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Rural America -- Remembering the Family Farm: Prints from the collection of Steve Schmidt

October 5, 2007 - January 13, 2008


The iconic representation of the American farm evokes memories that readily cross generational gaps. Centuries of regional family farming communities across the country symbolize the honor of America, the ingenuity of her people, and plentiful natural resources of rich soil and favorable climates.

In generations past, the primary family enterprise, or core of America, was farming. Farming communities across the United States provided a bountiful cornucopia including fruits, vegetables, grain, and cotton for textile manufacturing. America's bread basket reached far and wide, but was also central to local communities for employment, social connection, and community building.

My memories of the family farm take me back to my grandparent's farm in Chester County, Pennsylvania.  Like many individuals of my generation, my idea of the family farm is relegated to memories and fading photographs. Like my grandfather's farm, countless wide reaching fields, farm houses, and barns are now sanctioned victims to urban sprawl.  Row upon row of vegetables and fields of grain have been displaced by housing developments, strip malls, and mega-mart "big box" retailers.  Many of our fruits, vegetables, and grains now arrive to our supermarkets from Chile or Mexico and as far away as China.

As a child spending weekends at the farm, the pure joy of discovery was endless.  The most magical and active place on the farm was the barn. The "buzz" of the electric fence transformer that kept the cows and horses in check, the earthy, cool air in the root cellar, and the continuous array of various insects were a celebration of the senses.  Investigating the birds nesting in the eaves or wild cats living amongst the hay bales was always a endless adventure.  In the summer months, a myriad of vegetables were always readily at hand just a pick and rinse away.

Rural America -- Remembering the Family Farm exhibition has been organized into thematic sections for a deeper focus into each facet of rural farming life. The exhibition opens with a general look at the historical workings of the American farm.  Childe Hassam's Hay Barn (1920) and Thomas Hart Benton's Nebraska Evening (1941) offer a dramatic look at the buildings, and environments encompassing the family farm. John Steuart Curry's Horses Running before the Storm (1930), depicts work horses fearful of the thunder and lightning of an oncoming storm. Roger Medearis's Barnyard Gate (1990) catches the interruption of grazing cows just beyond the barn with the sounds of the farmer opening the gate for their return. 

The exhibition continues with Farming Fundamentals, works focusing on the daily labor of farmers.  Grueling field work including plowing and threshing is shown in John Ward McClellan's, Plowing (ca. 1936), where a shirtless farmer toils to plow the soil with a hand-cultivator while his wife quietly follows with seeds for the freshly turned earth.  A farm worker is rewarded by a moment of contemplation, as seen in John Stockton DeMartelly, Looking at the sunshine (1938), where a laborer, wearing just overalls, rests his head on one arm upon a stack of building materials to survey the exhausting work ahead of him.  

Landscape and the Elements of Architecture continues the thematic installation with works illustrating the unique architectural history of barns and farm houses.  John Steuart Curry's Kansas Wheat Ranch (1929) is a look at a very modest 1920s Midwest farm with little more than a two-story farm home, storage building, manure spreader, and a barbed-wire fence.  The wood engraving Break of Day (1944) by Asa Cheffetz features a Vermont farm at its zenith.  The timber frame three-story farm home, known as a "New England Large House," is accented by a glorious barn with a four tier pitched roof and early octagonal silo made of wood.  Grace Thurston Arnold Albee's The Boyer Place (1946) is a look at a Bucks County, Pennsylvania farm with a predominantly located corncrib -- needed to properly dry corn in this region.

The final section of this exhibition is Change -- Phasing out the Family Farm. This section focuses on the change and decline of the family farm.  Due in part to natural disasters -- particularly in the Midwest, foreclosures, population shifts, and modernization, these works highlight changes in the design and preservation of the farmstead.   Robert Riggs's Dust Storm (ca. 1941) illustrates the torment and sorrow of a family abandoning their farm in trepidation of an approaching dust storm which was sure to leave ruined crops and barren fields in its wake. Witnessed in Roger Medearis's Summer Hay (1947), the modernization of combine machinery replaces stacks of hand thrashed hay with large, uniform hay bales.

The exhibition, Rural America -- Remembering the Family Farm, Prints from the collection of Steve Schmidt, provides visitors with an historical look at the evolution of the family farm.  Capturing elements of invention, architecture, and production, artists have captured the American spirit through the print medium. A hard day's work and community solidarity for the greater good of all, create nostalgia for those simpler times. 

