A Gothic Connection
Like everyone else, he’d seen it countless times: the ubiquitous image of a bespectacled, Midwestern man holding a pitchfork, standing in front of a woman wearing a starched brown apron over a high-necked black dress. The image has graced everything from magazine covers to salt and pepper shakers—and just about every imaginable item in between. So it was with more than a little curiosity that Patrick Lloyd, dean of the College of Dentistry, read an article he stumbled across in a 1980 issue of the Smithsonian magazine about the 50th anniversary of the “American Gothic” painting and its artist, Grant Wood.
His interest was immediately piqued. “I found that I’d made incorrect assumptions about the painting. I’d thought all along that it depicted a husband and wife, but the article explained it was intended as a painting of a father and his daughter."
Reading further, Dean Lloyd was delighted to learn that the man in the painting was Grant Wood’s dentist. “I had been out of dental school for two years at the time and learning about the career of the man in the painting resonated with me. I was a dentist. He was a dentist. He was from the Midwest, and I was from the Midwest. These connections made the painting meaningful to me.”
Dean Lloyd’s interest in the painting deepened when he joined the faculty at the University of Iowa College of Dentistry—the very place where the man depicted in the painting, Dr. Byron H. McKeeby, studied dentistry before graduating in 1894. “My clinical practice at Iowa focused exclusively on older adults. Many of my patients were over the age of 80 and some of them had actually been Dr. McKeeby’s patients years earlier. I had some “American Gothic” parodies in my operatory and one day an elderly patient said, ‘I’m very familiar with that painting. My father was a doctor in Cedar Rapids (Iowa) and he delivered the artist, Grant Wood.” She later gave me a copy of Grant Wood’s birth certificate and a picture of her father. So the connections between the painting and my own life continued to grow.”
As Dean Lloyd continued to develop his connection with the painting, he eventually used the “American Gothic” as a metaphor in his lectures to dental groups about caring for older dental patients. Referring to both the painting and the treatment options for the geriatric patient, he told his audiences, “It’s a lot more complicated than it appears at first glance.”
“Throughout my lectures, I would punctuate the subtopics with information about the painting. For example, I’d share that art critics believe the left side of the painting is the feminine side. To the woman’s direct right are the kitchen, pottery, and flowers. And the opposite side of the painting is the masculine side—the man, the barn, and all the implements that go along with that.”
Dean Lloyd would explain that the artist strategically painted the woman’s blouse as two-dimensional, without depth, to signify her youth and that he placed the father in front of the daughter to signify the relationship between the two. “It’s been suggested that the father stands in front of the daughter because he’s there to protect her. He’s also looking out on the horizon to make sure everything’s safe for the two of them, while she’s looking toward her father for guidance and counsel.
Her connection to the traditional Midwestern lifestyle is shown by her brooch that may have been passed down from one generation to another. But there is an indication on the part of the artist that she’s not really happy with her station in life. Everything in the painting is fairly well organized, except on the right side of her head there is a tendril of hair that hangs free, which may suggest her desire to break away from her homestead and be more independent.”
When he gave his lectures, Dean Lloyd was doing more than sharing his interpretations or repeating what he had read about the painting. He had actually confirmed what he knew of the painting’s history when he met with the woman featured in the painting, Nan Wood Graham, who was the artist’s sister.
In the late 1980’s when he was a faculty member at Marquette University, Dean Lloyd read an article in his local newspaper about Mrs. Graham’s upcoming 88th birthday. With very little information to guide him, he eventually connected with an art expert at Stanford. He told Dean Lloyd the name of the nursing home in San Francisco where the "American Gothic" model was living.
“I called and spoke to the nursing home administrator and he told me I couldn’t speak to Mrs. Graham directly, but I could write a letter telling her who I was and what my intentions were and he would share the letter with her. Six weeks later, I received a letter saying Mrs. Graham was interested in meeting with me. I let her know I would be in San Francisco for a conference in the fall. After my meeting there, I met with her for about a half hour and we talked about all sorts of things.”
Dean Lloyd learned more “insider” information about the painting and, for the year and a half Mrs. Graham lived after they met, they shared letters. She even mentioned him in her annual holiday letter to friends, writing: “A dentist from Iowa found me. We had a nice visit and we continue to keep in touch.” In one of her letters, she enlisted Dean Lloyd’s help in getting the U.S. Postal Service to agree to feature the painting on a commemorative postage stamp. Although that didn’t occur until many years after Mrs. Graham’s death, Dean Lloyd’s efforts resulted in him being invited to the stamp’s Second-Day Issue release in Eldon, Iowa—the site of the house that is featured in the painting.
Over time, as Dean Lloyd traveled throughout the country and around the world lecturing on the care of older adults and educating his colleagues about the painting, people would send him "American Gothic"-inspired items. These items, as well as those from his family and ones he found on his own, have resulted in a personal collection of more than 4,000 pieces of memorabilia.
He said the only place he ever lectured and found that people were unfamiliar with the painting was Moscow. One of the places where he was most surprised to find "American Gothic"-inspired items was in Halifax, Nova Scotia.
In 1998, when he was still at the University of Iowa, Dean Lloyd lectured at the state dental society meeting in Des Moines. Afterwards, one of the dentists approached him and said he knew the current occupant of the house featured in the painting.
“He called the owner of the house, who then called me, and I traded him four University of Iowa vs. Minnesota football tickets to let me and my family stay in the house one Friday evening,” said Dean Lloyd. “While we were sitting on the couch talking to the owner before he left for the night, some people knocked on the door. They signed a registry and he gave them a pitchfork and they went outside where he took a picture of them with their camera. I looked at the registry and there were names of people from all over Iowa, the Midwest, the U.S., and the world.”
While many people share Dean Lloyd’s love of the "American Gothic" painting, very few can boast of having stayed in the house made famous by it. “We slept on the second floor under the elongated window that’s featured prominently in the painting. And I looked out of the window I’d been looking into for 30 years.”