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A Unique Teacher

Susan Notes: This excerpt comes from American Gothic: The Biography of Grant Wood's American Masterpiece by Thomas Hoving. I worry, as do many other teachers, that today's children never get an opportunity to exercise what Wood calls their imagination machinery, and so they will have no regenerative force to bolster them as adults. Even in the early 1900s Wood worried about materialism. Can you imagine what he'd have to say about our current practices of educating young consumers for the global economy?

In 1919, Wood came back to Cedar Rapids, and, despite no training and a meager record as a teacher, was hired by a prescient principal to teach art in the Cedar Rapids public school system. He did so until 1925, when he quite to try to become a full-time artist.

Grant Wood's exploits as teacher became something of a local legend. Often late to work, sometimes not showing up at all, he nevertheless was judged an one of the best teachers in the school, at least as far as art was concerned. He excelled at inventing new ways of getting the passion and mystery of art across to his youthful charges, and he was revered by them no doubt because of his freewheeling ways. One amusing project was to help some students design a medieval-looking bench to place outside the principal's office, the back of which includes the inscription in high relief: THE WAY OF THE TRANSGRESSOR IS HARD.

For the students, his class must have been a thrilling, ever-changing experience. They were asked to make hosts of marvelously nutty things ranging from the transgressor's bench to lampshades made out of waxed butcher paper and flattened tin-can tiles performated with designs, linoleum-block cards, and illustrations for the class yearbook.

Wood led a gang-sized group of forty-five students in creating what he christened the "Imagination Isles." He explained to them that he wanted them to paint their own images of an enchanted island where a visitor might be greeted by "brilliantly colored trees of shapes unknown to science, silhouetted against purpole mountains. Mountains whose snowcapped peaks pierce the saffron skies. Fantastic tropical plants with luscious fruits and flowers in amazing profusion wait only your coming and choosing." Then, after a warning that no corporal but only spiritual body could visit these isles, Wood lectured about the ill effects of materialism on the imagination: "Almost all of us have some dream power in our childhood, but without encouragement it leaves us and then we become bored and tired and ordinary. In most of our studies we deal only with material things or in ideas that are materialistic. We are carefully coached in the most modern and efficient ways of making our bodies comfortable and we become so busy aboout getting ourselves all nicely placed that we are apt to forget the dream spirit that is born in all of us. Then someday when we are physically comfortable we remember dimly a distant land we used to visit in our youth. We try to go again but we cannot find the way. Our imagination machinery is withered just as our legs or arms might wither if we forget for years and years to use them."

To escape the withering influences, Wood advised the students to exercise their imaginations through travel, literature, music, and art. He linked the food served in the school cafeteria to what he wanted the students to make up by describing them as products of the Imagination Isles. Baked potatoes were to be imagined as "the succulent seed-vessels of the magical mingo tree," while boiled cabbage was transformed into "the crisp and tender leaf of the Clishy-Clashy vine." Finally, the creamed peas dissovled into "pellets of foam driven by playful waves upon a phantom beach."

Charged up, the students decorated a paper roll eighteen inches wide and no less than one hundred and fifth feet long. Every three or four feet, a different student would paint a special imaginary landscape, with Clishy-Clashy whatever and saffron skies and towering mountains. When completed, the extensive frieze was wound around some nail kegs and then unrolled in the cafeteria as a kind of slow-motion movie. House lights dimmed, music went ta-da, and as each island came into view the student responsible for it read a script, prepared by Wood, which urged the onlookers to join in the imaginary island tour. The gist was what Wood had already told the students, that only the spirit could come to the enchanted isles, and that only artists were "trained to dwell" there. Ordinary folk needed the artist to take them to this blessed, spiritual realm. All materialistic people whose imaginations had become "withered" were "mental shut-ins" who could be freed again only by true artists. The show was, as they used to say in the Midwest, "a hoot."

— Thomas Hoving
American Gothic: The Biography of Grant Wood's American Masterpiece


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