The Great Plains has presented artists with challenges unlike those of most other regions. Lacking most of the visual elements that traditionally comprise landscape compositions, the terrain can seem utterly devoid of artistic subject matter, empty and uninspiring to those who attempt to portray it. Over time, however, artists have adapted to the Plains' unique qualities in a wide array of interesting ways that offer insights into both the development of the area and its peoples and the special character of the place. And even though the region's sheer extent and distance from major urban centers have tended to relegate it to the "margins" of the art world, artists in the Plains have established a strong visual heritage through other subjects and activities in addition to depictions of their region's landscape. The Great Plains is not often acknowledged for its aesthetic achievements, but it has a rich artistic history that deserves to be better known.
In visual art Native American and European American traditions differ to such a degree that their imagery is usually considered separately; they are often studied as two distinct specialties within the history of art. These cultures, with very different notions of vision, representation, and relationships to the land, have responded to the world in accordance with their own conceptions of space and humanity's place within it. As a result, each group's art remained distinctive until the mid. twentieth century, when cross-cultural influences began to have an impact. The differences between Native American and European American art, which range from the most basic qualities to the most profound aesthetic issues, compromise comparisons and even parallel discussions of the two to the point of diminishing the integrity of both. This is nowhere more apparent than in the art of the Great Plains, where contrasts of media, styles, subject matter, and perceptions of the land between the two groups have been as polarized as their different value systems and traditional ways of life.
Native Plains art differs from European American imagery stylistically, functionally, and conceptually. Pictorially representing ideas and visual surroundings symbolically rather than literally or "naturalistically," Native Plains artists did not attempt to directly transcribe the appearance of the natural world according to European techniques of perspective. Also, rather than being separated from everyday life within a hierarchical value system that creates artificial divisions between "high art" and lesser manifestations, art within Native traditions is an integral part of societal activities, both everyday and ceremonial.
Plains imagery that precedes European American contact is today extremely rare; it was usually constructed of organic materials that were not long lasting, and it was not considered "art" in the same sense that Europeans conceive the term. Until almost this century it has not been considered unique or valuable apart from its ritualistic or functional purpose and was therefore not usually preserved and revered as collectible. Some European and American visitors to the Plains region in the mid-nineteenth century did collect artifacts of various sorts from the Native peoples, and while those activities were not comprehensive and systematic and were often for anthropological or scientific purposes rather than aesthetic ones, their efforts, and those since, have preserved a variety of objects that give a glimpse into traditional Native Plains imagery.
Prehistoric rock carvings and paintings (petroglyphs and pictographs) also survive at several sites throughout the Plains, although very little is known of their origins or intended meanings. Efforts to understand the significance of art in Native American life have been hampered by this scarcity of early examples as well as by the extreme differences between European and Native American concepts of art.
Although the impulse behind creating imagery in Native cultures was undeniably inspired by aesthetic considerations as well as by symbolic and ritualistic ones (all of which offer important insights into their artistic and cultural significance), the later exhibition of these objects as museum collections of "art" tends to remove them from their original contexts and can misleadingly present them within a foreign value system, one that considers art primarily something to be looked at rather than integrated into the daily activities of its creators, as was originally intended. At the same time, however, the art establishment and its marketplace have provided Native American artists an important outlet for the expression and preservation of their traditions, a means by which their cultures can be understood and appreciated by a wider public. They have also provided some economic support, which in turn encourages additional creative activities within tribal communities.
Native American and European American art forms do share at least one important characteristic that is integral to understanding the significance of their creation in the Plains region. Both cultures created and used imagery, although not exclusively in either case, to document life experiences. Because the land was fundamental to these experiences in both cultures, this basic relationship can serve as a touchstone for discussions of their art.
Plains Indian Art
Plains Indians were, of course, not a single group but rather many different peoples who inhabited an extremely large territory. While they shared certain aspects of lifestyle, their visual imagery, its specific symbolism, meaning, and function, differed according to tribe and even according to individual artists in the same tribe. Comprehensive accountings of their histories and the myriad of specific objects would require separate studies for each group, but because they all had their origin in the same region some generalities can be made.
