West Bend Art Museum

West Bend, WI



Essay segment by James Auer on pages 38-39 of 1998 exhibition catalog (Library of Congress Catalog Card Number 97-061471) titled "Foundations of Art in Wisconsin." The exhibition of the same name premiered at the West Bend Art Museum on August 12, 1998 and then was shown at two other museums. Essay segment reprinted with permission of the West Bend Art Museum.


A Brush with History

by James Auer


John Rector Barton, a rural sociologist, and Chris L. Christensen, dean of the University of Wisconsin College of Agriculture, gave it its start. John Steuart Curry and Aaron Bohrod, artists-in-residence at the UW-Madison, gave it its soul. James Schwalbach, host of WHA's "Let's Draw" radio program, gave it its sound. And thousands of eager, if largely untrained, amateur artists and elementary school students kept it energized decade after decade.

Wisconsin's progressive tradition has seldom been better demonstrated than in this trail-blazing enterprise, which not only stimulated creativity in small towns and on remote farms from Lake Michigan to the Mississippi, but nurtured professional careers that have since blossomed into national fame via contests, group shows, solo exhibits and published books.

The Rural Art Program, an enduring example of educational innovation in action, began reaching out to promising, as-yet-undeveloped talent across the state during the Great Depression. It had its modest beginnings in 1936, a year when jobs and hard cash were scarce and even plain, nutritious food was at a premium. It was a time of crisis for the US and its people.

The concept would seem daring even today. Barton proposed to create an art program to encourage cultural development in rural areas, away from big cities. Christensen saw the possibilities and approved, Thus was born a cultural crusade that took famous artists like Curry and Bohrod into remote hamlets across Wisconsin, nurturing talent and building hope.

Curry (1897-1946), the first painter to be named artist in residence at the UW, arrived on the Madison campus in 1936. Like his successor, Bohrod (1907-1992), he eschewed experimental modernism and concentrated instead on depicting American life in a typically American way, with drama and an acute historical sense. Then 39, Curry had built a reputation on memory paintings of his rural Kansas boyhood. He admired people who drew a living from the earth.

A strong believer in the dictum that "the artist must paint the thing that is most alive to him," Curry was soon out in the countryside, encouraging budding Thomas Hart Benton and Grant Woods to draw on "the dramatic and spiritual side of the subject to capture that which is beyond the power of the camera eye to report." As for himself, he painted energetically in his simple frame studio on Madison's Lorch St., often permitting guests to watch him work.

Initially, the Rural Art Program (later called the Wisconsin Regional Art Program) was informal in its organization, determining interest and need and establishing ties with aspiring artists in its affiliate artists' group, the Wisconsin Rural Artists, later called the Wisconsin Regional Artists Association. It was an era of terrible difficulty for country folk. Most farms still lacked electricity, and World War II had not yet pulled the nation out of its economic slump. Dawn-to-dusk hard work was the rule. Simply to seek out and purchase needed art supplies required sacrifice of a sort unimaginable today.

The UW's artist-in-residence program, coupled with the College of Agriculture's cultural outreach activities, soon proved a boon to rural people who loved art but lacked the means and the expertise to put their enthusiasm to practical use. The program's first public exhibit, mounted in 1940 at the UW Memorial Union, brought to Madison the work of 30 artists from 17 counties. It benefited self-taught artists, as well as those with limited training.

Attempting to make art away from metropolitan centers had other difficulties as well. Brushes and pigments were not generally available in small towns, and even when they were, the necessity of doing chores and keeping books interfered with time spent at the easel or hunched intently over the kitchen table. This resulted in the use of whatever materials were at hand, from linoleum blocks to house and barn paint, often daubed onto bits of cardboard.

For all this, the number of artists taking part in the annual Rural Art Show grew rapidly. Between 1940 and 1947 the roster of exhibitors swelled from 30 to 105. The Rural Art luncheon, an occasion for camaraderie and mutual encouragement, became a cherished interlude in lives spent in the field or at a wood-fired kitchen stove. Curry and Barton played many roles: friend, critic, cheerer upper and provider of tools. They starred at countless rustic soirees.

The frantic pace -- working for exhibit, producing murals for the Topeka, Kan., statehouse, entertaining guests in his Wisconsin atelier, mingling with advice-hungry farmers -- ultimately proved too much for Curry. His death, in 1946, was attributed to chronic hypertension. Later, his friend and colleague, Thomas Hart Benton, wrote that Curry had had "the drive of those who love the world better than art and who will risk innovation for the sake of that love."

Curry's successor, Aaron Bohrod, was another gifted Midwesterner who had a strong sense of the land and was able to communicate easily with country folk. Raised in Chicago, he had studied with John Sloan at the Art Students' League in New York, then returned to the Midwest to convey, with grace and skill, the beauty of the Middle American scene. Ironically, World War II was Bohrod's springboard to fame, as an artist correspondent for Life magazine.

After the Japanese surrender in 1945, the newly-celebrated depicter of wartime scenes (his photograph had graced Life's cover) returned to his civilian job at Southern Illinois Normal University, Carbondale, where he had been artist-in-residence since 1942. The recipient of several Guggenheim Foundation grants, he continued to investigate rural as well as urban themes. He was, the search committee decided, an ideal choice to walk in Curry's clay-caked boots.

It was, as it turned out, a good match. The makings of a terrific team were now in place. James Schwalbach had been added to the staff in 1945. Not only did Schwalbach work with individuals and groups, but he reinvigorated "Let's Draw," a radio show aimed at art classes around the state. By 1954 the program had expanded to the point where it was advisable to tighten up the organization and give it a new name: the Wisconsin Regional Artists Association.

As Bohrod was to write many years later in his book, "A Decade of Still Life" (UW Press, 1966), "John Curry and John Barton had set up a tentative framework for the encouragement of expression by the amateur rural painter. After my arrival in the state, I came to know many [artists] who in a simple, open-hearted way were producing fresh and highly creditable works..."

About the Author:

As of the date of the publication catalogue James Auer was art critic for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. He had held this position for several decades, and in doing so, had come to know many of the state's artists and the state's art history. As of 1998 he was also an accomplished photographer and documentary cinematographer, residing in the Milwaukee metropolitan area.


Read more in Resource Library Magazine about the West Bend Art Museum

For further biographical information on selected artists cited above please see America's Distinguished Artists, a national registry of historic artists.

This page was originally published in Resource Library Magazine. Please see Resource Library's Overview section for more information. rev. 6/3/11

Search Resource Library for thousands of articles and essays on American art.

Copyright 2011 Traditional Fine Arts Organization, Inc., an Arizona nonprofit corporation. All rights reserved.