The mural was old. The colors were still vibrant through, the lines still clear and sharp. It was simple – a farmer in his field, harvesting corn while his dog runs nearby. It was painted in a stylized design that is deceptively primitive. If you’re only glancing at it, it seems to lack any real depth. But when you take just a few moments to really gaze at it, the whole scene comes to life. You can almost hear the excited barking of the dog and feel the hot Iowa sun beating down on you from above.
The mural in question is inside the city hall building in DeWitt, Iowa. When it was originally painted, the building served as the town post office, and it’s here that I first laid eyes on it. Back then, the building, which was built in the late 1930’s, was much different.
Erected in an era before plastics, the place was consisted of large glass windows, dark-stained wood, and intricate metal ornamentation. I always remember it being dark in there, despite all the light the windows let in. The mural was high up on the west wall of the lobby, and it always gave me something to look at while my grandparents or parents conducted their business at the post office window.
Looking at it made me feel connected to the agricultural roots of the town and surrounding county. It felt warm and comfortable, like your favorite chair. I loved that painting. I had no idea who had done it, and back then, I didn’t really care. I just liked the way it made me feel.
Rural Life on Canvas
Many years later, I saw a painting in another building in DeWitt. This was an actual painting, not a mural, but it was done in the same, simplistic style. This one depicted a scene of church services coming to an end at the local Catholic Church, St. Joseph’s.
For those who may not have had the pleasure of attending Sunday Mass, allow me to elaborate for a moment. When a Catholic Mass is over, the congregation quickly scatters to the four winds. There are a few who stay and chat here and there, but mostly everyone leaves. I’ve seen services at St. Joe’s go from having nearly two-hundred people in the sanctuary to having maybe ten to twenty in less than five minutes. When Mass is over, it’s over.
That painting portrayed that. There was the crush of people leaving in an orderly fashion to go about the rest of their day, and the obligatory social butterflies who had stopped outside the doors to chat and gossip. Amongst all the activity, two young boys thread their way around the two old women like motorcycles around a road cone.
You could see the Impressionist influence in the artist’s hand, with the characters only having the barest semblance of faces. But, like the mural, there was a real life to it. You could feel the energy of the moving crowd, and almost hear the different conversations being had on the way out of the church. It was a scene that I had witnessed countless times at the very same place. Soon after, I learned that the artist had, too.
The two young boys in the picture were the artist himself, and his brother, racing to whatever boyhood entertainments they had waiting for them elsewhere. His name was John Bloom.
John Bloom was born in DeWitt, Iowa, in about 1906. He grew up in a rural atmosphere amongst rolling cornfields, rugged livestock, and hard-working farm families. It made an impression on his artistic young mind that would stand him in good stead later in his life.
When he came of age, he began to take classes at St. Ambrose University, a Catholic-affiliated institution in nearby Davenport, Iowa. In 1926, still a very young man, Bloom began studying at the ultra-prestigious and respected Art Institute of Chicago. By 1930, he had graduated and was ready to step into the wider world.
Bloom used inspiration from his surroundings, including places he had visited growing up and experiences that he had. One such painting, called Bloom’s Burial, shows a gray, almost dismal graveyard scene depicting a coffin about to be interred in the ground. Two nuns console each other in the background while a priest is by the coffin, conducting the service. Bloom based the painting on his own grandmother’s funeral.
Bloom’s Burial was featured in the art show during the 1932 Iowa Art Salon, even winning a prize. More importantly, the painting drew the attention of one of Iowa’s most iconic artists, Grant Wood.
An American Icon
Grant Wood was another Iowa-born artist who had come to nationwide fame in 1930 for his painting American Gothic, which would very quickly become an iconic piece of American artistic lore. Inspired first by the impressionist painters and later the ultra-realism of the European masters, Wood used his art to capture the spirit of the rural Midwest that he had grown up in.
