Grant Wood Murals

Parks Library is the home of the largest works of art designed by renowned American regionalism artist Grant Wood (1892-1942).

The murals can be found on the first floor and on the walls of the staircase leading to the Upper Lobby of the original building. They are without doubt the major artistic feature of the Iowa State University Library. 

All panels are oil on canvas and were created under the federal program providing work for unemployed artists in the 1930s. As newly appointed head of the Public Works of Art Project for Iowa, which would later be called the Civil Works Administration, Wood was asked by Iowa State President Raymond M. Hughes to plan murals for the library. Wood welcomed this opportunity to employ artists and made his selection from those who had exhibited at the Iowa State Fair.

The murals were inspired by a quotation from Daniel Webster's remarks on "The Agriculture of England" made on January 13, 1840 in the State House in Boston:  

"When tillage begins, other arts follow. The farmers, therefore, are the founders of human civilization."  

The first half of this quotation appears below the window ledge above the first stairway landing. This quote was a favorite theme for many mural projects of the era because of the emphasis on the nation's agrarian heritage. Thomas Jefferson's vision of a republic of family farms engaged in subsistence agriculture had great appeal to the regionalist artists who idealized the noble farmer and caring wife. Wood's farmscapes of this period depict a 'streamlined rural paradise' devoid of sweating hands, market risks, foreclosed mortgages, and the effects of bad weather, crop pests and disease.

Grant Wood, together with Thomas Hart Benton of Missouri and John Steuart Curry of Kansas, formed an important American art movement known as regionalism, which held that painters should paint those things they know best rather than rely on European influences. Born on a farm near Anamosa, Wood became successful in painting the fields, activities and people of Iowa, and is perhaps best remembered for his "American Gothic" portrait of the stoic midwestern farmer and daughter.

Black and white portrait of Grant Wood look off to the left.

The steps followed in creating these murals involved: making preliminary sketches, then finished drawings in color; enlarging the drawings on brown wrapping paper; transferring the enlarged designs to the stretched canvas panels by pouncing through perforated outlines made with a spiked wheel; and finally painting the canvases with oils. Francis McCray did the enlargements, and Arnold Pyle did all of the color mixing of the oil paints. The color scheme complements the warm tones of the yellowish Minnesota travertine stone framing the murals. According to Wood, a limited palette was used in painting both sets of murals: yellow ochre, cadmium red, black and white; all other colors were obtained by mixing. Blue was used sparingly, only for some of the prairie flowers, so that it would not 'jump out' of the painting since hues appear more intense when placed close to their complement.

A much-needed cleaning and restoration of the murals was completed by conservator Margaret Randall Ash in September 1974. Funding for the project was provided by the ISU Class of 1959 and a matching grant from the National Endowment for the Arts. Under the University's system for regular preservation maintenance of art works, Ivan Hanthorn, head of the Library's Preservation Department, removed the accumulation of remodeling dust in 1988.

When Tillage Begins

Wide Mural with a straight on view of a brown and a white horse with a red plow connected to them in a golden field under a blue sky with long fluffy clouds. A man in dark gray suspenders and a white t-shirt drinks water from a pitcher while standing next to the end of the plow. A woman in a blue bonnet and white-collared long-sleeve brown gown holds a hat and faces the man and an ox team breaks the prairie in the background. The mural on the left right angled wall shows a white man in long sleeve white t-s

Location: Breaking the Prairie is located in the first floor in the Grant Wood Mural Lobby behind Bookends Cafe.

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.

Other Arts Follow Agriculture Panel

Tall mural painting of 3 white men: 1 is wiping sweat from his chin while moving hay in the upper part of a bar, 1 in overalls and checkered shirt is holding a black pick with white feet, while a 1 in a collared shirt and dress pants prepares a syringe
Tall mural showing a white man with suspenders and jeans, white shirt and red handkerchief and straw wide-brimmed hat, standing on top of tall hay-covered wagon, preparing to lift hay out of the wagon with a pulley and mechanical grabber. At the base of the wagon, 2 black pigs with white feet are walking to the right
Tall mural showing twol light-skinned men in overalls by a barn. 1 is on the upper level of the barn, wiping sweat from his forehead. 1 is holding two white horses.

Location: Other Arts Follow is located in the stairwell leading from the Grant Wood Mural Lobby to the Upper Rotunda on the second floor.

