Art and Artists in Iowa

Without a doubt Iowa’s most well-known artist is Grant Wood. In 1939 he wrote the following in the book Iowa Artists of the First Hundred Years:

For a long time, it was generally thought that Iowa’s only proper field was the raising of corn and hogs, and that creative art, particularly graphic and plastic art, was the last thing in the world to look for in this midland state. This conception we now realize, is false. If Iowa has not produced a phenomenal number of artists, it has at least produced its share, and their contribution is well worthy of general note.

Many people may still think that Iowa produces more corn and hogs than artists. But the state has produced important artists and does offer many rich arts programs.

Iowa was home for artists from the moment land was open for settlement. Some local artists found little market for landscapes or portraits and turned to teaching and photography to earn a living. The works of these creative people are found in every part of the state.

One of Iowa's Early Artists

One key figure in Iowa's art world is Charles Atherton Cumming. He was a student at Cornell College in Mount Vernon, Iowa. In 1880 he began teaching art at Cornell.

By 1895 Cumming became director of a young Des Moines Academy of Art. It enjoyed so much success under his leadership that in 1900 it was renamed the Cumming School of Art. In 1909 he was invited to establish an art department at the University of Iowa. Charles Cumming served as a superintendent of the Department of Art at the State Fair. He helped form the Iowa Art Guild in 1914 which was active into the 1970s. Cumming died in 1932, one of the earliest Iowans to become widely recognized as an accomplished painter, teacher and arts administrator.

Art in Government Buildings

In 1900 a Capitol Improvement Commission was formed. The commission's job was to coordinate repairs, adorn and complete the Capitol building in Des Moines. Later called the Iowa Capitol Commission, it assumed responsibility for murals, mosaics, paintings and other art at the Capitol. Another project placed murals in the Polk County Courthouse. And the State Fair held annual Iowa artists exhibits.

The federal Works Projects Administration (WPA), organized during the Great Depression, put people to work, including artists who painted murals in post offices and paintings for schools. In the 1960s the National Endowment for the Arts was created. It spawned the birth of state arts councils, including the Iowa Arts Council.

Art Associations

A number of art associations were formed in Iowa during the early years of the 20th century. The Des Moines Association of Fine Arts was formed in 1917. Its collections were given to the Des Moines Art Center which opened in 1936. It is nationally and internationally known for its art collection. The building that houses the center is also a well-known landmark.

In the early 1900s art associations were started in Sioux City, Cedar Rapids and Davenport. Davenport was one of the earliest Iowa cities to establish a full scale art center. Today many cities, colleges and universities in Iowa have museums, galleries, art centers or arts councils.

A Style Is Born in the Midwest

And back to Grant Wood… His fame came in the 1930s with creation of American Gothic, one of the most widely known paintings in the world. He, with other artists in the Midwest, developed a national style known as Regionalism.

One of those artists was Marvin Cone, who like Grant, was born in 1891. They met in high school and worked together at the Cedar Rapids Art Association Gallery before Cone went on to study at the Art Institute of Chicago. In 1919 he returned to Coe where he taught and painted for 50 years.

Christian Petersen grew up drawing farm animals. He started working as a jewelry die cutter before turning to sculpture. He participated in Iowa WPA programs and was named artist-in-residence at Iowa State College in 1934. Many of his sculptures, including The Cornhusker, can be seen on the Ames campus.

J.N. (Ding) Darling created drawings that were among the liveliest and most influential comments on the American scene. He became a cartoonist for the Sioux City Journal in 1902. Ding moved to The Des Moines Register in 1906. He was awarded Pulitzer Prizes in 1924 and 1943. He retired from The Des Moines Register in 1949. Darling was an early mover in the conservation movement. He did many wildlife prints and designed the first Federal Duck Stamp.

Ella Mae Witter, born in 1882, lived in Storm Lake before and after an out-of-state teaching and painting career. Witter studied abstract painting in Europe and Mexico City. Returning to Storm Lake, she made plans for a wing for the public library but died in 1970. The Witter Gallery was dedicated in 1972.

Another noted Iowa artist was Dorothy Skewis who moved to Storm Lake from Inwood in 1911 at age 11. She attended the Art Institute of Chicago and spent some time teaching in Detroit. She returned to Storm Lake and served as a professor of art at Buena Vista College. Her lithographs and woodcuts can be seen in the Witter Gallery.

Mauricio Lasansky was born in Argentina in 1914. He came to New York in 1943 to study with English printmaker, William Stanley Hayter. He later joined the University of Iowa School of Art, where he developed the printmaking department. Lasansky and his students led a renewed movement for the art of printmaking. His specialty is making etchings and engravings, many of which are life-size. They often deal with social issues such as humans' inhumanity to other humans.

An Explosion of Iowa Artists

An explosion in the numbers of artists and arts activities in the 1940s and 1950s in Iowa's art world continued throughout the 20th century. Besides Mauricio Lasansky, other Iowa artists continue to represent the state in the art world. Iowa City artist Byron Burford creates circus and sideshow images. Jules Kirschenbaum from Des Moines has made a name for himself with his mysterious, large scale still life paintings. Jane Gilmor from Cedar Rapids creates unusual mixed media pieces. Larry Zox from Des Moines produces abstract paintings filled with veils of color and form. Dubuque artist Thomas Jewel-Vitale designs richly colored and textured abstract canvases. And Mac Hornecker of Storm Lake creates small to gigantic wood, steel, bronze, aluminum and mixed material sculptures. These artists form just the tip of Iowa’s arts “ice berg.” Their works often display distinct qualities that reflect life in the Midwest.



  • Fergusen, Bess with Velma Wallace and Edna Patzig Gouwens, Charles Atherton Cumming, Iowa Art Guild, 1972.
  • Brown, Hazel E. Grant Wood and Marvin Cone: Artists of an Era. Ames: Iowa State University Press, 1972.
  • Thein, John and Lasansky, Phillip - under the direction of Mauricio Lasansky, Lasansky Printmaker. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 1974.
  • Darling, Jay N. Ding’s Half Century. Duell, Sloan and Pearce, 1962.
  • DeLong, Lea Rossen. Christian Petersen Sculptor. Ames: Iowa State University Press, 2000.
  • Olson-Larsen Gallery, West Des Moines, web site:
  • Ness, Zenobia and Orwig, Louise. Iowa Artists of the First Hundred Years. Des Moines: Wallace-Homestead Company, 1939.