosa overnight RAGBRAI stop made their theme "BIG,"

The full tagline for the stop: "Size Matters: And We Like 'em Big"

"It was to focus on the big things we have," Boone said.

Best known for being home to the Anamosa State Penitentiary, Anamosa has a long history with RAGBRAI, previously serving as an overnight stop in 1991, 2002 and 2012. It also has been a pass-through town.

Aside from the sculpture, organizers point to the town’s eponymous prison — a.k.a. the Big House — and its annual giant pumpkin contest as examples of the town’s year-round big-ness.

Adding to the RAGBRAI festivities: giant board games and stages featuring Jones County’s “biggest” hometown bands, Boone said.

And the 15,000-plus people bedding down in town will quadruple Anamosa's not-so-big population.

Grant Wood was made famous by the image

Wood painted the iconic image of an Iowa farmer and his daughter in 1930 — inspired by a house in southeast Iowa — and it has been part of the collection of the Art Institute of Chicago ever since.

Wood, who later gained fame from the painting, submitted it to an exhibition at the museum. It won the $300 third prize. That's about $5,000 in 2021 dollars.

Wood grew up in Anamosa and later lived in both Cedar Rapids and Iowa City, where he taught fine arts at the University of Iowa. 

There is some controversy about whether the painting was intended to be a celebration of Midwestern values or a satire of them.

Wood's art sometimes did both, but curators at the Art Institute have said the painting is firmly in the camp of celebration, according to art historians.

Wood was born on a farm near Anamosa in 1891. He moved with his family to Cedar Rapids in 1901.

His local legacy is enshrined at the University of Iowa's Grant Wood Art Colony in Iowa City, named after Wood's own Stone City Art Colony.

The director of the program, a former museum curator with roots in Anamosa, has praised the sculpture as an important piece of "Grant Wood Country."

"Annually, I take our fellows on a tour of Grant Wood sites so they can gain a deeper understanding of Wood and Iowa. Very little physically remains of Stone City Art Colony and it can be challenging to observe Wood's impact in this area," Maura Pilcher said in an email.

The sculpture offers the attraction of Instagram-ability, providing "a photo op and the catalyst for greater discussion," she said.

Town hoping to raise big money to give the sculpture a permanent home

Speaking of photo ops, Boone said the town is hoping that RAGBRAI riders will reach into their metaphoric pockets — most bike shorts don't have them — and donate when they take their selfies and snapshots.

The sculpture previously visited the town in 2018, but kept on moving. Since then, Seward's foundation has offered to sell it to the town.

Boone said that's an important, but expensive, proposition. The sculpture has been valued at as much as $880,000.

Although Boone said the price remains under negotiation, making the purchase even at a substantial discount would be a tall order for a town of 5,476 souls.

"We're applying for grants of course," Boone said. "But we're hoping that the riders really help us out."

The sculpture's first visit to town provided the town a needed tourism draw, she said.

"We don't have exact figures, but I think you could go to any business -- especially on Main Street — and I think they could tell you," Boone said. 

Pilcher said the value of having the sculpture in Anamosa goes deeper.

"While 'American Gothic' is the most recognizable American painting, the image is often disconnected from its title and author," Pilcher said. "The statue in its enormity returns the painting back into focus and reconnects it with Grant Wood."

Daniel Lathrop is a staff writer. He hopes to be in good enough shape to ride in next year's RAGBRAI. Reach him at (319) 244-8873 or dlathrop@dmreg.com. Follow him at @lathropd on Twitter and facebook.com/lathropod.

Publication Source: 
The Des Moines Register