Editor's note: The following essay was reprinted in Resource Library on January 30, 2012 with permission of the author and the Bone Creek Museum of Agrarian Art. If you have questions or comments regarding the text please contact the Bone Creek Museum of Agrarian Art directly through either this phone number or web address:
Dale Nichols: Transcending Regionalism
by Amanda Mobley Guenther
A raging debate in the 1930s sought to define American art within contemporary culture of the time. Fueled by the Great Depression, regionalism was a strong voice for a uniquely American experience in art and literature. Out of this environment rose a group of artists who, while not oblivious to the trends in modern abstraction, sought to tell the American story through representational art. These artists chose to give voice to an agrarian culture being ignored by urban influences both here and abroad.
Dale Nichols was the fourth regionalist following the triumvirate of Grant Wood, Thomas Hart Benton, and John Steuart Curry. All four painted enduring scenes of rural areas, celebrating the values and strengthening the morale of America's heartland. Nichols' story is one of resolute pride and support for the Midwest, particularly his home state of Nebraska, but was also one of exploration and adventure to far off lands and ideas. Nichols upheld the regionalist voice while he transcended the regionalist genre. This theme is explored in a book and exhibition Dale Nichols: Transcending Regionalism, May 20 - November 18, 2011 at Bone Creek Museum of Agrarian Art, David City, Nebraska. The exhibition travels to Georgia Museum of Art, December 17, 2011 - February 27, 2012 and Montgomery Museum of Fine Arts, March 17 - June 17, 2012.
Dale W. Nichols (July 13, 1904 - October 19, 1995) was born in David City, Nebraska. He briefly took classes at the Art Institute of Chicago and then sought the route of many aspiring artists: illustration. Nichols lived in Chicago for fifteen years and worked for a number of design firms such as Stevens, Sundblom, and Stultz. Savvy business skills allowed Nichols to quickly transition from the world of commercial illustration to fine art. Nichols began painting seriously in 1934 and won national awards almost immediately. Nichols' quick and long lasting success may be attributed to his consistent recognizable style. From a foundation of narrative illustration, Dale Nichols focused on clean lines, simplification of details, and subliminal messaging to evoke feelings of familiarity and empathy for his rural subjects.
Nichols saw himself filling a void in the American art scene by founding the Dale Nichols School of Art in Tubac, Arizona in 1949. This school not only provided a place where representational art and regionalism was appreciated, but also a place for painters of American subjects to receive classical art education on a par with that of Europe. This venture did not last long, and for the next five years Nichols traveled and worked in Mexico, Minnesota, Nebraska, and New Orleans. Between 1950 and 1960 Nichols' national representation diminished and he went back to illustration, designing covers for Down South magazine while aboard his boat docked along the Wolf River near Biloxi, Mississippi. In 1960, Nichols made a surprising move to Antigua, Guatemala where he remained for sixteen years. Nichols began learning about the Mayan people of that region and became an expert in the carvings at the ruins of Iximché and other Mayan monuments. Always experimenting, Nichols invented a technique to transfer and artistically render the ancient Mayan carvings which he called metagraphs. Nichols contributed scholarly work on the Mayans with his own evaluation and interpretation of the temple ruin carvings. In the 1980s, Nichols returned to the states and lived in Nevada, Alaska, Nebraska, and Arizona. He died in Sedona, Arizona in 1995 and was buried in his beloved David City, Nebraska.
Like his personal achievements, Nichols' artistic achievements are long and varied. His artistic vocations include painter, author, teacher, interior designer, illustrator, printmaker, archeologist, historian, and public speaker. Nichols is most recognizable for idyllic Americana scenes of the Midwest winter with red barn, white snow, and blue sky. However, his body of work as a whole remains somewhat mysterious in American art and divergent from the regionalist theme.
End of the Hunt (1934) in the Metropolitan Museum of Art is the most well known painting by Dale Nichols. After winning the William Randolph Hearst exhibition award from the Art Institute of Chicago, Nichols solidified the design principles and techniques used in the painting as the basis from which he built the rest of his career. This painting marks an "end" to his personal quest for reliable design components. This painting acts as the compass from which to measure the transitory nature of Nichols' style and content. A simplified graphic quality and compositional strength have made his early award-winning paintings continue to be acclaimed in the art market and among museum collections. January (1935), for example, selected as the UNICEF Christmas card of 1987, has remained in favor for over fifty years, representing American hope and prosperity.
Although art historians have categorized his work in the regional genre for obvious reasons of time period and subject matter, Dale Nichols did not promote himself as a regionalist. He was opposed to the modernism coming from Europe and preferred to create new labels for himself and his work. Considering the definition of regionalism as a representation of one's local area and characteristics, Nichols was indeed a devoted regionalist. Nichols painted regional scenes everywhere he went. Conversely, he included a conglomeration of topography into his Nebraska scenes. For example, Alaskan mountains or Guatemalan volcanoes are often seen in the distance of late Nebraska landscapes.
Nichols believed that each of his paintings, regardless of subject, carried the emotional qualities of his home state. Nichols felt that Nebraska was the only place he truly knew. However, it may be surprising to learn of the volume of artworks outside of the Midwestern scene. Eldred Rock Lighthouse was probably painted during one of his many summers spent in Alaska. In his personal writing, Nichols discussed his feelings as an outsider looking in when painting subjects such as this majestic lighthouse island. Nichols painted what he knew and contended that Nebraska, the land of his childhood, was at the root of all of his experiences, making Nichols one of the strongest proponents for regionalism.