Plains bison hunters moved frequently; therefore, other than the petroglyphs and pictographs inscribed on rocky outcroppings, their art was necessarily portable. Ranging from large painted tipis to small personal amulets, decorated clothing, shields, and even horses and their own bodies, their media and the uses to which they were put were extremely varied, a diversity demonstrating the richness of the people's creative responses to their environments and experiences.
A large percentage of Native Plains imagery was and continues to be symbolic of sacred events, rituals, and natural forces, which could include everything from celestial bodies and weather to the indigenous animals of the region. Often stylized into schematic diagrams, the representation of these objects on personal and communal belongings could, it was believed, transfer the power of these forces into forms that would protect the user from harm, bring health and prosperity, or appease the spirits and encourage them to provide for the people of the tribe. Some symbols and their subjects or referents were ubiquitous and relatively unchanging; others were highly specialized and designed for specific events or for particular uses.
Common among Plains cultures are animal symbols and representations, especially those of the bison, which was a staple of their lives. Other animals were also revered for their special traits. Birds, for example, with their ability to fly, were considered especially powerful since they could transcend the earth, and among these the eagle, with its majestic size and fierceness, was held in highest regard. These and other animals were not only represented in Plains art in pictures and sculptured e.gies; their hides and feathers were used as functional and ritual objects as well. In this way the elements of the natural world were both depicted in and part of Native American art, a duality that was both symbolic and practical in the people's creative expression of life and their understanding of it.
Unlike the European tradition, in which the making of art is mainly reserved for a gifted few, most if not all members of Plains tribes incorporated art into their daily tasks and became artists in various ways. Women adorned clothing, baskets, and other personal and household objects with symbolic and decorative imagery made from quills, beads, hides, and other elements that were often dyed with natural colors, and men were responsible for a wide variety of artistic creations, from objects for ritualistic purposes and the painting of their own bodies for ceremonies, hunts, and battles to the inscription of tipis and hides with diagrams and narratives of important events in their lives and those of their tribes. Objects for particularly important purposes would be made by shamans, who were endowed with special gifts of wisdom or healing abilities, but even children were sometimes invited to sculpt small clay animal figures, which would be used in ceremonials. All were taught to understand the relationship between the natural world and the artistic interpretation of it.
Oscar Howe. Calling on Wakan Tanka, 1967. Casein on paper.View larger
Although nothing was ever entirely removed from its spiritual dimension in Native life, actual events were also recorded in pictorial imagery through a more purely narrative format. Calendar hides painted by elders, for example, documented years of history, and although these were not designed according to a standardized hieroglyphic system, they could be read almost as written chapters of tribal life over the course of time. Important ceremonies, battles, hunts, tragedies, storms, and other notable events were the main subjects of these paintings, which augmented the oral tradition of passing stories and communal history from one generation to the next. Individual warriors might also record especially notable encounters, gatherings, and conflicts in paintings, creating a visual document of personally significant occurrences that were used not simply as memory "books" but for important ceremonials.
When Native Americans were incarcerated toward the end of the nineteenth century, this tradition served as the basis for smaller ledger drawings that depicted battles between various Plains tribes and the U.S. Army. Named for the paper upon which they were drawn, which was taken from ledgers at the prisons or reservation schools, these drawings form an important record of Native Americans' reactions to the violent disruption of their traditional ways of life.
While the natural world was always the most important subject for Native American art, representations of landscape in the European sense did not exist until late in the nineteenth century and after prolonged contact between the two cultures. The Native concept of nature was not human centered, and thus the tradition of portraying a landscape from a fixed, individual point of view, looking across a scene toward the horizon, was foreign and inconceivable. In place of this "magisterial gaze," a socially constructed concept that has contributed much to the development of Europe and the United States and from which the artistic technique of linear perspective evolved, Native Americans held the idea of the sacred wheel, a cosmic view in which all of nature is integrated and humans are merely one part of a living entity, no more powerful or significant than other things in the world.
Because of this philosophy, in traditional Native American representations of nature horizon lines are rarely if ever found; more often, symbols and representations of humans and animals appear to float without a sense of specific location, as if the entire universe is their home. Within the epic expanse of the Great Plains, where the horizon seems to merge with the sky in all directions, this conjoining of land with the cosmos must have seemed an especially appropriate and true representation of the place, even if it does not coincide with the more familiar modern conception of the Plains as an expansive terrain represented by a line running horizontally across a picture.
