Wood was born in rural Iowa, 4 mi (6 km) east of Anamosa, in 1891. His mother moved the family to Cedar Rapids after his father died in 1901. Soon thereafter, Wood began as an apprentice in a local metal shop. After graduating from Washington High School, Wood enrolled in The Handicraft Guild, an art school run entirely by women in Minneapolis in 1910 (now a prominent artist collective in the city). He is said to have later returned to the Guild to paint American Gothic. A year later, Wood returned to Iowa, where he taught in a rural one-room schoolhouse. In 1913, he enrolled at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and performed some work as a silversmith.
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