The eight panels of Grant Wood's Other Arts Follow mural reflect the divisions of Iowa State College at the time: Veterinary Medicine, Farm Crops, Animal Husbandry, Home Economics, Ceramics and Chemical Engineering, Mechanical Engineering, and Aeronautical and Civil Engineering. The agriculture panels on the west side of the stairwell were the first ones completed, and were displayed in Washington, D.C. before coming to Ames. A haywagon and barn unify the murals with carefully balanced groupings of men and animals engaged in inter-related activities in upper and lower sections of each panel. Horses have just been unhitched from the wagon, hogs are being vaccinated, and hay is being put in the haymow. The scene is spotlessly clean, not a straw of hay is out of place, and not a wrinkle is to be seen in the men's overalls. Decorative touches may be seen in the nails in the barn and hayrack, and stitching and buttons of the overalls.

Known models for some of the figures in the murals include: Bertrand Adams, project artist, for the veterinarian vaccinating the hog, and Lowell Houser, project artist, for one of the men in the haymow. Houser later taught free-hand drawing at Iowa State and painted the corn mural in the Ames Post Office.

Other Arts Follow Home Economics Panel

Tall mural showing two women on two levels of an indoor house. On the upper level, a woman in a blue short-sleeved gown and brown apron cleans a chair with a white cloth by a dark brown dresser pressed against a peach wall with a large window with curtains partially covering it from the top. On the lower level, a woman in a copper-colored gown standing by a dark brown staircase holds a baby wrapped in white cloth in one arm while holding the hand of a kid in blue overalls with the other arm and looking at h
Tall mural showing two women on two levels of an indoor house. On the upper level, a woman in dark blue gown kneels on the floor to take measurements around the waist of a woman in pale blue gown standing by a bed in front of a peach wall with a large partially draped window and a painting hanging on it. On the lower level, a woman in a reddish brown checkered apron holds a covered blue bowl while standing next to a table in front of a shelf with a blue goblet with lid pressed against a wall with light brow

Location: Other Arts Follow is located in the stairwell leading from the Grant Wood Mural Lobby to the Upper Rotunda on the second floor.

The eight panels of the Other Arts Follow mural stand 17 feet high in the lobby stairwell of the original library building. The Home Economics panels on the north wall represent household arts, care of the home and family, sewing, and cooking. Decorative emphasis is placed on the pattern of the dresses and aprons, wallpaper, and grain of the wood. Grace Eby, an Iowa State student, was the model for the woman in the upper right-hand corner of the Home Economics panel.

It was suggested that these murals showing the practical arts be supplemented by six additional panels representing the fine arts to be placed in what is now the Periodical Room. Unfortunately, these panels were never started. The work was done as a group effort in Iowa City in 1934, at a time when Wood was in charge of the Public Works of Art Project (PWAP) for Iowa and a member of the art faculty at the University of Iowa. The designs were drawn and the color scheme worked out by Grant Wood, with the actual painting being done by fourteen young artists who received university credit. Most of the work was done in the former swimming pool in the old men's gymnasium which was adapted to serve as a studio. After completion, the canvas panels were brought to the Library and hung by experts from the Chicago Art Institute late in 1934.

Other Arts Follow Engineering Panel

Tall mural showing three white men on two levels of an indoor brick building. 1 on the upper-level is forming a vase on a complex mechanical table which includes a spinner. On the lower level both men have approns and 1 has his back turned pouring chemicals into a beaker, 1 is sitting on stool writing something in a small notebook.
Tall mural showing factory machine known as a dynamo - bronze metal and circular spinning object with a silver metal ladder and small barriers at the top with a large hook on a pulley-system and small windows at the top of the building.
Tall mural showing 3 men in two levels of an indoor brick building. On the upper level, a man in a brown jumpsuit looks at a propeller and mechanical object. On the lower level, 2 architects or surveyors draw and look at designs while holding a tall instrument for surveying.

Location: Other Arts Follow is located in the stairwell leading from the Grant Wood Mural Lobby to the Upper Rotunda on the second floor.

In the engineering panels on the east wall of the Other Arts Follow mural, a dynamo dominates the center panel with a chemical experiment in progress to the left and bridge planning to the right. To ensure accuracy, Wood had the faculty authenticate the chemical experiment shown in progress in the Chemical Engineering panel. For the Civil Engineering panel, the books with their Dewey Decimal call numbers were checked against actual books in the library's collection at the time, and the blueprint of the bridge was copied from an actual plan.

