Chapter 5 “Golden Years: Galleries, Art Department Head”
While the Frank M. Hall Trust was a boon to the Nebraska Art Association and the University of Nebraska in Lincoln, Omaha also benefited from art philanthropy about the same time with the building of the beautiful Joslyn Art Museum. Dr. Paul Grummann was offered the position as director of the Joslyn. He had been secretary of the Nebraska Art
Association from 1913 to 1931, began his career at the university in 1899, and was something of an institution in Lincoln. Filling
his shoes would be a challenge, and the man anointed his “heir” was Dwight, who was born the year Grummann started teaching. Behind every successful C.E.O. is a mentor and I wondered who filled that roll for Dwight. Not knowing how I would be
received, after some gentle prodding and questioning via long distance telephone, I learned that it was Mabel Langdon (Eiseley) who took Dwight under her wing. She modestly admitted that she
saw to the myriad details involved in running the art department and galleries. She turned in students' grades, did scheduling,
wrote publicity, was a secretary and taught Dwight the fine points of administrative work. He had the moral support of
Truby, Miss Moore, Miss Mundy and other friends, but Mabel was the key. She was warm and gracious to me and was especially
touched that day because it was her late husband Loren's birthday. She and Dwight kept in touch until his death.
The secretary of the N.A.A., after Dr. Paul Grummann left in 1930, was Harry Cunningham, head of the Architecture Department, and it was not until 1933 that Dwight was elected to the board as secretary. A good share of Dwight's career at Nebraska would
involve N.A.A. work and the selection and hanging of works of art for the university gallery. Fred Wells wrote in his history of the N.A.A. that, “there were not many restrictions in Mr. Hall's trust agreement. authorized the Board of Regents to purchase oil paintings, statuary and works of art for the Art Gallery of the University of Nebraska, and to spend not more than $10,000 in any one year, provided, however, that such works of art shall not be purchased without first obtaining written approval of at least wellrecognized, expert judges of pictures and works of art. provisions of the Hall Trust were put into effect almost immediately. (In the N.A.A. minutes – “By the spring of the The It
following year, 1930, the major part of the 40th exhibition came from the Chicago Art Institute. Again the Des Moines Association
of Fine Arts and the Kansas City Art Institute joined in rotating and sharing in the expense of the Chicago Art Institute part of
our annual rotation.”) According to Wells, “three oil paintings were selected in New York with the approval of the experts and were sent to the university to be purchased under the terms of the Trust. No one would question the stature of the experts This
called upon for this delicate task, even at long distance.
arrangement of absentee selection and approval continued with the same consultants for several years. to please everyone. Obviously, it was not going
There began to be grumblings among the
faculty, and among the trustees of the N.A.A. who, having worked hand-in-glove with the Halls for many years, felt that they were being by-passed with no voice whatever in the selections.” “Early in 1932, a plan of action was worked out with Chancellor Burnett and the Board of Regents which authorized the N.A.A. trustees to initiate recommendations for purchases for the permanent collections under the Hall bequest. About the same
time, it was decided to discontinue the current practice of securing exhibits from the Chicago Art Institute, and get them directly from the individual artists or Eastern galleries. steps contributed greatly to independent action in making purchases for the collections.” Maynard Walker, of the Feragil Art Gallery in New York, secured paintings for the N.A.A Annual Exhibit in 1934: John Steuart Curry's “The Roadmenders” for $1000.00; and Lucioni's “Arrangement in White” for $750.00. With “Roadmenders,” the Both
N.A.A. realized an earlier chance of “being pioneers in an appreciation of Mr. Curry's ability as an artist” in 1930, when he first showed his “Baptism in Kansas” in Lincoln. Over the years, Maynard Walker became a close personal friend of Dwight's (we also had the privilege of meeting him, entertaining him at our home and corresponding with him every Christmas), and was one of his New York “connections.” He could
be relied upon to supply art, recommend it, introduce Dwight to artists he knew or handled, and in general was a trusted ally. Alexander James and Thomas Hart Benton were two artists in his group, and in 1935, the N.A.A. purchased Benton's “Lonesome Road.” As much help as Maynard Walker and other New York agents and contacts were in helping find the art for the annual exhibit, the feeling persisted that it would be far more satisfactory for a representative from the N.A.A. to go to New York and work directly with the galleries and artists. At that time, while Mrs. C.F. Ladd was president of the N.A.A., Clara Walsh Leland (Mrs. Dean), who had been an art teacher as early as 1892, charter member of the N.A.A. who was associated with Mr. and Mrs. Hall, felt that the Hall will had been misinterpreted and was asked to submit a plan. She
suggested “that it would work to the advantage of the University of Nebraska and greatly improve the standard of the Annual
Exhibition if a representative of the University could go to artists and art centers to assemble an exhibition. The
University would select and call two outstanding art experts to visit, look over and select from the Art Association‟s Annual Exhibition for the approval of the Chancellor and the Regents such pieces as they decided would add value to the Hall Collection.” Mrs. Leland's plan was adopted. The responsibility
of selecting the paintings for purchase was therefore no longer in the hands of two out-of-town art experts; instead, the art selected for the exhibit would be done by a local person with two art experts brought in to advise on works for purchase. Thus
Dwight was deemed the logical person to carry out the N.A.A. board's wishes and began his yearly „gallery/artist jaunt‟ to New York and other art centers in December of 1936, just before Christmas break. Dwight knew the strengths and weaknesses of the
art collection, was familiar with the best galleries and artists, and was well able to attempt to fill in the „holes.‟ Perhaps Sam Waugh, a well-respected attorney who handled the F.M. Hall Trust (and would later become president of the ImportExport Bank in New York) and Dwight had something to do with Mrs. Leland's plan, for it is in the records that the two men met and studied the terms of the will about the same time. Dwight was
usually given credit for the changes, though common sense tells us that working with a board does requires teamwork. The N.A.A.