Painted while Nichols was an artist-in-residence at the University of Illinois-Champaign, I Cultivate My Garden (1939) provides a rich balance of classic elements of design and typical Midwestern subject. Perhaps more similar to the work of fellow regionalist Grant Wood than any other Nichols painting, the rolling hills and elevated perspective create an expansive view into the fertile land of the plains. This painting is different from most Nichols farm scenes as the viewer is farther removed from the action of the main characters. The audience can only participate in these activities of cultivation from a distance. Throughout Nichols' journey of transition in art he widened his vantage point and more broadly painted the American landscape.
Pueblo (1956) employs a unique combination of compositional and stylistic elements. Nichols exchanges the geometry of the Nebraska barn for that of a less exact adobe building. The snow drifts on roads in his well known Nebraska scenes are simply repeated in the ridges of the Southwest pathway. Pueblo also demonstrates the supreme goal of all of Nichols' work; to draw attention to one source of light, the sun, and its critical role in sustaining life on earth. A dramatically shadowed adobe building occupying almost one quarter of the composition opposes the beam of yellow sunlight boldly illuminating the female figure and the rest of the composition. Directing his audience's attention to natural law and scientific reasons for life, namely the sun, was one of the most repeated themes in Nichols' body of work.
Nichols transcended the regionalist genre by continuing to paint subjects outside of the typical geographical confines of the Midwest. The other well known regional artists, Grant Wood, Thomas Hart Benton, and John Steuart Curry broke these standards as well, either prior to or after their regional periods. Outside of representational, particular painting style is not much of a determining criteria of regionalism. To some degree, a change of scenery naturally translates to a change of style. At the same time that Nichols supported regionalism, he also broke the confines of the genre and painted modern, surreal, and abstract works. Land of Lincoln (1955) is clearly a painting of an American heritage and experience, a landscape and place unique to the Midwest, and is simultaneously one of Nichols' great examples of surrealism. Nichols ingeniously put these styles together to deliver a complex and thought provoking message. There are three faces of President Abraham Lincoln in this painting, one very obvious profile in the upper left corner, overlooking the homestead, as a spirit that overlooks and guides the country. Nichols also painted two other faces of Lincoln morphed into the trees and landscape, possibly to symbolize his deep connection to the foundation of the country.
For an artist whose work largely involves repetition, it is interesting to examine the exceptions where unique subjects and technical treatment add to the vitae of the artist. The oil painting Road from the Lake (1964) is another example of the simultaneous firm foundation and transitional style of Nichols' art. The buildings and figures are consistent with forms that he painted much earlier in Arizona. The evergreen trees may have come from the influence of Alaska near the beginning of his career. Recognition of this form of vegetation so far out of place from its native area requires more than a moment's consideration on the part of the viewer. Nichols paints it in such a way that it seems instantly familiar to a wide audience. One can imagine a deep canyon and mountainous region to be covered with such trees, though they are not really present in Central America. In the context of Nichols' entire body of work, perhaps the most unusual component of this painting is the hazy misty atmosphere. It may be appropriate among the evergreens or common in the tropical environment of Central America, but is something truly unique for Nichols. In all of these examples the exploratory nature of Nichols' character is clear. The elements of transition speak to his experimentation and constant search for knowledge. End of the Hunt provided Nichols with a foundation from which he drew liberty to explore and invent. Nichols became famous in his lifetime because he held to a recognizable style and repeated message; and yet continually sought to learn and share with others what he came to know and believe.
Green Flame (1972) is perhaps one of the best examples illustrating the theme of transcending regionalism. Painted from memory, this portrait of Nichols' grandfather strikingly resembles the strong features of this Nebraska pioneer. The farmer's field and plow are not painted in the background but their presence is felt by the bibbed overalls of the Midwesterner. The background of the night sky, beyond the rim of color, elevates the importance of this man's position in society; as though by virtue of his occupation he is closer to nature. His aloof but warmhearted eyes embody a spirit of determination to achieve the American dream. The regional symbolism of Green Flame is apparent, yet he is surrounded in modern abstraction by shades of color. Does it radiate from him or serve to illuminate him? Nichols saw his grandfather as a timeless flame of inspiration that would never grow dim. Nichols saw himself as a pioneer charting new territory of an American regionalist experience.
Dale Nichols' beloved scenes of Nebraska farmsteads captured the hearts of millions. Using visual and psychological tools, Nichols ultimately sought greater truth through painting. Nichols' artwork was relevant to the culture of the unsteady 1930s and remains important today. Through the six decades of Nichols' career, audiences of this exhibit can see and contemplate the influence of the ever changing modern culture on the creative mind.
(above: Photo courtesy of Joan Nichols Lenhart)
About the author
Amanda Mobley Guenther is Associate Curator of the Bone
Creek Museum of Agrarian Art and author of Dale Nichols: Transcending
Regionalism (2011). She has curated several exhibitions at museums in
the Great Plains region.
About the Bone Creek Museum of Agrarian Art
The Bone Creek Museum of Agrarian Art is located at 575 "E" Street David City, NE 68632 For hours and admission fees please see the Museum's website.
Resource Library editor's note
The above text was reprinted in Resource Library on January 30, 2012 with with permission of the author and the Bone Creek Museum of Agrarian Art, which was granted to TFAO on January 27, 2012. The essay pertains to an exhibition entitled Dale Nichols: Transcending Regionalism on view May 20 - November 18, 2011 at the Bone Creek Museum of Agrarian Art.
A similar text originally appeared in the May/June 2011 issue of American Art Review.
Resource Library wishes to
extend appreciation to Paul Manoguerra, Chief Curator and Curator of American
Art at the Georgia Museum of Art, for his help concerning permissions for
reprinting the above text.
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