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Breaking the Prairie Sod

Published onAug 25, 2020
Breaking the Prairie Sod

Breaking the Prairie Sod, 1936-37
Grant Wood (American, 1892 - 1942)
Oil on canvas
Commissioned by Iowa State College as a joint project of the federal Works Projects Administration (WPA) and the National Youth Administration (NYA) and Iowa State College for the Iowa State Library. In the Art on Campus Collection, University Museums, Iowa State University, Ames, Iowa. U88.68abc
Location: Iowa State University, Parks Library, Lobby


Supervised and designed by Grant Wood, this mural is an impressive site in the original section of the Parks Library at ISU. As a prairie ecologist, I have brought many visiting speakers and students to visit the mural, and they are always impressed by it. The mural shows two groups of teams, one plowing a second-year field in the foreground, and a second plowing a prairie in the background. Prairies are dominated by herbaceous species and do not have storage of carbon in tree trunks as do forests. In prairies, most productivity occurs belowground and carbon is stored in roots and soil organic carbon.  The mural shows a nearly black-in-color soil with very high organic matter. As a result of this high organic matter, prairies soils make excellent farmland and are responsible for the high productivity of Iowa crop fields.

A woman brings water to a man behind a team of horses, and a second man on the left chops down a tree. Both men are “Lincolnesque” in appearance. The mythology of Lincoln is that hard work and honesty will get you far in life. Hard work and the clearing of the prairies is responsible for our prosperity. However, I always thought it was interesting that native wildflowers are included in the foreground of the painting, perhaps this suggests that the artists thought there was a cost associated with development? All of the flowering species are native species and are not typically found in crop fields. These species and the unplowed prairie are now very rare in our present-day landscape, as they were in Grant Woods time. Typical of Grant Wood’s art are the repeated units in the mural - the angle of the man chopping the tree is repeated in a tree above him, the wheat plants are repeated throughout the field, and the clouds are floating in repeated units from the far horizon. 

Dr. Brian J. Wilsey
Professor, Ecology, Evolution, and Organismal Biology


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