John Steuart Curry: Inventing the Middle West

By Patricia Junker



Curry's John Brown, painted in 1937-1939 as part of his ambitious mural program for the Kansas Statehouse, is the artist's most moving and memorable historical image. John Brown is the central figure of one mural panel depicting what Curry called ''The Tragic Prelude" to Kansas statehood. In his portrayal of Brown, Curry does not offer a narrative to impart a point of view. Rather, he presents only a character study -- an image of wild fanaticism -- and asks the viewer to attach to the image his own reading of its larger significance.

With the appointment of John Steuart Curry as artist-in-residence within the College of Agriculture in 1936, the University of Wisconsin initiated a bold and unique plan to encourage the visual arts in rural areas. Curry was not a member of the university's art facility; he was not employed to teach art to university students. His role in the educational process was not confined to the classroom. Instead, Curry was there to broaden the cultural awareness of future farmers and to spur the creative potential of rural men and women. Chris L. Christensen, Dean of the College of Agriculture at the University of Wisconsin commented:

John Steuart Curry, "artist in residence," College of Agriculture, University of Wisconsin! That title has intrigued many people, John Steuart Curry, on the staff of the College of Agriculture! The alliance amazes them. The explanation is simple. This is one of the most interesting experiments... that has been by any institution of higher learning in the country. [2]

Curry said upon accepting the appointment, "I am glad to be associated with the College of Agriculture. While in my youth I fled from the arms of agriculture to the more seductive charms of art, now I return." [3] The position gave Curry three important things that should have energized his art: a subsidy to paint, an opportunity to steep himself in rural life, and a profound sense of purpose. He threw himself into the position with a kind of missionary zeal, and from his barn-like studio on the Madison, Wisconsin campus, enthusiastically played his part "as gracious host to art lovers and future farmers of Wisconsin." [4] Curry's experience in Wisconsin enabled him to put into practice what he had long advocated in theory: that art should be made relevant to the daily lives of rural men and women. Both Curry and Christensen came to measure the value of the artist's appointment by his accessibility. Curry's studio was always open. He gave freely of his time to Wisconsin's art enthusiasts even when this lessened his own productivity.

"John Curry has the drive of those who love the world better than Art," his friend, painter Thomas Hart Benton, wrote admiringly in 1941, "and who will risk innovation for the sake of that love." [5] In the latter half of his career, Curry found innovation enough in the grand social experiment that was the University of Wisconsin's artist-in-residence program. The experience did not suggest any new direction for his art. Rather, Curry's work there -- cultivating the creative spirits of the people of rural Wisconsin and painting for a Midwestern audience -- validated what he had created up to that point.

These were years of reflection rather than innovation for his art. They were also years of discouragement, as the painter struggled with public scrutiny. The Wisconsin years should have signaled fulfillment for a populist like Curry, but, ironically, experiences in the last decade of his life shook his faith in populism. Although Curry's works brought him critical acclaim and the admiration of fellow artists, they failed to garner him wide public acceptance. They failed to appeal to "his people." Fellow Kansans denigrated his Topeka murals, driving him away from the project in disgust, his work never completed. Curry could not recover from the hurt. Wisconsin Landscape, painted at the request of a group of the country's leading agriculturists, was refused by those who had commissioned it.

Writing to the artist Clare Leighton a year before his death, Curry reflected on his Wisconsin experience in a way that suggests personal disillusionment:

The main thing is to get something done as an artist. It has been my experience and observation that what really counts is your own work. You can lecture to cheering mobs and go around making wonderful impressions on this and that group, but the only thing that counts and the only thing that is remembered is what you have accomplished as an artist. You could spend a beautiful lifetime lecturing to women's clubs and it would be lovely until somebody came along with the latest thing. I not want to appear too cynical because I find the great majority of people are Anxious to learn but also there are a great many people filling in time and will not it at your expense. [6]

By 1936 Curry had earned official recognition as a painter of and for rural people. Yet he died only a decade later misunderstood and disappointed. Upon his death in 1946, the Wisconsin State Journal paid him the following tribute:

He was not content in the artist's attic. He was a stranger to the ivory tower, He knew what art means in its deep significance and he toiled to show it to others, to inspire an appreciation and an active interest in it for thousands people to whom it had been something a million miles away from their own lives.... His Wisconsin rural artists, farmers and village housewives were his pride and joy. A youngster he could help with a brush or an idea was a thrill to him beyond his biggest mural. [7]



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