Board of Trustees was comprised of prominent, intelligent Lincoln people, the „movers and shakers‟ and art-interested. (Mrs.
Leland and Alice Righter Edmiston (Mrs.A.R.), who was also an early art teacher and N.A.A. board member, were enthusiastic artists who, in addition to their work on the Annual Exhibit, belonged to the Saturday morning sketch group that met at Kirsch's after the Piedmont house was built. They were valued,
loyal friends who often arrived for the sessions dressed in typical matronly fashion - hats, stockings, “old lady” shoes, looking a lot like the sisters in “Arsenic and Old Lace.”) By the time Dwight began to travel to New York to select the art for the exhibit, Nebraskans had gained a fine reputation in that city for their interest in art. He was given “royal” The fact that he
treatment and respect in the various galleries.
was then both Chairman of the Art Department and Director of the U. of N. art Galleries was not lost on them. Truby and John accompanied Dwight when they could afford it, and would be treated to Broadway shows, sight seeing, parties, etc. The weather was often terrible and at least once they were (They always
snowed in and couldn't get home on schedule. traveled by train on those trips.)
John talked about going to
the top of the Empire State Building and Dwight had a flair for spotting celebrities, such as Garbo, and getting involved in interesting situations. After the trips, which included
Philadelphia and Chicago to visit relatives, a few faculty and students would gather at the Kirsch home to hear stories about famous artists, and seeing such performers as Gertrude Lawrence. Truby would play some of the new show tunes on the piano. would be singing and great fun. Truby prepared many weeks ahead, buying fabric and Vogue patterns from Miller & Paine to sew for her travel clothes. Her There
pattern envelopes were covered with notes on design changes she made, colors, fabrics, measurements, and essential “findings.” For their tight budget, she looked like a million. The clothes
she carefully and expertly constructed were always appropriate for the occasion and paired with her air of confidence and good looks, she more than held her own among the New York art people. Dwight was often invited to visit various art studios such as Walt Kuhn, William Zorach, Alfred Steiglitz, etc., and being a fellow artist, he was accepted into the fold of the eastern art world. With money scarce during the Great Depression, and
knowing there was a chance to show or sell a painting out in the “hinterlands of Nebraska,” artists were anxious to present their best work. If the prices were set too high, some were willing to
negotiate, however, some artists began charging rental fees for showing, an unsettling revelation for the N.A.A. board. Edward Hopper's “Room in New York” was purchased in 1936. Dwight met Hopper in a New York gallery later, and when Hopper
learned that Kirsch was from Nebraska, they had a very warm and animated conversation. Hopper had just returned from a midAfter
western trip and was very much interested in the area.
Hopper left, the gallery director told Dwight he could scarcely believe what had happened, that Hopper was well-known for not being a warm, friendly conversationalist. Back in Nebraska, Dwight was gaining recognition for his authoritative and administrative work, and for his skill in creating an easy atmosphere for conversation and expression and in drawing-out a shy person. He was at home in dealing with
young students, faculty members, board members, socialites, businessmen, and was never intimidated by any of them. He was in
his early thirties when he was selected to the “Young Men in America” list, and he was fast becoming a popular speaker for club meetings in Lincoln and out in the state. In spite of a modest salary during the Depression, Kirsches save enough money to buy a new Ford and drive to New York for Dwight's summer classes at Parsons, to Minnesota to visit Dwight's father who had re-married a lady named Lena Yule, and to Chicago to visit his sister, Ethel. There were visits to Truby's
home in Atkinson, where Dwight's fascination with the Nebraska sandhills began. He photographed when it was not possible to paint or sketch, and he turned the upstairs storeroom and bathroom in Grandma Kelly's house into a photo-developing lab
during the visits. her!
