• U.S.

Art: Land Office Business

3 minute read

In a studio on the quiet campus of the University of Wisconsin’s College of Agriculture last week Artist-in-Residence John Steuart Curry put the last dab of paint on a 20-foot sweep of canvas, laid down his brushes, and thereby made news. For John Steuart Curry, in the ten years since he first hit his stride with a picture of violence called The Tornado, has become the most notable of U. S. regional artists. And his canvas was the second of two oil-and-tempera murals that will be -lifted into place next autumn on the walls of a corridor facing the General Land Office, on the fifth floor of the new Department of the Interior building in Washington.

Artist Curry himself devised the ingenious arrangement of ropes and pulleys that holds the two paintings back-to-back in his studio, flips them like a coin for his inspection. Full of movement as a cinema is Oklahoma Land Rush (see cut), with its wheels carrying a circular motion clear across the canvas. On the light spring wagon Curry amused himself by lettering: Curry Wagon Works, Madison, Wis. Under the legend OKLAHOMA OR BUST, on the covered wagon, was the name Hal Ickes until friends of the Secretary of the Interior pointed out that no member of the Ickes family took part in the land rush, and Curry painted it out.

The second panel, entitled The Homestead and the Building of the Barbed Wire Fences, is a scene of Territorial industry. In front of a sod house a woman and child pare potatoes; near by, on a wagon, the farmer with a sledge hammer drives a fence post in the ground. The foreground is shielded by rain clouds, but the sun strikes through beyond, lighting up a distant pasture. Observed Painter Curry: “Building the barbed wire fences closed forever the open range, and behind these fences developed a different economic and social order.” Both panels are nine by 20 feet, painted in the standard Curry colors—reds for Oklahoma’s dust and soil, gold for sunlight, green for far-off fields of grain. Curry considers them much finer than his Department of Justice murals, finished in 1937.

Like the great artists of renaissance Italy, John Steuart Curry lives on the patronage of States and institutions, paints in peace. His five-year contract with the University of Wisconsin pays him $4,000 a year, carries with it the title “Professor” and the burden of giving an occasional lecture. Still at work in Madison last week on twelve panels for the State Capitol of Kansas Curry called his Oklahoma Land Rush a picture of the same migration Novelist John Steinbeck describes in Grapes of Wrath. Said he: “Civilization went into the Territory 50 years ago on wheels and is now leaving it—still on wheels.”

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