Since their relegation to reservations, Plains Indians have had to accommodate extraordinary disruptions of their way of life, assimilate vastly different worldviews and patterns of behavior, and endure the loss of both physical and psychological links to the past. While this has altered their art profoundly (including its increasing commercialization), Native American artists have continued to draw upon their traditional cultures for inspiration even as they have incorporated a new array of materials, subjects, and visual vocabularies into their work. First encouraged in mission schools to learn drawing and later trained in art schools, they have become increasingly familiar with modern artistic concepts and methods. But they continue as well to utilize imagery that links them with their historic traditions and spiritual values. Their work today is a blending of cultures, both visual and social, but, no less than the art of their forebears, it is a unique expression of their identity as artists of the Great Plains.
Although Europeans encountered the Great Plains as early as the 1540s, the first non- Native artists (if early cartographers are not counted) did not arrive until the 1830s. Intent on documenting the appearance of the landscape and its inhabitants for distant audiences rather than incorporating it into an Indigenous society, they worked within a set of values, aspirations, and media entirely different from that of their Native American contemporaries. Their reactions to the terrain were conditioned both by their previous experiences and by their aesthetic preconceptions, and thus they were ill-prepared for the Great Plains landscape. Nothing, except perhaps the boundless ocean, to which the land was often likened, was familiar about the endless treeless vistas that stretched from horizon to horizon, and since their artistic training had taken place in regions that were more visually varied, many early artists in the Plains despaired at the grassland's lack of subject matter for pictures. The Great Plains, labeled the "Great American Desert" in 1820 by Stephen Long's government-sponsored expedition, seemed to many an aesthetic desert that offered little to artists.
The standard reference for nineteenthcentury European American artists who traveled West was the European landscape tradition and its accompanying art theory. These theories and practices had been conceived, of course, for European terrain, which has nothing in common with the Great Plains. This pictorial tradition was premised on the notion of prospect, a concept with multiple meanings, both physical and philosophical. At its most basic, referring to a point of view (usually elevated) from which a landscape is viewed, the term implies a human-centered universe, a fixed point of reference that endows the individual with essential power to envision, imagine, and even create the scene that lies ahead. Derived from this fundamental concept are additional connotations that include, among other things, the idea of futurity or potential as well as specific artistic interpretations: "prospect pictures" standardized the representation of terrain into balanced compositions framed with trees and rocks and guided by meandering paths or streams, a gradual movement toward a horizon that was pleasantly glowing with the promise of opportunity. As "prospects," these views offered to audiences a carefully conceived version of visual ownership, a psychological claiming of the land's future and their role within it.
All these issues and traditions directly affected the ability of artists to creatively respond to the Great Plains landscape. Simply stated, the grasslands of central North America seemed to have no prospects. They had no elevated vantage points from which to survey a scene, no variegated vistas that would charmingly direct the gaze through space, and, just as important, they seemed to have no obvious economic potential for a people more accustomed to forestlands linked by navigable waterways. Artists were at a loss both because they had so little with which to fill their canvases and because they knew that viewers expected landscape paintings to imply the promise of the American continent. The Great Plains seemed empty and desolate, hardly the sort of landscape that would fulfill the desires of an eager nation looking west for its future.
This perception of vacancy was, of course, misguided. A region of tremendous variety of many sorts–culturally in its human diversity, zoologically in its animal populations, climatologically with its extremes of weather and dramatic storms, and botanically with its infinitude of grasses–the Plains offer both great expanse and extraordinary subtlety, a combination that is exceptionally difficult to appreciate without long and thoughtful exposure. And to artists intent on finding compositional subject matters that would intrigue their eastern audiences before they themselves returned home, the special aesthetics of the place more often than not went undiscovered and undocumented. Almost none of the sizable number of paintings of the grasslands produced in the nineteenth century depict the expansive landscape without including something to break the monotony of the expanse.
