This article was originally published in the winter of 1992 by Don Lambert. It's been lightly edited.
A look back to 1992, when the Kansas Legislature took action to recognize one of the state’s most famous native artist
Kansas had nearly forgotten its most famous native artist until recent actions were taken to revive the legacy of John Steuart Curry.
Born in Jefferson County in 1897, Curry achieved a national reputation in the 1930's and 40's as one of the "regionalists." Curry, Thomas Hart Benton and Grant Wood painted pictures of their home states. Benton's paintings reflect the rough and tough lores of Missouri. Wood's paintings including his famous "American Gothic" present a more orderly and stoic view of Iowa.
Kansas, as painted by John Steuart Curry, was filled with struggle. Our ancestors battled over slavery. The pioneers faced the harsh and constantly changing weather. Common people held on, sometimes against overwhelming odds, to a land and a way of life they loved.
Curry's most famous work of art is the mural of a ten-foot tall John Brown in the Kansas Capitol in Topeka. Seldom in art has a face been embodied with such power and such frenzy. Visitors to the Capitol stand in awe when they confront this John Brown. They are surprised to learn from the tour guides that when they were painted there was a great controversy that left the artist feeling rejected by his native state and refusing to sign the murals.
Now, as we consider Curry's statehouse murals among the best and best-known in America, it seems unbelievable that at one time the public, the media and the government could have joined in expressing dislike of them. To better understand why, one must look at the artist himself, what he was trying to paint and the time in which he was working.
By 1930, Curry had gained considerable attention. In an early issue of Time Magazine, the artist was linked to both Benton and Wood. The term "regionalism" was coined. Curry was featured in the premier issue of Life Magazine. At the urging of William Allen White, the Pulitzer Prize-winning editor of the Emporia Gazette, Curry was chosen to paint the murals in the Kansas State Capitol.
Curry's idea was to paint the story of Kansas. Shortly after he began, the criticisms erupted. The bull was too red, the pig's tail curled the wrong way, the farm wife's skirt was too short and John Brown was not a proper person to be so ennobled. This national folk hero, in Kansas to oppose the slavery movement, was later hanged for treason, after all. Apparently influenced by the Ku Klux Klan which had a strong following in Kansas and many other states in the 1920 's, many Kansans didn't want an anti-slavery crusader portrayed on the walls of the statehouse.
What it seems the public wanted were murals that were pretty. Kansans were recovering from years of drought and depression. They wanted murals that would be progressive and uplifting. Curry, on the other hand, painted murals that were truthful and remindful of the difficult times. Kansas it was, warts and all. Tornados and prairie fires. Fanatics. Pigs and cows, sunflowers and hedge balls.
Curry worked on the murals from 1937 to 1942. His cousin, Betty Curry Syverson, Topeka, remembered that the artist had dinner with her family frequently when she was in high school. "He was very nice to me," she recalled, "but he had a stubborn side, too."
His stubborn side was out-stubborned by the Kansas Legislature when Curry suggested that a ridge of Italian marble be removed from the Capitol rotunda so that the murals he planned for that location would match the perspective of those he had already painted in the corridors. The legislature responded instead with a resolution to keep the marble.
With the final third of his project never to be realized, a frustrated and wounded Curry returned to the University of Wisconsin in Madison as the country's first artist-in-residence. He did paint other murals in Washington, D.C., at the Department of Justice and the Department of Interior. Curry died in Madison in 1946 and was buried in Winchester, Kansas, fewer than five miles from where he was born.
Over the years, strides had been made to ensure that future generations of Kansans, as well as visitors from around the world, came to know about the life and art of John Steuart Curry.
Leading the effort was the 1992 Kansas Legislature which passed a resolution in January proclaiming its appreciation of the murals. That resolution read, in part, "We hereby express our belated but sincere appreciation of John Steuart Curry's Kansas Capitol murals and give homage to the memory of one of Kansas' most famous native son artists ..."
Later in the 1992 session, the legislature made a grand gesture of atonement when it passed a bill, which was then signed by Governor Joan Finney, to appropriate funds to purchase nearly a dozen sketches Curry had done to work out the details of the murals. The sketches will become part of an exhibit in the statehouse.
"It was the right thing to do," Senator Ross Doyen of Concordia, one of the bill sponsors, commented as he explained why the legislation passed.