I survived the “snowpocalypse” which hit here before anyone else in America gave a rat’s ass.  It turned out to be 10 inches or so but halfway through the blizzard the wind shifted and came tearing at 30 or 40 mph out of the east.  Like most farms here, there aren’t any trees to the east, storms don’t normally come from that direction.  I’m sure its globull warmening rearing its ugly head.  On Monday morning my yard looked like the surface of the moon with drifts knee to waist deep.  As if that wasn’t bad enough the 1970’s vintage Allis Chalmers tractor decided to have a flat tire and run low on hydraulic fluid.  I scooped the driveway by hand, with a shovel, so I could get out to civilization and purchase hydraulic fluid and get some air and clear out the rest of the yard.  Just another day when you live where Winter wants to kill you.  I feel a little bit for the folks out East but only in a very distant sort of way.  You know, winter sucks but… welcome to my world.  I’m not trying to be cruel or uncaring, I’m just echoing Mother Nature’s feelings.  No matter what, winter is coming to an end, I’ve never seen a blizzard after May 11th, not that it can’t happen but at least I can see the finish line when you’re racing winter just finishing is an accomplishment.

Next week, regardless of the weather (more or less) I start teaching another art class.  The nearby campus of Southwest Minnesota State University has an ongoing education course going that allows senior citizens to be taught by talented but completely unqualified folks like myself.  I’ve made a living as an artist, drawing and painting to pay my bills but I don’t have the approving degree from some leftist institution to prove my skill.  I’ve taught these classes twice before and it is one of the joys of my life!  The students are hungry, creative and talented and they teach me much more than I do them, the poor bastards.  This class is special.  Very special, we are going to take a class trip to the South Dakota Museum of Art and a guided tour of the works of Harvey Dunn.  I’ve hinted at the history of my family here in the hinterlands of Minnesota before, so let me bring everyone up to speed…

Gustav Johnson, his wife and family came to Murray County Minnesota in 1869.  They took advantage of one of many State controlled Homestead Acts.  They received a quarter of a section merely for living on and from it.  Gustav and his family came from Oppeby, Sweden in 1869, stopped by Ft Snelling, signed for their land and headed out with two wagons to begin their new lives.  They picked a quarter section (1/4th of a square mile, 160 acres) in Ellesborough Township, Murray County, Minnesota.  Minnesota had been a State for ten years and still needed citizens, especially in the hinterlands.  I live in those same hinterlands today but the State doesn’t seem to want us.  The Governor recently told us as much, Trump supporters, global warming deniers and anyone who wanted to limit immigration was welcome to leave, apparently we no longer represent Minnesota.  I thought it would have been my place, as a descendant of an early citizen to recommend the Governor leave but hey, I’ve been wrong before.  Gustav died in a blizzard in 1873 leaving my Great Grandfather, John Christian Johnson, 14 at the time, in charge of the household.  We’re still here and still take care of the land so that speaks something for John C’s success.

Let me get back to the subject.  My students in the painting class are the same age as my parents, more or less.  They are the last ones who can remember the stories of the native prairie we live on.  They witnessed it in its early years of changes.  In 1869 there were no trees here, the land was considered part of the great American desert unfit for anything but buffalo and Indians.  My family described it in a letter home to Sweden as “the land is as free as the air you breathe.”   That line still fuels my soul.

So lets take a look at the native prairie.  Harvey Dunn was born in Manchester, South Dakota in 1884, not too far from my Command Post, very near DeSmet, South Dakota made famous by the writer Laura Ingalls Wilder in “Little House on the Prairie.”  Harvey Dunn wanted to be an artist and attended what came to be South Dakota State University in Brookings, SD.  Taught by Ada Caldwell at SDSU we went east to study under Howard Pyle.  By 1917 he was selected as one of eight artists embedded with the American Expeditionary Forces to cover the War to End All Wars.  Here is a random example of Mr Dunn’s work from the war…

 

Harvey Dunn returned from WWI and continued his career as an illustrator.  He became known for the furious pace of production he maintained, once completing over 50 paintings for clients in eleven weeks.  One of his students once described his painting as “attacking the canvas” and said he would not have been surprised to see Mr Dunn pierce the canvas with a brush as he painted.  Mr. Dunn became a regular contributor to the illustrated magazines of the early 20th Century, a competitor with the likes of Norman Rockwell.  He had the talent and the career the vast majority of artists dream of but never achieve and deserved every bit of his success.

Now we can get back to the prairie and how this relates to my post tonight.  Harvey, if I can be more familiar, never lost his love for his roots.  All the years he enjoyed unparalleled success he never forgot the windy, cold, harsh but beautiful land of his birth.  All that time he had been sketching, drawing and painting scenes from his prairie home and gifting them to his friends and neighbors.  Most of these masterpieces weren’t seen till after his passing in 1952.

These amazing paintings are visualizations of the stories my grandparents told me about, the ones I loved to hear.  The South Dakota Museum of Art houses over 110 of Harvey Dunn’s works, every one has stirred my memories, bringing Grandma and Grandpa’s stories to life.  I attended SDSU when I first returned to my prairie home in 2014 and was taken down onto the bowels of the museum to see pieces that were being restored.  A few of them were Harvey’s.  To see the sketches he’d never thought fit to show was a glimpse into his soul.  Maybe more than he’d intended and maybe utterly misunderstood but I felt a tie and I think I understand.  He saw the same things I do separated by a hundred years, but not unrecognizable.  I can’t wait to take my students, partly to see their reaction to the paintings but mostly because I want to hear the stories those paintings bring to their minds.  It’ll be a hundred years of lost history, hell, Harvey’s paintings bring tears to my eyes, imagine what they will do to people one generation closer than I am.

Lets take a look at some of Harvey’s Prairie works…

Perhaps his most famous…

 

The Prairie is My Garden

30 Below

Dakota mid-day

 

Look at the dominating sky that sets the mood for the paintings just as it sets the mood for life here.  Look at the ever present wind, whipping the most tightly bound hair, the undeniable brutality of winter and how life goes on, the glimpse of the Sod-house like my forebears lived in for over 30 years.

Congratulations and thank you Mr Harvey Dunn, for living the life I dream of and staying so true to your roots.  Thank you for preserving these most beautiful of moments in this most harshly beautiful of places.  Thank you for giving me the chance to share it with others.  My class and I are taking a field trip to receive a guided tour, including deep into the bowels of the museum to see the works currently in storage and some of those awaiting restoration.  I can’t wait to hear the memories and see the feeling this art lets loose in my students.  It’s what art is all about.

 

nessa
Retired Paratrooper, Biker, Tattoo Artist