At the age of 90, on a farm near Grinnell, Iowa, just 45 minutes East of Des Moines, Leonard J. Maasdam (1904-2003) completed a nearly 60-foot tall wheel tower in the middle of some cornfields. While there isn’t much else to see, the wheel tower gives off tremendous strength and energy the moment you see it over the hill, but definitely as it towers over you when your up close staring up at the some two hundred mesmerizing rust-colored wheels.
There is not a lot out there about L.J. Maasdam. There’s no one out there to ask. But the story goes that Maasdam had been collecting wagon wheels for years, he would weld during the day, and his kids would re-weld to fix it up at night without telling him because, well, ol L.J. wasn’t much of a welder. “Now that’s true love.”
What I couldn’t help but think the most when I was standing underneath such an incredible sculpture was how artistic and intuitive it felt. I recently spent time in New York looking up close at works by Martin Ramirez and Bill Traylor, among others was how these self-taught masters did not feel self-taught. Instead, the lines they make, the value they create, and the movement and energy throughout their works felt as if it were developed through years at an art school.
Same goes for L.J. Maasdam. I don’t know if he ever attended an art school, apparently, he never attended a welding class, but the beauty of the repetition, the geometric lines throughout, and the one random bright red wheel in there for emphasis made me feel inferior for thinking so long and hard about any work I ever do when I’m making anything. Don’t get me wrong, it’s good to plan (are you listening my Intro to Art students), but also trust your intuition I reckon. Right? What do I know I’m just standing under this wheel tower barefoot while my 4-year-old stomps in mud on a beautiful spring day in Iowa.
This wagon wheel tower is an awe-inspiring, beautiful art environment worth the 5-minute detour off Interstate 80. Hat tip to Larry Harris of Narrow Larry, who has a great list of art environments all over the country.