Only in recent years, with the advent of modernist abstraction, which suits the terrain's minimal offerings, coupled with the increasing appreciation of the region's ecosystem and its relative solitude, have painters and viewers begun to appreciate the Great Plains for their own special characteristics. Until then most artists felt compelled to fill the region's emptiness or, alternately, transform it into an idealized vision of their own making.
Expeditions and Excursions
The first European American artists to travel through the Great Plains did so in the company of expeditions, either government or private, and this trend continued until well after the Civil War. Federally sponsored artists were charged in their commission with portraying the scenery and its inhabitants for official reports to be used in policy decisions that would determine the future development of the region. But artists who traveled privately did so for a number of purposes. Most famous of these, both for his expansive route and for his dedication to his subject matter, was Pennsylvanian George Catlin (1796-1872), who journeyed throughout the Plains in 1832 and 1834 on a personal mission to visit and visually document as many of the Native American peoples as possible before, as he foresaw, their way of life was destroyed. To the north, Paul Kane (1810-71) followed Catlin's example by creating an "Indian Gallery" of portraits and landscapes from the Prairie Provinces. In 1833-34 Karl Bodmer (1809-93), a Swiss artist, made his only visit to America in the company of Prince Maximilian of Wied-Neuwied, an ethnographer studying Native cultures who needed paintings to illustrate the book he would write upon his return. Bodmer's beautiful watercolors, mostly Indian portraits and river views, established a standard for all artists who would follow. In 1837 Alfred Jacob Miller (1810–74) accompanied Scottish nobleman Sir William Drummond Stewart across the Central Plains to the Rocky Mountains. Stewart wanted souvenirs to decorate his castle back home, and Miller's work is correspondingly romantic, both stylistically and thematically.
Other than Catlin, who had relatively little artistic training and was thus less hampered by aesthetic theory and precedents, none of these artists, even Bodmer and Miller, who produced a large number of evocative paintings of the region, portrayed the landscape in its pristine form without something in the composition to provide it with visual interest. This would be the norm for more than 100 years, as artists struggled to enliven their views and to endow the seemingly empty Plains with prospects, even if they were of the artists' own making.
Animals, Indians, and the travelers themselves formed important early subjects. Bison were especially exotic and appealing, and one of the most frequent subjects was the bison hunt, with Indian horsemen engaged in the chase. Prairie fires were another popular theme, often filled with running animals chased by flames and smoke, an eerie and dramatic sight that never failed to evoke awe in those who witnessed those events. Increasingly, scenes of frontier life, usually highly contrived, dominated the images and appealed especially to eastern audiences, as the paintings were exhibited widely and reproduced in readily available publications and prints by lithographic firms such as Currier and Ives. Guidebooks also became immensely popular, as much for their illustrations as for their text, and, especially after the completion of the transcontinental railroad in 1869, these helped shape the expectations of thousands of immigrants who moved into the Plains after the Civil War. Artists often worked on commission for these publishers, and, in the days before copyright enforcement, their work was also frequently shared among publishers or redrawn by other artists in a variety of formats for reprinting.
The Settlement Period
A major change in the portrayal of the Great Plains occurred with the arrival of the settlers, who dramatically altered the landscape and its prospects. With the advent of overland routes such as the Oregon Trail in the 1840s and then with railroads in the 1860s, coupled with the 1862 Homestead Act, which made landownership available to a wide populace, the influx of Europeans and Americans into the region that had first been a trickle became a virtual flood. The prospects of the Great Plains began to improve, and their image evolved from the "Great American Desert" into the "Breadbasket of America." For the Native peoples it was a harrowing period of loss and despair as their homelands were even more conclusively encroached upon, their livelihoods destroyed, and their ways of life irrevocably altered.
For artists, however, these events meant new subjects and new audiences. Photographers like Solomon Butcher (1856-1927) in Nebraska in the 1880s recognized an opportunity in the new settlers, and his work appealed to people's fascination with his stillnew medium that could in a matter of minutes capture both a likeness and their pride in home ownership. He and other entrepreneurs traveled throughout the Plains photographing the homesteaders and their farms. Occasionally, they established studios in the burgeoning towns in the region. Their work has become a valuable historical record of the early American settlement period. In their photographs we see the range of pioneer living conditions in the Plains, from the sod houses of the new arrivals to the frame dwellings of those more established. We also witness the diversity of the people, from newly freed slaves who claimed their own land to European immigrants only recently off the boat. Meanwhile, William Henry Jackson's (1843-1942) photographs of Plains Indians depict the twilight of a way of life that was being effaced. In all these views the sense of place is almost palpable, with the settlements perched tenuously on the expansive Plains, but the insights into the individuals are equally compelling, whether it is hope on the faces of the new landowners or despair on the faces of those dispossessed.
