‘The Wood Problem’ explores the tension between Grant Wood and the University of Iowa

The Wood Problem

Cedar Rapids Museum of Art — Thursday, Nov. 9 at 6 p.m.

An earlier reading of the play at American Gothic House Center in Eldon, Iowa; playwright Scott Bradley is far right. — photo by Maura Pilcher

Scott Bradley, a student in the University of Iowa’s Playwrights Workshop, is working on a docudrama about famed Iowa artist Grant Wood. On Thursday, Nov. 9 at 6 p.m., a portion of The Wood Problem will be presented as a staged reading at the Cedar Rapids Museum of Art.

The reading will be followed by a panel discussion with Bradley, Grant Wood Art Colony Founder Jim Hayes and University of Iowa Art History Professor Joni Kinsey. Attendees will also have the opportunity to view many of Wood’s works from the CRMA’s extensive collection. The event is free.

Bradley answered questions about The Wood Problem via email.

What first drew you to investigating Grant Wood, his art and his time at the University of Iowa?

As a member of the Iowa Playwrights Workshop, I took a course in creating docudrama, which is a new form for me. I knew, as an Iowa native, I wanted to focus on an historic regional event that resonated with larger, national themes. I was reading Grant Wood’s recent biography by R. Tripp Evans and came upon his mention of Wood’s conflict with faculty at the University of Iowa. This intrigued me and led me to pursue the research of Professor Joni Kinsey in the School of Art, who has been a tremendous resource.

I was most struck with Wood’s meteoric path from local eccentric painter to globally recognized savior of American art to embarrassing footnote in art history, and all within a 10-year span. The story illuminates the role of the artist in a time of social upheaval and crisis, as well as America’s shifting national consciousness through economic depression and global war.

What has surprised you most during the research and writing of the piece?

I’ve been shocked at the vehemence with which many critics and historians attacked Wood, both during his lifetime and following, particularly in the halls of academia. And many of these same critics are the very voices that championed his work only ten years before.

It shouldn’t surprise me, but even within the art world, I was startled at the homophobia and antisemitism openly expressed in correspondence between colleagues at the time. The campaign by University of Iowa art faculty to oust Wood from his post used Wood’s highly guarded sexuality and his professional affiliation with Jewish colleagues to disgrace him.

I began this project with a passing appreciation for Wood’s work, more interested in how national forces responded to it. I did not expect to become such a fan. His blending of high- and low-art influences, his embrace of commercial practices and illustrative tools, his meticulous formalism that winks with irony and even his savvy with self-promotion, all decried by the 1940 art world, will later become the hallmarks of Pop Art and pave the way for Warhol’s arrival.

How soon will the script be ready for a fully staged production? Will it be performed at the university or elsewhere in the area?

I have set the work aside until I finish my degree in Spring 2018. The research and construction of such a piece, with thousands of documents in conversation with one another, cannot be fully undertaken while working on my degree and teaching. This coming year, I hope to secure a grant that will allow me the time and resources to complete the piece. My hope is to see its first production realized in the University of Iowa’s Mabie Theatre, where one of Wood’s murals once graced the lobby.

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How complete are university archives when it comes to “the Wood problem?”

The University of Iowa archives are missing some vital documentation on Wood’s feud within the art department. It is suggested that those documents were sealed in a time capsule in the old art building’s cornerstone. I’m hopeful that the University will unseal the capsule soon so that the full story can be told. It could reveal important details about that time in our history as artists, as Iowans, and as Americans.

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