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Murphy, Thomas H. (ed.) / Wisconsin alumnus
Volume 86, Number 4 (May 1985)

Murphy, Tom
The greening of "art on the farm",   pp. 7-9

Page 7

The Greening of
'Art on the Farm
  e were deep in the
           Depression in 1936,
           and what with eggs
  retailing at 290 a dozen and
  milk going for a dime a quart,
  Wisconsin's hard-pressed farm
  families were the last people
  anyone would expect to have
  the time or inclination to dab-
  ble in art. Yet John Barton was
  convinced they would. He saw
  it as a natural outgrowth of
  what Chris Christensen had
  accomplished here that same
  year. Christensen was dean of
  the College of Agriculture;
  he'd brought to the ag campus
  the nation's first Artist in Resi-
  dence, the Regionalist painter
  John Steuart Curry. The duties
  that went with the title were
  "rather nebulous," writes social
  historian Lucy Mathiak '76,
  '78, '79, co-director of this
  ambitious campus exhibit.
  "They required only that the
  holder 'produce works of art
  within the state of Wisconsin.'
  But Christensen had sold the
  regents and the Brittingham
  Fund on the idea of an Artist in
  Residence with the argument
  that, "Our educational process
  needs to deal with. . . the
  cultural side of life as well as
  the practical training for better
  To Rural Sociologist Bar-
ton, those words constituted an
offer he couldn't refuse. With
the enthusiastic backing of both
Christensen and Curry, he
established another first in the
nation, the Wisconsin Rural
Arts Program. He spread the
word through weekly newspa-
pers, got the Extension's
county agents to talk it up at
fairs and church bazaars, sent
his own faculty out to drive up
farm lanes and knock on doors.
The only requirement for par-
ticipation was that the "artist"
be a non-professional and live
in or hail from a rural setting.
There would be no classrooms
or assignments; Curry would
simply be there when needed in
Paint What You Know
Works by John Steuart Curry
and Aaron Bohrod
Memorial Union Gallerys
May 10-June 18
The Old Home Place
Works from the Rural
Art Program*
State Historical Society
May 4-Aug. 31
Visions of a Lifetime
The Painting of
Nick Engelbert
Elvehjem Museum
May 10-June 18
Rural Life & Rural Art
Photos, Documents,
Memorial Union
Theater Gallery
May 10-June 18
*Works frorn the Rural Art Collection not hung in this special
exhibit are on permanent display in the Wisconsin Center, 702
Langdon Street.
the small frame building the
University was finishing for him
on Lorch Street near the Stock
Pavilion. The budding painters
could bring him their efforts
and he would critique them if
they asked him to. Or they
could sit quietly-as could all
art students on the campus-
and watch him work. (Her
research showed Lucy Mathiak
that neither Curry nor his
successor, Aaron Bohrod,
found it possible to limit their
involvement to that degree.
Instead, whenever the opportu-
nity presented itself, they drove
around the state with Barton,
getting acquainted with the shy
painters, encouraging, guid-
   If there was any spare
money on the farm, the neo-
phytes bought a few tubes of
paint through the catalogs from
Sears Roebuck or Mont-
gomery-Ward. When there
wasn't, they used whatever
they had-half-emptied cans of
house paint or enamel, or they
mixed their own from linseed
oil and berries, plants, even
milk and cattle blood. If there
was no canvas, they painted on
old cartons, discarded lumber,
glass from broken windows.
But they painted, to the sur-
prise of the scoffers down the
road, and right from the start
many of them were hooked for
life and spreading the word. By
1940, Barton and Extension
specialist James Schwalbach
were overjoyed to find that
before they could mount the
first statewide show as a part of
Farm and Home Week on the
ag campus they had to set up
regional exhibits to cut the
number of entries to a manage-
able size. There were sixty-
eight paintings from thirty
entrants in that first Rural Art
Show. When the fourteenth
was held in 1954, it offered 144
works selected from 1,734
             The Art
Of Rural Wisconsin
MAY/JUNE 1985 / 7
entered in twelve regional ex-
hibits. (By then, non-painting
artisans had joined the program,
to produce works in charcoal or
pen-and-ink, or to display their
pottery or woodwork.)
    In 1948, Barton wrote a
 history of the program, Rural
 Artists of Wisconsin (UW
 Press), a fond reminiscence of
 these people whose lives he had
 so determindly enriched. There
 was the troubled young Indian
 who painted his way out of jail
 and into studies at the Art
 institute of Chicago, the house-
 wife who shook up her butcher
 by asking for a pig's head-to use
 in a still-life, the man from
 Brodhead who went on to paint
 murals on more than 100 barns.
 One of the stars of the book
 and of the program was the late
 Nick Engelbert of Hollendale,
 who turned out sculpture and
 paintings so prolifically that he
 rates a special exhibit in the
 current show.
   Englebert, like most of the
 artists in the history of the
 program, did not go from ama-
 teur to professional in the
 "schooled" sense of the word.
 What Barton, Curry and
 Bohrod looked for and sought
 to nourish was originality and
 spontaneity; not another Sloan
 or a copier of even Curry him-
 self, but instinct and a compul-
 sion to express. Even though
 many did go on to study under
 more academic conditions, the
 majority continued to develop
 what were essentially naive or
 primitive styles.
   The campus show centers
around the years 1936 to 1960,
the green years of excitement
and rapid growth. Neverthe-
less, the program continues
strong in its maturity. Now it is
called the Wisconsin Regional
Art Program, and is open to
city dwellers as well. The fun is
still there, the pride of accom-
plishment has never dwindled.

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