Grant Wood is coming to Perry Nov. 9 for Art on the Prairie. Not a zombie Grant Wood—although that would attract a big crowd—but a Grant Wood of the mind, an image of the hard-drinking, heavy-smoking Anamosa native who sold his most famous painting for $300 and never could quite figure out what made it an unforgettable American icon.
Funded by Humanities Iowa, Wood will appear in the person of Tom Milligan, who has been staging his one-man, 50-minute recreation of the Iowa painter for nearly 20 years. Humanities Iowa is a non-profit affiliate of the National Endowment for the Humanities that has been sponsoring artistic and cultural events around the state since 1971, and Milligan is a remarkably versatile actor, director and scene designer who has worked the Iowa theater circuit since 1973.
"Grant Wood : Prairie Rebel" will be staged at 11 a.m. on Saturday, Nov. 9 at La Poste, 1219 Warford St. in Perry. The show is free, and all are invited.
"Wood never understood what it was about that painting," Milligan said of the painter’s signature work, "American Gothic," painted in 1930 during the Great Depression The picture took third prize in a Chicago art show, Milligan said, and it brought Wood very little prize money. Shortly after, however, the portrait gained immense fame and has now lodged itself deep in the American imagination. It is one of the world’s most recognizable images.
"American Gothic" first contained only the Eldon, Iowa house with its Gothic window, Milligan said. "It was the window that attracted Wood’s attention," he said. Wood added the human figures only later, painted from the life from Wood’s Cedar Rapids dentist and the painter’s sister, Nan Wood Graham.
"American Gothic" brought Wood fame but little else, Milligan said, adding his troubled three-year marriage to former opera singer Sara Maxon drove him into debt. The couple divorced in 1938, and the painter died in 1942 at the age of 50.
These and many more details about Wood’s life before and after "American Gothic," including his ideas about the value of art and the place of Iowa in his notion of regional painting, are conveyed by Milligan in the casual, across-the-fence conversational style of "Grant Wood: Prairie Rebel."
The show’s script was written by Cynthia Mercati, and Milligan finds it so perfect that he never changes a word, he said.
Mercati also wrote two other of Milligan’s one-man productions of notable Iowans: the lives of Henry A. Wallace and Forrest Spaulding. Wallace, a more thoroughgoing prairie radical, was US secretary of agriculture from 1933-1940, US vice president from 1941-1945, US secretary of commerce from 1945-1946 and Progressive Party presidential candidate in 1948. His support of civil rights for African Americans and sympathy with some Soviet economic policies made him one of the most hated men in America in the late 1940s and 1950s.
Spaulding, longtime director of the Des Moines Public Library, was a champion of human and intellectual freedom best remembered today as the author of the 1938 Library Bill of Rights. His defense of free thought played a notable part in the American Library Association’s response to passage of the 2001 Patriot Act. "We should fear the tendency of small minds in these days of stress," Spaulding said in his original bill.
Milligan admits to a strong love for Iowa history. He has worked as a part-time tour guide in the Iowa State Capitol Building in Des Moines and has produced countless educational and historical shows in schools and community theaters around the state in his 40-year acting career, many funded by Humanities Iowa. These include more than 2,500 performances of "Grant Wood: Prairie Radical."
From 1973 to 1985 Milligan was the artistic director of Charlie’s Showplace, Iowa’s first dinner theater. He then toured for nine years with the Iowa Touring Company Theater, the professional wing of the Des Moines Playhouse, and served as scene designer for the Drake Opera House for 15 years. More recently, he directed the Old Creamery Theater in Amana for seven years. In between have been many freelance collaborations. "I’ve led a very interesting life right here in Iowa theater," said the 62-year-old artist.
A very selective list of Milligan’s acting credits include "Our Town," "The Voice of the Turtle," "Sunrise at Campobello," "The Rainmaker," "The Hasty Heart," "Annie," "The Moon is Blue," "All in the Timing" and "Dancing at Lughnasa." His directing credits include "House of Blue Leaves," "Zoo Story," "The Drawer Boy," "James and the Giant Peach," "The Home Front," "Tales of a 4th Grade Nothing," "A Tuna Christmas" and numerous original productions. When not on stage, Milligan has taken on freelance work for the Iowa Lottery, John Deere, Wells Fargo and the Iowa Pork Producers.
He is a member of the Humanities Iowa Speakers Bureau, under whose aegis the Art on the Prairie appearance will be produced, and he is active in the Heartland Arts Fund, the Metro Arts Alliance and the Iowa Arts Council. Milligan has received numerous awards for his decades-long promotion of performance art in Iowa, including twice receiving the Outstanding Actor Award from the American Association of Community Theaters.