Art in Kansas has a long and varied history

03/13/2011 12:00 AM

08/08/2014 10:33 AM

Describing Kansas art in generalities is difficult, even for the most esteemed art historians in the state. It shares geography — and some would say a general spirit.

And it admittedly contains more than its fair share of stark landscapes interrupted by lonely barns.

But otherwise, Kansas art has existed in many different forms over the state's 150 years of existence.

It's the bold and colorful landscapes created by Birger Sandzen, a Swedish-born Bethany College professor, in the early 1900s.

It's the sweeping and dramatic John Steuart Curry murals that decorate the state Capitol in Topeka.

It's Samuel P. Dinsmoor's limestone cabin guarded by surreal concrete sculptures in Lucas' famous Garden of Eden.

It's the offbeat sculptures of Wichita-born Tom Otterness, whose sought-after work fills parks and city avenues across the world.

It's the contemporary paintings and sculptures that draw crowds to art galleries around Wichita on the final Friday of every month.

It's 150 years' worth of paintings, sculpture, glass, photographs, fiber and ceramics produced by artists whose talents might have made them stars had they been born in New York City.

"The art of the region and the state is much less monolithic than people think," said Bill North, senior curator at Kansas State University's Beach Museum of Art, which specializes in Kansas art.

"There's a lot more to it than just barns."

Prairie Printmakers

The earliest Kansas artists included landscape painters such as George Stone, a Topeka-born artist who studied with Paris greats, and George Hopkins, a painter and teacher who directed the art school at the Kansas State College in Manhattan in the late 1800s.

But what may have been the most significant period of Kansas art dawned in the early 1900s with a man named Carl Smalley, the son of a McPherson seed dealer, North said.

During a 1904 seed-selling trip that included stops in Kansas City and St. Louis, Smalley bought several prints, which be took back to McPherson and sold at the seed shop.

The art was so popular that Smalley's father eventually turned over a section of the showroom. Smalley's art dealing eventually took over the entire business.

Smalley, who would sell prints to farmer's wives who'd saved their egg money, started a friendship with artists such as Sandzen and C.A. Seward, whose work he promoted and encouraged.

The pair of printmakers went on to serve as charter members of the Prairie Printmakers, who arguably made up the most famous and influential group of artists in the state's history.

The group was officially formed on Dec. 28, 1930, when Seward invited eight other artists plus Smalley to Sandzen's Lindsborg studio. Among the organization's other charter members were Wichita artist Clarence Hotvedt and married artists Arthur and Norma Bassett Hall.

The group's stated goal was to gather and inspire printmakers and print collectors. Wichita's William Dickerson was the first artist invited to join, and over the years, the group included more than 75 active members, all of whom paid annual dues of $1.

The artists, who created etchings, silkscreens, linoleum cuts, block prints and lithographs, made art that was accessible, affordable and easy to love, said Stephen Gleissner, curator at the Wichita Art Museum, which has a collection of prints by founding member Herschel C. Logan.

Some of the group's most famous pieces include images of Kansas prairies, lush trees and farmland.

"The imagery just grabs your heart," Gleissner said. "It's the way you want Kansas to look and feel. It's what you wanted your youth or you grandparents' youth to look like."

The Prairie Printmakers also helped spark an unprecedented, statewide interest in art, North said.

"There was just a real appreciation throughout the state of art, and ordinary people were collecting art, reading about art and thinking about art," he said.

A 'Kansas style'?

The period that produced the Prairie Printmakers also included a fascination with the southwestern landscape, partly ushered in by Wichita banker Ed Davison and his wife, Faye. The pair began summering in New Mexico and joined a colony of Taos-based artists who were inspired by the southwestern landscape. Many other Kansans also started traveling to New Mexico to work, including Charles Capps, another founding member of the Printmakers, as well as Dickerson.

The Prairie Printmakers also inspired generations of artists, who branched off in many different directions.

The 1940s saw a fascination with abstract expressionism, embodied in the work of artists such as Sue Jean Covacevich, a Sandzen student who studied with Diego Rivera and went on to teach at Winfield's Southwestern college.

Some of the most important figures in the history of Kansas art have included educators such as Albert Bloch, Roger Shimomura and Marjorie Schick.

The list also includes easel painters such as Henry Hubbell; sculptors including Bruce Moore, Tom Otterness and Blackbear Bosin; and photographers such as Terry Evans, Larry Schwarm and Gordon Parks.

Kansas art historians could spend hours rattling off names of Kansas artists both well known and unjustly obscure and of Kansas artists both long gone and those alive, well and prolifically producing today.

What Kansas art experts have more trouble identifying is what makes art Kansas art.

"There never really has been what you would identify as a Kansas style," North said. "One thing that you do find in a lot of Kansas artists is this subtlety that is hard to describe. It's not flashy. It's very incredibly rich but very subtle and it sort of invites meditation. Things start to reveal themselves over time."

Hidden talent

Kansas has produced several well-known artists, including Tom Otterness, a Wichita-born artist who left Kansas for New York and whose whimsical but often dark sculptures are in high demand — and bring in big money.

But most of those artists left Kansas to find fame in New York City and other cosmopolitan centers.

Another characteristic that binds many Kansas artists, experts say, is undiscovered talent.

Their level of work is on par with the most famous artists in the world, but many of them never got their work in the hands of dealers who mattered.

That notion inspired local art collector Mike Michaelis, the chairman of Emprise Bank. He's amassed a collection of Kansas art that includes about 1,700 pieces.

The collection, some of which decorates the halls and offices of the bank at 257 N. Broadway, includes obscure paintings from the 1800s all the way up to work under commission from a promising KU master's student.

It includes pieces from each of the founding members of the Prairie Printmakers as well as a work by John Steuart Curry and photographs by Gordon Parks.

The collection's value can't be measured monetarily, he said.

"There are lots of people in the world who have one piece worth more than our whole collection," he said. "But from a historical perspective, it's a valuable collection."

Though the collection is still a work in progress, Michaelis said that he hopes it will someday be acquired by a museum as an homage to the screen-printed, photographed, wood-etched landscape of 150 years of fine arts in Kansas.

"It seems to me that we've produced artists that are every bit as good as what you see in other places," he said. "The difference becomes the promotion of the art, not the production."

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