Anything for the sake of “art” was fine with
Always experimenting, Dwight tried painting on the “bogus paper” my dad (Ralph Kelly) gave him, in which bundles of newsprint were wrapped. It was a heavy paper and Dwight liked Those jaunts to Atkinson
the rough texture and pinkish color.
and the sandhills were a tonic for him, and of course, we loved having John and Aunt Truby around. When we grew a bit older, we posed for sketches and later, watercolor portraits, but my best memories were when Dwight took the three of us (John, my brother Warren, and me) with him out in the south country to play in the blowouts while he painted. We
ate peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and drank lemonade from a jug we buried in the cool, damp sand. We looked for arrowheads, It
wild flowers, and played sliding games on the sandy slopes.
is a wonder we didn't come face to face with rattlesnakes, but all we found was a shed skin! On one special occasion, we got up before dawn and drove out to the country, parked the car, and hurried to the top of a sandhill to view the sunrise. Below and beyond was a misty haze
which hung over mown hay newly stacked in a flat field (a “hay flat”) between the hills. Moments later, the red sun emerged and We never forgot the
slowly rose, burning off the haze. experience, nor did Dwight.
It was typical of him to think to do
such a thing -most fathers were too busy working, fishing, golfing or hunting in their spare time to bother with kids. showed us how to make hollyhock dolls which created lovely effects floating in shallow bowls of water, and how to make shakers out of Grandma Kelly's oriental poppy pods and shake seeds over wet bites of her nearly ripe Dutchess apples (which make the best pies). He got on the living room floor with us in He
bad weather and taught us how to do exercises, and in the evenings we did drawing games. We had no idea he was a brilliant
art authority, but we did know we loved having him entertain us. He gave great colored slide shows to the entire family, usually on trips they made. We didn't have those sorts of vacations
because of the newspaper and our tight budget. Local people often came by our house when they visited with craft projects or pictures they had drawn, and Dwight never failed to encourage and offer suggestions. hooked rugs she had designed and made. One lady brought
My grandmother hooked a
lovely area rug with an oriental flavored design he did for her and I recall the little watercolor sketch he made of it. Our
neighbor, Gary Kokes, took his advice and studied and worked in Chicago as a commercial artist. Mary Ann Schnase, whose father
had a small clothing store in Atkinson, would go to the country to paint watercolors with Dwight and also became a commercial artist.
One summer, about 1934, Kirsches drove to the Badlands and Black Hills of South Dakota. On their way home they stopped in
Atkinson, making a “grand entrance” with a unique automobile bumper decoration - a ram's skull! The sun-bleached skull with
its thick horns curling and twisting out from the top of its head soon became the subject of a tempra painting, which Dwight named “Aries.” His sense of composition and use of appropriate subject
matter for the drouth years, the bare tree branches seen through the arched windows of their second floor apartment, and the bleak skull hanging over the cactus plant growing in an American Indian pot (Acoma), all work together to give us his “masterpiece.” The results of the hot, dusty trip yielded more than the wondrous ram's skull. Dwight's photographs of that desert land, Badlands, and sandhills, were used for the new book “Old Jules,” written by his friend Mari Sandoz (published in 1935). Mari was
a frequent visitor in the Kirsch home, and Dwight photographed a stunning portrait of her about the time “Old Jules” was published. I recognized the background drapery, which hung in My mother often remarked about how worn and
rough her hands were (for the ladies in her world did very little manual labor). From her book, we know how hard Mari worked on
her father's ranch, and how she lost the sight of an eye while looking after cattle in the snow.
Alma Maryott told me that, “Mari Sandoz came when we were all out of school, she was teaching down there (at the university). She never made many friends. It was extremely
difficult for her because of the kind of life she lived, extreme poverty. She required sympathy and understanding. She came down
here from the Gordon/Rushville area in the Nebraska panhandle with just about absolutely nothing, and was too proud to ask for help. I know Van Denbark used to drop in the office she had on
the campus every once in a while at lunch time and divide his lunch. People in the English Department kind of looked after
her, but she was hungry for a long time.” My parents went to the Chicago World's Fair in 1934 and came back with a new Terraplane car. The Kirsches also went, and
returned with Century of Progress photographs and slides Dwight used for talks and probably teaching. However, Dwight had roots in the land. Cities were exciting. He wrote much later for
an exhibit catalogue, Midwest Painters Invitational Show, Grand Rapids Art Gallery, 1960, his art philosophy: “The study of nature with its forces and movements has been my abiding interest as an artist.” The sandhills and Badlands photographs in the Sandoz book reveal a desolate, dry country, stark and cruel - a very tough land in which to exist. His pictures reflect the hard life that
our early pioneers led. In the 1880‟s my Grandfather Dickerson
often took his horse and wagon to the Atkinson south country some thirty miles in the Swan Lake area to hunt game and birds to feed the hungry town folk. But later on in the 1930‟s drouth years,
there was still beauty in those rolling, sandy hills and hay flats - sunflowers, wild roses and begonias, thistle, yarrow, coltsfoot, cacti, yucca, sage, hemp, blue-stem, cottonwood trees, rivers, and lakes. and with paint. that beauty. Dwight's mission was to capture it on film
He tried to help those hard-working people “see”
I think he eventually succeeded.