Painters were also inspired by the settlers and gratified by their ability to transform the terrain into scenes not unlike those of more traditional landscape art; at last the artistic prospects of the land and its economic potential were improving. Scenes of verdant fields, locomotives, and farmers at work helped convey these developments to eastern audiences and satisfied the local inhabitants that their efforts were indeed contributing to the progress of the country. The land was taking shape–literally–as what had previously been seamless prairie was conformed to section lines and plowed fields, creating the first blocks of what now appears from the sky to be an earthly quilt.
Although turn-of-the-century viewers did not have the benefit of airplanes, of course, aerial portraits of the landscape were available to Plains audiences through artistic renderings. Throughout the settlement period bird's-eye town views drawn from maps, with careful perspective manipulations to enhance the appearance of each building, were extremely popular and were used as promotional objects by ambitious city planners, civic organizations, and entrepreneurs. A clever adaptation of the eighteenth-century English prospect pictures, which were essentially estate portraits for wealthy landowners, these town views, with their clear delineations of streets, homes, businesses, and surrounding territory, offered a unique sense of ownership to the inhabitants, a feeling of civic pride as they witnessed the expanse of their towns. The surrounding land beyond the last homes not only suggested the local terrain but also implied a stake in the future potential of the community's growth. This innovative form of depicting the Plains persists to this day in an updated version; contemporary farms are routinely photographed from the air, and landowners regard the framed prints as prized possessions.
Cowboy Art and the Great Plains
Charles M. Russell. Smoking Up, 1904. Bronze.View larger
Even more than the landscape and its cultivation, the most enduring visual image of the Great Plains remains the western ideal of cowboys, Indians, and cavalry. Although precedents had been established for these themes in the 1840s and 1850s, mostly by eastern artists, the "golden age" of western art that codified these indelible symbols actually occurred during a relatively brief period, from the late 1880s through the turn of the century, after the Plains had been essentially fenced and domesticated and its Indigenous populations reduced and relegated to ever-shrinking reservations. Inspired by the rapidly disappearing ways of life, as the cattle drives were replaced by railroad shipping, the cavalry campaigns disappeared, and the tribes were subdued, artists such as Frederic Remington (1861–1909) and Charles M. Russell (1864–1926), among others, dedicated their art to heroic masculine action in the Plains, struggles between humans and animals, and the conflict of cultures.
The compelling power of this subject matter, enhanced by their dramatic representations of it, established a standard to which all subsequent art of the region would be compared. Russell had been a working cowboy and lived in Montana, but Remington and many of his colleagues such as Charles Schreyvogel (1861–1912) were easterners, and their work, produced in New Jersey and New York studios, ignored the rapid industrialization that much of the terrain they were portraying was actually experiencing. While they were careful to be accurate with details such as clothing and movement, the histrionic compositions of these artists were largely invented and thus portrayed a mythic region that relied as much on romance and nostalgia for its appeal as on fact. Their legacy, however, has been so profound that most Western movies have ascribed to their model, sometimes quite directly, and these representations have determined the identity of the West and the Great Plains for a large viewing audience. Today their emulators are numerous, most notably in the organization known as the Cowboy Artists of America, whose members continue to propagate the ideal of the cowboy and the heroic battles of the Plains tribes through representational imagery.
By the end of the nineteenth century, artists in the Great Plains knew that a new era was upon them. As the focus of the region changed from establishing communities to sustaining them, it became clear that the region would once again be redefined in a new, more modern image. The emphasis, by necessity, would have to be on connections with the nation and the world as a whole—for trade, for culture, and for identity itself. While this promised to bring even greater bounty to the region as it positioned itself as the country's agricultural heartland, the transition also posed risks, as dependence upon distant regions became ever more important. This was no less true for artists in the Great Plains as they worked to strengthen their own connections with the larger art world and position their work within it.
