Sunday, June 23, 2013

Camouflage Artist | Grant Wood

Dust Jacket with Grant Wood painting (detail)
Above Dust jacket for R. Tripp Evans, Grant Wood: A Life (New York: Knopf, 2010), based on a detail from one of Grant Wood's lesser known (but especially compelling) works, titled Death on Ridge Road (1935). In fact, there is a scenic route called Ridge Road in the vicinity of Anamosa and Stone City, Iowa.


It's nothing new to mention that Iowa artist Grant Wood (1891-1942) enlisted in the US Army near the end of World War I, and that he served briefly as a camouflage artist. Nearly every account of his life makes note of that in passing, and states that he was responsible for the camouflage of artillery. Here, for example, is one account, from R. Tripp Evans' recent biography (cited above)—

[After his enlistment in the Army Corps of Engineers in 1917] Wood was stationed outside Des Moines at Fort Dodge, where he passed his free time sketching portraits of his fellow soldiers. After an appendicitis attack landed him in an army hospital, Wood was transferred to Washington DC, where he joined the American Expeditionary Force Camouflage Division. Charged with camouflaging heavy artillery and creating convincing cannon "dummies" [sometimes known as "Quaker guns"], Wood found that his background in theater design served him surprisingly well.

Meanwhile, we recently ran across a news clipping in scrapbooks put together by Wood's sister, Nan (available online here), in which Wood talks briefly about his wartime camouflage service. The article (the source isn't noted, but it's most likely from the Des Moines Register and Tribune, accompanied by the penciled note "Nov 1933?") is titled "3 Will Show Oil Paintings. Iowan's in Exhibit Here Next Week." It goes on to announce an upcoming joint exhibition (at Younkers in Des Moines) by three artists "who served in the same camouflage squad during the world war." Grant Wood is the Iowan, and the remaining two artists are John Kilgore from Chicago and Orrin White from Pasadena. "Stationed at Washington DC," the text continues, "the three young men were trained to camouflage cannons." And there is this paragraph in which Wood remembers their camouflage work—

"It was a difficult job," Mr. Wood recalls. "They took airplane photographs before and after our work was finished. Grass photographs like velvet, every footstep leaves its mark. We had to dig the hole for the cannon and fix it so that not a mark showed."

I have since been able to locate one of the artists who worked on camouflage with Wood. He was Orrin A[ugustine] White (1883-1969). Born in Hanover IL on December 5, 1883, he studied at Notre Dame and the Philadelphia School of Applied Arts. His parents owned a woolen mill in his hometown, and he was initially interested in textile design and the chemistry of dyes. He even taught chemistry briefly at Portland University, but eventually turned instead to interior design and landscape painting. Several online sources confirm that he was a second lieutenant in the 40th Engineers Camouflage Section.

As for John Kilgore, his case is slightly more challenging. The Iowa news article lists him as John Kilgore, as does Nan Wood's scrapbook note. But I can't find an artist-camoufleur named John Kilgore, although I've easily located one named Charles P. Killgore (or Kilgore) (1889-1979). Other than the apparent name error, everything else fits perfectly. Born in Huntington WV, he attended Marshall College and the Art Institute of Chicago. His professional life was centered in Chicago, where he worked for forty-three years as a color consultant for the Chicago Tribune. He too is said to have served as a WWI camoufleur, and to have been a good friend of Orrin White.

Mystery solved—sort of.

Additional sources