All fourteen names of the participating artists are listed on the Webster quotation panel: Bertrand Adams, Lee Allen, John Bloom, Dan Finch, Elwyn Giles, Gregory Hull, Harry Jones, Lowell Houser, Howard Johnson, Arthur Munch, Francis McCray, Arnold Pyle, Thomas Savage, and Jack Van Dyke. Each artist sketched or painted on the mural panels as a whole, and in addition exercised his specialty. For example, Bertrand Adams did the fine detail such as the surveyor's transit, bridge blueprint, hayfork and lettering. That these student artists were willing "to subordinate personal mannerisms to make a harmonious whole," is obvious from looking at the final creation. Their dedication to the project was exhibited when they volunteered to continue without pay when federal funding was temporarily threatened.

Poems in response to Grant Wood murals

In 1992, as part of a program to encourage writers to react to art on campus, the University Museums commissioned two poets, Neal Bowers and Michael Carey, to write about the Grant Wood murals. Their poems are included here with kind permission of the Museums.

Tillage as Art, by Neal Bowers

In this version of the past,
life is so simple and pure
no one has buttons or buckles or pockets.

At sunup, the men step into
their leotard trousers, shrugging
suspenders over their shoulders;
the woman rises like a clapper
into her bell-shaped dress;
and they all set out to work
in the clean earth where no one gets dirty.

Nobody sweats (not even the horses),
though thirst seems to be a possibility
as the plowman turns over the plush-pile prairie,
easy as lifting a rug.

In the grove with the wildflower border,
one of two men chopping trees
looks like a young Abe Lincoln.
The job is that noble.

Meanwhile, over this rustic scene,
art deco clouds drift in,
streamlined, urban, building
in the distance like the future
of everyone's dreams,
too pure and simple to be true.

In reaction to "When Tillage Begins"

Neal Bowers was born in Tennessee, completed a Ph.D. in English at the University of Florida, and joined the ISU Department of English in 1977. His poems and articles have appeared in over forty literary and academic journals. Published poetry includes The Golf Ball Diver (1983) and Night Vision (1992).


Hard labor, by Michael Carey


The purest form of hell
is threshing in Iowa
in July or stacking bales
of straw or wheat
on the wagon
or in the hay mow.

Under your cuffs,
under your collar
chaff blisters
the skin into boils,
your body drenched
in a sweat
that will not
cool or wash
away the dust
from the eaves
or the dirt
in the air
you can't breathe
anyway, because
it's been smothered
in 110 degrees
and 82 per cent


The further we get,
the prettier the picture,
the softer the line
on the rough edges
of the wagon. Even
pigs fall silent
as men measure
their medicine.

No one moves
their sullen faces,
no one smiles,
not the boy
with the head
of his father,
not the quiet wives
with their needles
and thread and china.

It is the distance
they stare into,
the soothing balm of years.
Step by step, we leave them
to their never-ending chores.

Step by step, we rise
like the painted butterflies
on the wallpaper or are they
leaves blown in on the sudden wind,
the white window left open,
caressing our brains
into different bodies
that see and touch and do,
now, different things,
softer things, strange things
in a world, we love, like them,
and cannot understand.

In reaction to "Other Arts Follow"

Michael Carey was born in New York City, raised in New Jersey, and later moved to Iowa to attend the Writer's Workshop at the University of Iowa, where he received his M.F.A. degree in poetry writing. The 800 acres which he and his wife farm in Farragut, Iowa became a source of inspiration for his two books of poetry: The Noise the Earth Makes (1987) and Honest Effort (1991).

Unlimited Possibilities

Multi-color mural representing the colleges of Iowa State with 32 cyclone logos hidden throughout the image.
Woman wearing white shirt and jeans kneeling in dirt holding plant to place in ground.
Dark skin woman standing holding large book open in arms, wearing orange shirt with white shirt underneath; also wearing light brown pants.
In background, a pale skin man wearing a red and white plaid shirt standing over open tall file sorting documents.In foreground a pale skin man wearing yellow shirt sitting in front of computer scanning hand on screen.
Close up of white daisy plants planted in a brown and green ground, with leaves and other flowering plants.
Paper scrolled up with artwork title and names of artists to right of the curl. Parchment cream color with black type.

