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When Tillage Begins

Breaking the Prairie

Often referred to as "Breaking the Prairie," the three panels in the Grant Wood Heritage Area of the Parks Library Lower Lobby portray the beginning of tillage in Iowa by the pioneers in the 1840s. These murals were painted two years after the "Other Arts Follow" murals. Seven art students worked under the direction of Francis McCray in a special mural studio next to the Fine Arts Building at the University of Iowa during the 1936/37 school year. Funding was provided as a joint project of the Works Projects Administration (WPA) and the National Youth Administration (NYA). The murals were designed by Grant Wood, who served as advisor to the group. Artists included: Lee Allen, Richard Gates, John Hoagland, Thealtus Alberts, Joseph Swan, Holland Foster, and Aurin Lee Hunt. The preliminary color scheme in colored pencil was done by Lee Allen under the direction of Wood. Howard James posed for some of the central figures and helped with historical research.

In the 23' x 11' center panel an ox team in the background engages in the difficult task of breaking the prairie in the first year's plowing, while a horse team in the foreground does the easier work of the second year's tilling. The two side panels depict strong men chopping down trees to build cabins. The idealized figures and setting, so characteristic of Wood's work, along with the Lincolnesque appearance of the males, fit the concept of government-sponsored WPA art of the 1930s perfectly. It has been noted that the Lincolnesque figures suggest that hard work, moral courage, and leadership can lead anyone to the highest office in the land. Much has been written about Wood's style of selectively simplifying objects and at the same time employing extremely accurate detail. As Prof. Gladys Hamlin has observed in her article, Mural Painting in Iowa: "Whenever the opportunity afforded, the artist has utilized the design possibilities in realistic details to the last degree as in the stubble field, flowers, and in the bark and graining of the wood of the trees that are being chopped down. On the other hand such realistic touches as wrinkles in face and clothing are omitted."

In order to make the paintings absolutely authentic in every detail and withstand the scrutiny of scientifically minded students and faculty at Iowa State University, two years were spent planning, researching, and designing the murals. Early nineteenth century clothing, farming implements, livestock and native prairie flowers were studied extensively. Antique plows in the Iowa State Historical Building in Des Moines were sketched, and 'oldtime' farmers were sought out to furnish advice as to the proper way to chop down trees and to drink from a stoneware jug. As it happened, there were two schools of thought on tree chopping and three on jug drinking. Faculty at Iowa State University furnished information about prairie flowers that would have been present in pioneer days. Flowers running the length of the base of the mural include: May apple or wild mandrake, hepatica, spring beauty, yellow stargrass, hairy Solomon's seal, bloodroot, dogtooth violet, Jack-in-the-pulpit, Virginia cowslip or bluebell, wild blue phlox, midland shooting star, horsetail, pasque flower, prairie violet and wild strawberry.

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