Art Culture in the Great Plains
As one of the last major areas of the United States to be settled, the Great Plains was correspondingly slow in developing the trappings of cultivated society, including artistic organizations such as museums, galleries, and societies to support and encourage the development of artists and their work. As soon as statehood was granted, however, which occurred at different times in different parts of the Great Plains, efforts were initiated to establish institutions that would substantially contribute to the region's cultural future. Art museums took time, but private collections were assembled in some places such as Omaha and Winnipeg relatively early, and these as well as public collections supported by civic groups and wealthy philanthropists evolved into today's museums.
Colleges and universities, many of which were founded through federal land grants at the time of statehood, however, offered art departments very early and were an important catalyst for the production of paintings and sculptures as well as for the training of local artists. Their dominance as centers of art activities in the Plains has remained, even as museums, galleries, and specialized art schools have become more common throughout the region.
Women were especially prominent in these developments and, surprisingly perhaps, formed the majority of the art faculties of state universities in the Plains in the early years. The University of Nebraska, for example, had a strong art program as early as the 1880s, and it was dominated by women, both in the professoriat and the student ranks. This was true as well throughout the Plains, although as the schools developed and grew, men would increasingly take the women's places on the faculty by the 1920s. Far from being amateurs, many of the early female artists in the Plains came from or went on to study at prestigious schools such as the Chicago Art Institute, the New York Art Students League, and in Paris, especially at the Académie Julian, which admitted women beginning in the 1860s. Their high level of expertise established a strong foundation for the growth of art within their home region. Characteristically, the careers of these women have been overshadowed by those of their male colleagues, but recent studies have begun to recognize their achievements and abilities.
Women contributed to the growth of art in the Plains in other ways as well. They organized art societies, art clubs, and exhibitions of art from national collections as well as from local artists and frequently were the guiding forces behind the establishment of the region's major museums. For example, a well-known painter in Oklahoma, Nan Jane Sheets (1889– 1976), served as cosupervisor and then supervisor of Oklahoma's Works Progress Administration (WPA) art program during the Great Depression. She also established an art gallery in Oklahoma City with federal funding in 1935. Even after losing funding with the termination of the program in 1942, she managed to keep it open as the Oklahoma City Art Center, the forerunner of the Oklahoma City Art Museum.
While women worked in similar capacities nationwide, their prominence in the Plains states seems to have been especially significant. They may have had a longer and consequently greater impact in the Great Plains because the cultural institutions there were slower to mature than on the coasts, providing the women with more time before men recognized the importance of their activities and moved into positions of authority, but much research remains to determine this. Lack of male competition may have also been a factor in women's abilities to become cultural entrepreneurs and successful artists, perhaps because of a gender bias against artistic culture in these frontier states that would have relegated it primarily to the women's sphere. Nevertheless, the status of art within the Great Plains today–its prominent art academies and university programs and museums that rank among the country's finest–is certainly due to a large degree to the farsighted early women artists and philanthropists who made the region their home.
Canadian Art of the Plains
Canadian art of the Plains has a history similar to its counterpart in the United Sates, albeit, of course, with its own unique circumstances and character. First portrayed relatively sporadically by a few intrepid individuals such as Peter Rindisbacher (1806-34), who settled briefly near the Red River in Manitoba, or artists who accompanied exploring expeditions such as W. G. R. Hind (1833-89), the landscape became a major component of a few artists' work such as that of Paul Kane, who, after meeting George Catlin in London in 1843, followed the elder artist's example and made extensive travels through the Canadian Prairies, creating both a visual and a written record. Despite these efforts, however, the northern grasslands did not receive significant attention until the Canadian Pacific Railway began providing a means of easy access to the Plains in the 1870s and 1880s. To promote the line the company provided artists with free passes to travel its route, and this benefit, coupled with the patronage of a burgeoning popular press, a government eager to promote settlement in the western provinces, and a growing nationalism in the wake of the 1867 confederation that declared Canada a unified commonwealth of the United Kingdom, encouraged Canadian artists to look to their own landscape for pictorial inspiration. A number of them, including Sydney P. Hall (1842-1922), Frederick Verner (1836-1928), Edward Roper (1857-91), and Augustus Kenderdine (1870- 1947), are known for their portrayals of northern grasslands. A particular standout is Toronto artist Charles W. Jefferys (1869-1951), who not only devoted a number of his important canvases to the Plains in the 1910s but also wrote compellingly of the terrain's innate challenges and its significance to a national art, inspiring many younger artists to explore the region's visual potential.