The mural in the upper central lobby of the Parks Library celebrates the founding of Iowa State University and its intended future as a premier land-grant university. Designed by native Iowa mural artist Doug Shelton, it was created in the same tradition as the renowned Grant Wood murals which adorn the stairwell and lower lobby of the Parks Library building, in that all utilized the talents of trained student apprentices under the general supervision of a master designer in the painting process. Nine Iowa State University students from the Department of Art and Design--Robert Atwell, Dean Biechler, Nikki Grote, Gwen Kaye, Qimin Liu, Justin Lorenzen, Kandice Rappe, Sandra Spilker, and Jim Wilcox--who were supervised by faculty members and team artists, Donna Friedman and Brenda Jones, worked with artist Doug Shelton in the completion of this mural. Painted in a temporary mural studio at the University Museum from August through November 1996, the 22 x 20 foot mural was installed in the library in January 1998. The mural was formally dedicated on Founders Day, March 22, 1998, the 140th anniversary of Iowa State University.


The idea for a new mural in Parks Library came during Iowa's Sesquicentennial year in 1996. University administrators were looking for a way to commemorate this event in Iowa history and the founding of Iowa State. Lynette Pohlman, director of University Museums, suggested that they commission a mural to continue the tradition begun by Grant Wood, who designed murals for the Library during the Depression. The concept was accepted, and soon a committee was appointed, representing the Library, ISU faculty, students and University Museums. The members selected Doug Shelton to translate their vision into a tangible work of art.

The following concepts were indicated for exploration in the mural:

  • university-wide interrelationships and the student experience
  • creating an intellectually and culturally stimulating campus environment
  • relationship of Iowa State's history to its future
  • Iowa State's educational system in relation to business and industry
  • place of Iowa and Iowa State within the global community as it relates to technology and technology transfer
  • environmental stewardship, enhancement of human resources and qualities of life including individual and family


Doug Shelton met with ISU staff and collected images of campus in spring 1996. Five months later, he returned with a plan on paper and then spent the latter part of the year creating the mural. The nine student assistants, selected for their artistic abilities, worked in shifts under the supervision of the two faculty members. As in the creation of the Grant Wood murals of six decades earlier, a key challenge was the achievement of a unified style by all artists. The Brunnier Art Museum served as a studio during the three-month period of its creation. Artists kept a daily journal of their work on the project from August 28 to November 20, 1996, recording their own feelings and reactions as well as visitors' comments. Installation of the three sections of the mural was done by Des Moines-based Colors, Inc. with the assistance of the artist.

Following the process used in creating the Grant Wood murals, intensive research was done to ensure accuracy of flora, fauna, and other objects represented. Illustrations from textbooks, photographs, and live plants were all utilized. Symbols of all constituent colleges of the university were included. With the exception of the self-portrait of Doug Shelton at the filing cabinet, figures in the mural represent composites of several people rather than being portraits of specific individuals. A number of students posed, including visitors to the studio and Cyclone athletes. Referencing "Cyclone Country," 32 cyclones were incorporated in the mural.


Prairie Sky Mural

Panoramic view of Iowa sky at sunset - reddish purple sky at the left, blue sky in the center, a thunderstorm at the right

Artist: Kurt Anderson (American, b. 1958)
Title: Prairie Sky, 2004
Media: Oil on canvas
Size: 20 feet x 5 feet
Location: Learning Connections Center

The Prairie Sky mural is dedicated to the memory of Dr. W. Robert Parks (President of Iowa State University, 1965-1986) with gifts from family and friends. This public work of art was commissioned by the ISU Library and is in the Art on Campus Collection, University Museums, Iowa State University. Accession number U2004.6.

Visitors to the Parks Library are immediately struck by the mural, Prairie Sky, located on the north wall of the Learning Connections Center. Painted in 2004 by artist Kurt Anderson, the Prairie Sky mural was commissioned to celebrate the legacy of Dr. W. Robert Parks, the 11th president of Iowa State University. At the time of his retirement in 1986, Dr. Parks was one of the nation's longest serving university presidents and is remembered as a visionary leader who changed the landscape of the university. He passed away in 2003.

Kurt Anderson, an Iowa-born artist now living in Tuscon, Arizona, also painted the portrait of William Robert Parks and Ellen Sorge Parks which hangs outside the Fireplace Reading Room on the first floor of Parks Library.

Artist's statement

The incredible contrast in moods of Iowa sky and weather is the theme of Prairie Sky. At dusk a storm passes across an expansive rural setting. The immense power and threat of nature is depicted with billowing thunderhead clouds that throw off lightning and cast a dark pall over the land. But as is often the case in Iowa, the storm quickly passes. In its wake the sky appears especially tranquil and beautiful, as the scattering clouds capture the last rays of the setting sun.