I am driving the Grant Wood Scenic Byway. Not by choice mind you. It is out of necessity. I am working with several small towns here along the route so I am required to get out and see my applicants. This means driving; lots and lots of driving along winding roads, up and down hills, and staring at endless rows of corn drying in the sun. I have it good this day. This is one of the most underrated drives in America and the scenery here is gorgeous.
The Grant Wood Scenic Byway is named for the artist Grant Wood, Iowa’s most beloved son and the painter of the second most famous painting in the world, “American Gothic.” Wood was born here locally (1891), taught locally, and travelled these roads making his living as an artist. His influence within this region is huge. Like many of us, Wood never realized the beauty of his home until his later years. He was once quoted saying, “I wanted things that looked French.”
I don’t think Grant ever made it to France, which would become America’s blessing. Grant eventually turned his eye on the hills about him, the weathered farmhouses, and the noble folk of eastern Iowa and discovered something that he had not appreciated as younger man– the simple home spun beauty of the land and people about him.
Grant focused on the unpretentious people about him and sought to capture them in their daily lives. As you drive the Grant Wood Scenic Byway, you are seeing the land as Wood saw it. The gently sloping hills covered in tasseled corn are everywhere. Towns like Wyoming and Anamosa have evolved little since Wood’s death. Even the brutal Iowa winters, when snow is measured by the feet and the temperatures are recorded in the deep negatives, would attract Wood’s artistic eye. There is a splendor here that you will not find elsewhere.
But, Wood saw the generous people of Iowa as the real art.
“American Gothic,” painted in 1930, sought to capture the simple beauty of these people who work the land making their living keeping America fed. Wood would not live to see his most iconic work become one of the most famous paintings in the world. On my last visit here, I went to the actual house (now referred to as the American Gothic House, which served as the model for American Gothic and has now become a huge tourist attraction. I purchased a poster of American Gothic and had it framed. When Connor, my seven year old nephew saw the picture he immediately commented, “Grant Wood’s American Gothic, I know about this.” When a seven year old recognizes your art by name, you have achieved something incredible.
You have to make an effort to drive the Grant Wood Scenic Byway. There are no interstates nearby. This is a route that you have to work to get to, but it is a drive that is worthy of your time. Just be prepared to go slow and enjoy yourself.
You will thank me later.
Eric Wynn always welcomes comments and you are encouraged to follow him as he travels America.