By the early part of the twentieth century, especially through the work of the Group of Seven, members of which first exhibited together in 1920, Canadian painting became noted for its landscape imagery. With a few exceptions, such as some of the canvases of A. Y. Jackson (1882–1976), these artists focused their work on the rocky, northern Canadian Shield region rather than on the Plains. However, other painters increasingly realized the visual power of the Prairie Provinces; an increasing number of artists embraced modernism's minimalist aesthetic and followed the lead of Robert Hurley (1894– 1980), who devoted thousands of images to the flat land of Saskatchewan after the 1930s.
The Dust Bowl
John Steuart Curry. Spring Shower; Western Kansas Landscape, 1931. Oil on canvas.View larger
Apart from the nineteenth century and its dramatic scenes of cowboys, Indians, and bison, no other period has left as enduring a characterization of the Great Plains as the Great Depression, when years of drought and poor land management turned the western grasslands into the Dust Bowl. Farmers throughout the Plains were forced off their land by the thousands, and workers of all sorts faced unemployment. Along with this widespread suffering, however, art actually flourished, drawing new attention to the central states and developing cultural institutions within them. Regional subjects were accorded new appreciation: gripping depictions of the difficult conditions throughout the Middle West and South in paintings and photographs captivated American audiences, and federal relief programs brought new attention to the region's communities through special programs and investments that, among other things, fostered the production of art and encouraged related activities. Just as important, many of the works produced in the Great Plains or by artists from the area during this period have become the archetypal images of the period and a testament to the region's enduring significance to the nation.
The artistic style known as regionalism was not limited to the central states, and indeed it had urban and coastal practitioners who portrayed their own locales, but much attention in both the art community and the country as a whole became focused on the Midwest and the Plains through the art of Kansan John Steuart Curry (1897-1946), Missourian Thomas Hart Benton (1889-1975), and Iowan Grant Wood (1882-1942). Their work, which usually depicted down-home themes and idealized landscapes in an accessible, representational style, seemed wholly American in style and sentiment and indicative of the core of national life, even if it did not usually portray the difficulties of the time.
Although only a few artists held the spotlight, regionalism was widespread, and many artists throughout thePlains states adopted it during the 1930s and 1940s. It suited the temper of the time well with its dedication to local subjects and its ability to simultaneously meld the ideal and the real in ways that seemed to many to be more relevant than modernist abstraction. While the emphases of artists varied, from idyllic, pastoral scenes of bounty to harsher realities, some of the most effective works concerned the effects of the Dust Bowl. As much as any other subject since the days of the bison, the widespread devastation peculiar to the Great Plains ordered artists in the region a new subject matter that could define their sense of place and convey to others the power of the landscape within which they lived.
Many of these images were produced independently, without federal assistance, but the wpa began an aggressive campaign in 1933 for reemployment and revitalization throughout the United States. Programs for artists were included among these efforts. Most famous was the Treasury Department's mural project, which decorated post offices and other official buildings throughout the country, but other opportunities were equally exciting, offering painters, sculptors, photographers, graphic designers, and other artists the means for income and the promise of commissions they would never have received otherwise. The programs also brought an unprecedented viability to regional art, including that of the Plains. Federal funding, for example, sponsored traveling exhibitions and established galleries where none had previously existed, introducing original art to a wide spectrum of the populace. Art education programs offered jobs for artists and encouraged creative activities among many, both children and adults, who had never attempted them before. Some of these programs, such as the Oklahoma City Art Center (now the Oklahoma City Art Museum), were maintained after the federal subsidies were discontinued and have become the principal art institutions in their communities.