His star very much on the rise within the American art community, Wood continued to produce paintings in the style of American Gothic. In 1932, he helped to found the Stone City Colony and Art School in Stone City, Iowa, near Anamosa. About this time, Wood saw John Bloom’s painting, Bloom’s Burial, and invited the younger man to move to Stone City for the summer and attend his new school. Bloom readily accepted.
Artists at the colony took classes and cultivated their individual artistic expressions. John took a job as a groundskeeper while living there in order to pay his tuition. During his stay there, he met a young sculptor named Isabel Scherer. They became almost instant friends and stayed in close contact for several years.
The Depression Years
As an artist, Bloom continued to shine. All throughout the 1930’s, Bloom won several awards for painting and drawing throughout the state of Iowa, including a first place finish for a painting he submitted to the Iowa State Fair. He assisted his old friend Grant Wood in painting a series of several murals at Iowa State University, and in 1937 painted the mural in the DeWitt post office.
In 1938, John and Isabel married. They moved into the Masonic Home in Davenport, Iowa, turning a large portion of their living space into artistic studios for themselves. Eventually, they would have three children. With a growing family, John went out and turned his career toward commercial art, all the while continuing to pursue his personal artistic interests and refine his already formidable skills at home.
Over the next several years, Isabel’s fame began to soar. Amongst other things, including hosting a local children’s television program, Isabel was able to turn her private sculpturing into an extremely lucrative business. Through it all, John looked on with pride and cheered her on.
During the 1980’s, a local business owner encouraged Bloom to put some of his private work on display. In 1984, an exhibit of his work was held in Davenport, Iowa. People once again took notice of the old artist, and there was an instant demand for his work. For the next several years, Bloom painted murals in Davenport and Iowa City, won art competitions, and held exhibitions of his work.
John passed away in late May 2002, at the age of 96. His beloved Isabel, his wife of over sixty years, had died the previous year. The couple left behind an extensive body of artistic work in various mediums.
Earlier this year, my own wife fell gravely ill with a life-threatening bacterial infection. Our family doctor diagnosed her in the morning, and we were sent directly to the University of Iowa Hospitals in Iowa City, Iowa, about an hour away from us. She was fine that entire time, just feeling a little under the weather. By the time the doctors were looking at her, her condition had worsened and she was taken in for emergency surgery. We later found out that she had very nearly died.
As it was, they removed a large portion of infected tissue from her hip, which necessitated her to stay at the hospital for almost two weeks. I had taken emergency vacation from my work, and spent the majority of my time in Iowa City, visiting her.
Within the first few days, she was moved to the eighth floor of the hospital, to the burn and wound recovery unit. While she was recovering well, some complications arose. These were dealt with swiftly and professionally by the doctors and nurses, but it was still an extremely stressful time.
One day, while I was walking around the floor, I noticed some familiar looking artwork hanging in the hall. University of Iowa Hospitals put a lot of artwork throughout its meandering corridors, including drawings, paintings, and even sculpture. Many times I would just give things a quick, scanning glance and continue along my way. But these were different.
As I approached, I kept wondering why they seemed so familiar to me.
They were farm scenes, of life in rural Clinton County where I had lived for twenty years. While I studied them, I found my mind and spirit filled with a profound sense of a place in an idealized rural America where life was simple. There was no sickness or death there. The livestock was healthy, the crops were growing well, and the weather was always fair.
And when I read the information plate beside them I found, to my pleasant surprise, that they were done by none other than John Bloom. Alone and far from home, I had found an old friend.
When John Bloom completed those various pieces, I doubt very much that he was thinking of bringing comfort to a big Scotch-Irish guy on the ragged edge. But he probably did contemplate conveying those images of his life in rural America to the public. Bloom wanted to share the feel of the farm field and the sadness of a burial.
And I’m glad he did. He took me back to a place where I could drop my worries and cares and re-center myself. Just like the farmers in his paintings, he reached out a neighborly hand and helped me out. So John, wherever you are, thanks for helping this local out when he was a little down.