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Harvey Dunn prairie paintings exhibit on display

Harvey Dunn: Fences, Cows, Plow
Left: Harvey Dunn, "The Stoneboat," n.d. Right: Harvey Dunn, "Fixing Fence," 1944.

Many of Harvey Dunn’s most iconic paintings are on display in Harvey Dunn: Fences, Cows, Plows & Oxen at South Dakota Art Museum through Aug. 11, 2019. This exhibition, drawn from the museum’s extensive collection of Harvey Dunn paintings, celebrates the hard-working agricultural backbone of the state of South Dakota.

The Homestead Act of 1862 opened federal lands in the United States to settlement by small farmers at affordable prices, hastening the settlement of western territories. A requirement of the act was that settlers had to live on the land for five years and improve it in order to be granted full title to it. Along with the influx of homesteaders came the tools of their trade: fences, cows, plows and oxen.

Harvey Dunn was born to South Dakota homesteaders in 1884. His paintings of this place, that era, and the agricultural lifestyle that it resulted in are often littered with these ubiquitous and essential features of homesteading life on small family farms. Dunn’s imagery shows families heading west, hard at work, breaking sod, plowing the land, driving oxen, fixing fences, herding and milking cattle, braving storms and cold, and tending to the affairs of everyday life on the homestead or farm.

Jodi Lundgren, South Dakota Art Museum’s Curator of Exhibitions, selected thirty-five Dunn pieces with references to fences, cows, plows or oxen. Some are quite obvious and central to the image, Lundgren noted. “In others, they’re barely referenced as small masses in the distance, or faint, slight lines dotting the landscape. We hope that visitors of all ages will enjoy looking for these elements and discovering new things in each painting as well as gaining a deeper appreciation for the lives of the people Dunn depicted.”

Lundgren chose several pieces that allude to a more disconcerting legacy of the heydays of homesteading. Paintings of deserted houses, abandoned farms, and old settlers stand as relics of a bygone era. She also selected two images featuring barbed wire fencing being used with grisly effect, not for restraining cattle in the wide-open expanse of the West, but as trench warfare fortifications in World War l.

Visitors travel from across the country to view Harvey Dunn paintings according to Museum Director, Lynn Verschoor. “Dunn’s prairie paintings strike a special cord with visitors, not just South Dakotans, but with all who wish to imagine what life was like for homesteaders, and for farmers and ranchers of an earlier era,” Verschoor stated.

“As South Dakotans we can identify with these people. They are our ancestors. We are not that far removed as far as generations from this experience. Since South Dakota is an agricultural state, many people live, not particularly like this, but they still farm the land and they still struggle with weather and they still work to make a go of it here. The ideal of being out here, the simplicity of this life, and also the values and the importance of families and things like that are all evident in Dunn’s paintings.”

Strong, determined men and women are evident throughout this exhibition. “One of the things I admire most about Harvey Dunn,” noted Verschoor, “is he realized the pivotal point that women had in the success of homestead life and if you look at his prairie paintings, women are always very strong and grounded and are often central figures. I think it harkens back to his relationship with his mother. She was very important to him and his life in the arts, as was Ada Caldwell, his art teacher at South Dakota Agricultural College” (now South Dakota State University).

South Dakota Agriculture Museum’s FarmHer South Dakota exhibit compliments Dunn exhibit

The importance of women in farming will also be the focus of a new exhibit coming this spring to the South Dakota Agricultural Heritage Museum, located a few blocks from South Dakota Art Museum. Open May 1 – Dec. 31, 2019, FarmHer South Dakota highlights women farmers of South Dakota, past and present, told through FarmHer photographs, historical farm objects and histories. Lundgren noted that visitors coming to Brookings will be able to view these two exhibits in parallel, providing a rich cultural and educational experience for all ages.

About South Dakota Art Museum

South Dakota Art Museum is located at 1036 Medary Avenue in Brookings and is open daily except for winter Sunday closures and upcoming holidays: March 30 (the only remaining winter Sunday closure for 2019), April 19 – 21 (Easter Weekend), May 24 & 27 (Memorial Day), and July 4 (Independence Day). Admission to the museum is free. Parking is also free in the museum’s reserved lot just west of the museum on Harvey Dunn Street. For more information, call (605) 688-5423, email sdsu.sdam@sdstate.edu or visit www.SouthDakotaArtMuseum.com.

About South Dakota Agricultural Heritage Museum

South Dakota Agricultural Heritage Museum is located at 977 11th Street in Brookings and is open daily except for Sundays January - March and State holidays. Admission to the museum is free. Parking is also free in the museum’s reserved lot just west of the museum. For more information, call (605) 688-6226, email sdsu.agmuseum@sdstate.edu or visit www.agmuseum.com.