My early work is the result of going around that very territory where I lived and not seeing it. Grant Wood
Listen, my children, and you shall hear, Of the midnight ride of Paul Revere. These familiar words of Longfellow’s poem inspired a painting by artist, Grant Wood. I own a print of this painting and it has hung in every house I have lived. Now on the walls of Simplicity, it holds both a mystery and a love.
“I see something new every time I look at it. This is a painting of a thousand happenings bringing a mythical story to life. I imagine what it would be like to live in that painting,” reflects my husband, Don. Currently this painting hangs over our kitchen table. While having a bowl of cereal or eating a salad, this close location offers opportunities to identify a part of the painting not seen before.
Grant Wood’s style has been said to create a “tableau reminiscent of the model trains that wind through model villages under model trees.” * I find it interesting that The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere hung in the basement of my childhood home over an extensive model train layout that included hills and dales, trees, a village and people. The train layout ran the entire length of our house and was several feet deep. To look at the painting up close was not possible. Rather it seemed to be part of the backdrop for the model village created by my father and brothers.
Since inheriting the Midnight Ride, it has been a backdrop in each of my homes, usually residing in the living room. The colors suited my decorating palette. The multiple shades of green found a calm in me. The earthy colors smelled like the dampness in a deep forest, reminding me of the ravine where I lived as a child. Brown tones warmed the road and made the homes feel cozy. Not until it hung over the kitchen table here in Simplicity, was I to see so much more. Light, that comforts the village, is seen in the house windows and from a moon you cannot see, but know is there. A babbling brook travels through the village, a scene I did not notice for years, but now I hear its sounds. The people of the village are like finding Waldo. Where are they? Some are in the road. Others leaning out from the windows. The trees and houses are neat and tidy, clean and orderly. This is a mythic tale transcribed in fine, yet simple, detail.
The print has been glued onto Masonite. While it is framed, there is no glass. Perhaps this is an attempt to replicate the original in oil that was also painted on Masonite. Both print and frame are worse for wear, yet I have no desire to refinish the frame or clean the print. The oldness feels authentic, like a found treasure, and I want to maintain that. I wish I knew how this came into my family. A few years ago, I inherited another print by a well-known artist, also applied to Masonite. Originally this one hung in my grandparent’s home in the study. Could both be from their home? I have no recollection of the Midnight Ride other than in our basement hanging over the model train.
My father was a creative man and made many pieces of practical furniture for our family home. Desks, shelves, room dividers and cupboards were needed and he could make it happen. He made frames for six colorful prints of children’s stories that were on my bedroom wall. The frames were similar in style to the Midnight Ride. Would he have made this frame, giving time to the details of dots and dashes that run along the interior edges? His tools were nothing fancy which makes me think he did not, but it is possible. How I wish I knew more. My father was a storyteller, loved a good story, and could certainly tell one. The children’s stories that hung on my childhood bedroom wall and this one, were they because of his love of story? He is not alive to ask. No one is alive who would know the answers. My questions remain unanswered, unsolved, unknown, a mystery.
The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere was painted in 1931, a year after Wood became famous with American Gothic. “The general repertory of elements is one that appears frequently in Wood’s oeuvre. The slowly moving river, the gentle hills, the cornfields and corn shocks, the silo, the trees (some with autumnal foliage), the road running at a diagonal and then turning at a right angle—all form part of Wood’s fundamental grammar of expression, which he constantly rearranged, like a writer rearranging words in a sentence,” offers Henry Adams of the Smithsonian. To describe or define Wood’s work as a language, excites me as a writer and a painter. He had a signature language, a signature look, a style readily acknowledged as his own. As I struggle to find my signature as a writer and artist, I feel a closer connection and have a greater respect for his artwork, especially the Midnight Ride.
“The stylized houses, geometric greenery, and high perspective give the painting an otherworldly or dreamlike dimension,” continues Henry Adams. There is something both simple and intriguing about Grant Wood’s style. What I know is that each time I walk into Simplicity’s kitchen, I delight in seeing The Midnight Ride once again. The colors calm my mood. The tidy houses inspire my painting. The words of poetry invite mine. While the scene in the painting will always be the same, my imagination continues the journey and finds new stories to tell.
*M. Therese Southgate, MD and former Cover Editor of Journal of the American Medical Association, who selected this painting to grace the cover of the April 12, 2006 issue.