In what became one of the most familiar programs of the New Deal art initiatives, the Farm Security Administration (FSA) enlisted corps of photographers to travel throughout the hardest hit agricultural areas to document local conditions. From their work emerged some of the most memorable images of the Plains. Dorothea Lange's (1895–1965) Tractored Out (1938) and Arthur Rothstein's (1915– 1985) gripping image of a farmer and his son running to their house, half buried beneath a sea of dust (1936), for example, are just two of the most famous of the thousands of images produced by this program. These evocative depictions of the Great Plains are today still widely recognized and not only stand as testimony to the most desolate period in the region's history but also attest to the enduring ability of the art of the region to symbolize the state of the country.
Contemporary Art in the Great Plains
Although diversity of artistic subject matter has existed since artists began living in the Great Plains, as life there has become more cosmopolitan, art there has correspondingly grown and developed. With increased ease of travel, the publication of excellent art books and catalogs, the prevalence of television and increasingly the Internet, the growth of art schools and university programs, and the development of active museums, artists and the public today have easy access to art of other regions and countries, and the Great Plains has become no less central to the development of visual culture in the United States and Canada than any other area.
The notion of regionalism in art, which was never an insular concept, is more than ever a matter of choice. As the world becomes more culturally connected and increasingly homogenized, however, the appeal of local identity, artistic and otherwise, becomes more powerful. Increasingly, a number of artists, museums, and galleries in the Great Plains are recognizing this potential and focusing their attention on art of their own region. Institutions such as the Museum of Nebraska Art in Kearney, the National Cowboy Hall of Fame in Oklahoma City, the Center for Great Plains Studies at the University of Nebraska, and others are demonstrating the vitality and richness of the local landscape and its inhabitants and history through art and scholarship.
Artists too, now freed from the constrictions of European theory and the prejudices it carried against planar terrain, are recognizing the visual power of the Great Plains in new ways. With the advent of minimalist abstraction and the more recent return to figurative representation, the art world can finally accept the openness of the landscape and recognize the sublimity it has always offered.
In the final decades of the twentieth century a host of artists, working in a range of media from traditional painting and photography to installations, rediscovered the region and provided new insights into its visual, environmental, and cultural complexity. Their work sometimes celebrates its visual breadth in spectacular dimensions and panoramic scope, as in the work of Nebraska painter Keith Jacobshagen (b. 1941) and the 360-degree photographs of Gus Foster (b. 1940), in which the epic sweep of the horizon and the dominance of the sky overwhelm human scale. In other instances the land's ecological richness is the subject, as artists such as Terry Evans (b. 1944) explore the fragile relationship of the densely integrated foliage and its substructure to the health of the land and its inhabitants.
There is also a new appreciation of the epic poetry of fire as it rages through the grasses or the peacefulness of different times of day, but just as significant in contemporary Plains art is the human presence, which increasingly dominates the landscape in so many ways. Photographers Robert Adams (b. 1937) and Frank Gohlke (b. 1942) and painter Harold Gregor (b. 1929), for example, draw our attention to the often unsettling relationship between people and nature in the Plains through images of suburban sprawl, abandoned towns, and endless views of pristine farm fields where prairie grasses once grew. In their work, as in most recent art of the region, the real and the ideal, the Plains and the spectacular, are conjoined in ways that are often unsettling, provoking a reconsideration of the land and its vulnerability and our ability to inhabit it in sustainable ways.
Finally, environmental art is also emerging as a new art form in the Plains, which now, as every air traveler recognizes, appears as a giant patchwork quilt. Some farmers, ranchers, and "earth artists" such as Stan Herd (b. 1950) are emulating this effect in giant multiacre portraits and plowed pictures. The pictorial prospects of the region have multiplied beyond anything early artists could have imagined. As those who live in the Great Plains have always known, the region of waving grasses and endless horizons is hardly a vacant plain. It is a vibrant place of many visions.
See alsoEDUCATION: Museums National Cowboy Hall of Fame and Western Heritage Center / IMAGES AND ICONS: Emptiness; Flatness; Remington, Frederic / NATIVE AMERICANS: Astronomy / PHYSICAL ENVIRONMENT: Dust Bowl / POLITICS AND GOVERNMENT: New Deal.
Joni L. KinseyUniversity of Iowa
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