MUSCATINE, Iowa —William “Bill” Bunn depicted Mississippi River scenes with oil paint in the ways Mark Twain did in words.
Bunn, a former Muscatine resident whose oil paintings preserve his first-hand experience with life along the Mississippi River, died on June 25, in Ojai, Calif., where he lived. He was 99.
Since his death, those who knew him, or knew of his work, have noted his connection with Muscatine.
“He loved the river. Most of his paintings were riverboats. He even lived on a boat for several years on the river with his wife, Annavene,” Norm Bunn, 88, of Muscatine, said of his uncle. Most of Bill Bunn’s family, including his wife, survive him and live in the West.
Bunn graduated from Muscatine High School and attended Muscatine Junior College in 1929 and 1930. He then left Muscatine and graduated from the University of Iowa in 1936 with a master’s degree in dramatic arts.
While earning his master’s, Bunn worked in the university theater and studied under famed artist Grant Wood. Wood, born in Anamosa, painted people, farmland and scenes of the Midwest during the Great Depression. He is best known for his work, “American Gothic.”
“You can sure tell that he was a Grant Wood student by his paintings,” Norm Bunn said.
According to the book, “Iowa Artists of the First 100 Years,” Bunn traveled with a bicycle and trailer equipped with camping gear and a puppet theater putting on street corner shows. He sketched images and left them behind with farmers who had allowed him to camp in their orchards.
One of Bunn’s paintings, “View of the Mississippi from Wyoming Hill,” painted in 1946, was given to the Muscatine Art Center in 1971 from the estate of Raymond Titus.
“I just love this painting and
always have,” said Barbara Christensen, director of the Muscatine Art Center. After hearing of Bunn’s death she hung it on her office door, but she’s always known it was a significant piece in the Art Center’s collection.
“Because he studied under Grant Wood and because of his local ties and the fact that this is a regional piece, it is important,” she said.
The oil-on-canvas depicts a scene from Wyoming Hill, off of Iowa Highway 22 east of Muscatine. A horse is leading a carriage up the dirt road on the steep hill and a paddlewheel boat is pushing a raft of logs down river.
The painting represents the former sawmill industry that once boomed on the Muscatine riverfront, Christensen said. The earth tones, gray-blue sky and green grass set a scene one might expect to see in the late 1800s from atop the hill.
Bunn painted steamboats, river scenes and the old Muscatine High Bridge. Many of his paintings were displayed in galleries around the country, including the Smithsonian, which also displayed his sketchbooks.
Bunn also worked as an industrial designer for Sheaffer Pen in Fort Madison, designing most of the pens and desk sets in their line at the time (dates of his employment were unavailable as of press time.)
“He designed pens using gold. Dr. Neil, who was a dentist in Muscatine, took a liking to him and taught him how to handle the gold, and that’s how he got his job at Sheaffer Pen,” Norm Bunn said.
He said his uncle was a very quiet man and that he would visit him in California once a year prior to his death.
“He was a dear, he really was,” Norm Bunn said.
A quote on file at the Muscatine Art Center from Bill Bunn reads: “When I was a youngster, my buddies and I always headed for the river after school. We would row across to the Illinois shore or out to Towhead Island where Mark Twain used to play as a boy. We absorbed all the sights and smells and sounds of the Mississippi … it was one great dominating influence in my life.”