Grant Wood and the Axe in The Hall

This drawing falls a little short. Her eyes aren’t quite pale enough, they’re just shy of the exhaustion, the resignation, of the original. In the original that depth is bottomless. In her hands is his hat, gripping it while he drinks.

This is not how I imagine my own generations of Iowa grandmothers, staring through the earth, but it doesn’t feel any less true. Likely there were cousins, aunts whose experience was reflected in Wood’s grim rendering.

Was this just his model’s resting face? I’d to like think his darkness was always a little more intentional.

Two Grant Wood-designed murals live in the Iowa State University library. Wrapping the stairwell is one depicting the Arts taught at the nation’s first land grant college: ceramics and chemistry, animal husbandry, home economics, etc. Executed by other artists under Wood’s direction, it is fine, not great, but it evokes its era. Everyone works, looks well fed, and the pigs trot with charm.

The Daniel Webster quote driving the murals is, “When tillage begins, other arts follow. The farmers therefore are the founders of civilization.”

In the large, low-ceilinged niche at the base of the stairs is the plow painting, “Breaking the Prairie Sod.” It has a short panel on right and left and a long panel in the middle. The neo-classical modeling is clean, simple, almost flat, but not flat at all. Details are rendered with a sense of pattern and subordination. All the colors were mixed to a very exact key, no over-intensity, no washing out.

On the left panel, a man’s axe hits the tree. In the center a woman waits while the man at the plow (the new, horse-drawn plow, in contrast to the slow, oxen plow in the distance) drinks. The sod curls over. The horse and mule wait. The clouds roll in like locomotives following the old plow. In the right panel a young man brings his axe high.

We stand behind the brass rail. There are wild flowers at our feet and at the feet of the axe-men. The horizon fades. The young axe at our right rises up then swings around behind our heads and bites hard into the tree at our left. We turn our heads to watch it happen again and again. This motion keeps repeating as we stand there. The plowman stands, drinks and the woman stares, waits.

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