-- Michael Beam, Curator of Exhibitions and Collections, Castellani Art Museum 


About the collector

While a student at the University of Kansas, Steven Schmidt purchased his first print in 1955.  This acquisition, Pablo Picasso's The Picador, was his induction into what he described as the "affordable world of print collecting."  Striving to build his collection, he continued to purchase limited edition prints over the next twenty five years. 

In 1985 he acquired his first American Regionalist print -- Thomas Hart Benton's Jesse James, from the Benton Missouri State Capitol Series. Through research and a new found "seriousness for collecting," he dedicated himself to acquiring important lithographs and woodcuts by American artists working predominantly from the 1920s through the 1940s.  He chose to dedicate his collecting energy towards thematic styles of rural life and associated farm scenes. Schmidt built his collection to include important works by John Steuart Curry, Grant Wood, Robert Riggs, and John DeMartelly.

Today, his private collection includes over two-hundred prints. Schmidt has generously donated prints to universities and museums for future generations to enjoy. Splitting his time between New York City and a community just minutes from Walt Disney World, Florida, works from his collection contentedly remind him of days in growing up in Kansas. 


(above: Roger Medearis, American, 1920-2001, Summer Hay, 1990, Lithograph and acrylic)


(above: Robert Riggs, American, 1896-1970, Dust Storm, ca. 1941, Lithograph)


Also on view

On view October 1 through December 21, 2007, Castellani Art Museum presents Michael Ray Charles, featured as part of Freedom Crossing: Contemporary Artists Reflect on Slavery. As part of the ongoing mission of "Freedom Crossing: the Underground Railroad in Greater Niagara," the Castellani Art Museum highlights contemporary artists whose work investigates the issues of slavery and its impact.  A rotating series of such works focuses on several themes, including personal and political freedom, spiritual values, and racism. (right: Michael Ray Charles, b. 1967, American, The Target of Opportunity Game Board, 1995, Acrylic latex and copper penny on paper, 60 x 36 inches. Collection Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo, New York. Charles Clifton Fund, 1997)

Through his artwork, Michael Ray Charles explores the legacy of historical stereotypes related to Americans of African decent.   A resident of Austin,Texas, he is part of a new generation of contentious African-American artists. Charles's artwork juxtaposes historically controversial imagery including Sambo, Aunt Jemima, and Mammy with contemporary mass-media representations of black youths, athletes, and famous personalities.

Charles's successful career has been built on the utilization of confrontational imagery.  The African-American community is varied in their reaction, some feeling he is capitalizing at their expense and others feeling he is dealing with issues of necessity.  Charles incorporates a copper penny (located in the bulls-eye of this particular work) as a co-signature in each of his paintings. Abraham Lincoln stares out at the viewer from the face of the coin. He calls Lincoln the great emancipator, leaving open the question of what African Americans were emancipated from. "Slavery may have ended, but many inequalities remain."

"In each work, notions of beauty, ugliness, nostalgia, and violence emerge and converge, reminding us that we cannot divorce ourselves from a past that has led us to where we are, who we have become, and how we are portrayed."   

-- Michael Ray Charles


About the Castellani Art Museum

A beautiful, gray, marble-faced building, the Castellani Art Museum is located at the center of the Niagara University campus. The museum offers an exciting collection of 19th century, modern and contemporary art accessible to the NU community, as well as to the general public, with no admission charge. Exhibitions and programming include: historic art, contemporary art with visiting artists, traditional folk arts, and exciting collaborative programs with area school districts. The museum recently opened "Freedom Crossing: The Underground Railroad in Greater Niagara," a permanent exhibition that is part of the New York State Heritage Trails initiative.  The museum's permanent collection includes such well-known artists as Picasso, Miro, Dali, Calder, Nevelson, Warhol, and many others. Museum staff members teach fine arts and art history courses in the adjoining galleries and classroom. In addition to using the museum's collection as an educational resource, Niagara students, faculty and staff are invited to take part in a variety of exhibitions, lectures and performances each year. The museum also offers a small café and a well-stocked and affordable gift shop featuring unique merchandise from around the world.

The museum's postal address is Art Museum, PO Box 1938 Niagara University, NY 14109-1938. The museum can be reached via e-mail at cam@niagara.edu and through its web page at http://www.niagara.edu/cam/. Please see the museum's website for hours and admission fees.


Editor's note:

The above essay was reprinted in Resource Library on November 17, 2007 with the permission of the Castellani Art Museum.

Resource Library wishes to extend appreciation to Susan Clements, Coordinator of Events, Publicity, Memberships and Sponsorships, Castellani Art Museum of Niagara University for her help concerning permission for reprinting the above essay.

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