Posted by: trevormeers | January 28, 2011

Pitchfork Perfect

Peter slips into his dress without a complaint. A noble step for a cameraman, especially when he’s heading into 20-degree weather with no house coat and a flowered dress that doesn’t do a whole lot for his figure compared to the way it flattered the Klingon woman in the pictures we just saw. It almost makes me feel guilty for grabbing the pitchfork and the local gentleman’s role before Peter has a chance to argue. But when you’re creating your own version of America’s most famous painting on a January afternoon, the man who’s slow to speak becomes the man playing the dour-faced daughter.

Grant Wood's original. Yours for $300, if you order by 1930.

There aren’t a lot of things to draw people off the four-lane bypass highway to Eldon, a southeast Iowa town of about 1,000 souls with two gas stations, a vintage opera house and a main street café where the vegetable of the day comes out of large cans stored on a rack by the bathroom. But still, people do come to Eldon. And that’s mainly because of the white frame house now showing its distinctive arched window between my head and Peter’s. In 1930, an Iowa artist named Grant Wood passed through Eldon, saw this house with this window, then went back to his Cedar Rapids studio and produced the painting that may rank behind only the Mona Lisa and David Beckham in global recognition. If you’ve ever watched Green Acres, stared at a bottle of Newman’s Own Organics dressing during a boring dinner conversation or pretty much taken a random glance around American pop culture, you’ve seen the legacy of American Gothic.

The house has survived to the era of having its own Foursquare check-in, and on this gray day, Peter and I have finished shooting a story at the place and are now standing on an image of the window set into the sidewalk out front. “Put your feet in the top two parts of the window, and you’ll be in the right spots,” says Beth Howard, who recently moved into the house to bake pies with a Zen-like attitude, grieve a lost husband and write a book about the intersection of those two things. (You’ll have to wait for me to tell her story in a spring issue of the magazine that constitutes my day job. Or go check it out in her own words at theworldneedsmorepie.com.)

Taking our place in art history.

The visitor center next to the house has a slick exhibit about the house, the painting and Grant Wood himself. But two of its missions are these: Presenting you with a massive selection of American Gothic posters and merchandise available for purchase and helping you pose for your own American Gothic parody in front of the house. The center holds a rack full of clothes for getting you quickly get into character. As Peter pulls on his smock-like dress, Molly the 20-something museum administrator lays a white dickey around my neck, drapes me in cut-away overalls that seem like a rodeo clown’s hand-me-downs and helps me slip into a dark coat. After we walk out into the cold breeze and take our marks on the sidewalk window, Molly coaches us into the right positions. “Move the pitchfork into your other hand. Now put your elbow in front of his. You need to look at the camera, and you need to look down and to your left.”

A large bulletin board inside the center displays the snapshots of hundreds of travelers who passed through Eldon and propped themselves up in front of the arched window. On the board, you find the Klingon couple. Moms and kids. Siblings. Men and women standing on the wrong sides of the window. Two Cocker spaniels. Girls in bikinis. A man wearing the dress next to a horse wearing the overalls. And anchoring all of them is that peaked roof and arched window, grounding every variation with a combination of shapes that seems hardwired into our DNA to feel solid and right, grabbing our vision like a mother’s face snaps an infant’s eyes into focus.

The American Heartland, Klingon-style.

As Molly points the camera lens our way, I put on my best impression of a skinny old farmer sucking a lemon in his cheek. Peter looks to his left. These expressions were enough to rile up the local gentry when Wood debuted his painting in Chicago and it eventually showed up in the Cedar Rapids Gazette. (It won only third in the Chicago art contest, but the Art Institute of Chicago bought it for $300 and still owns it today.) Folks couldn’t decide what to make of these people. Were they resolute symbols of America? Or simpletons? Was he some kind of cradle robber with that young woman at his side? One woman said upon seeing the painting in the Gazette that she’d like to bite off Wood’s ear. Another said he should have his head bashed in.

Wood later said the man in his imagination (Wood’s dentist in real life) ran the local bank or lumberyard and “possibly preaches occasionally.” The real-life lady model was Wood’s sister and was so scandalized by people’s perceptions of the painting that she began spreading the story that the people in the picture were father and daughter. Wood later backed her up on that claim, adding that the woman in the painting was “very self-righteous like her father. I let the lock of hair escape to show that she was, after all, human.”

With my fingers going numb around the handle of the pitchfork, Molly snaps the last shot, and we duck back into the warmth of the visitor center. I put my clown overalls back on the rack and drop 10 bucks on a poster of American Gothic. Later that week, I stick it up on the wall of my office and sit staring at the man’s face. Next time, I really need to suck in my cheeks more and look less like I’m planning to chase somebody out of the hen house with that pitchfork. And Peter’s looking a little too high on the horizon. And as to whether we’re resolute or simpletons…Well, great art is known to leave you with a few questions.

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Responses

  1. Oh, how I enjoyed this post! Written so well…in true “Trevor” style. We saw the original painting @ the Joslyn in Omaha a few years while it was “traveling”. I now have a desire to make a roadtrip to Eldon, IA to visit the museum.


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