The Human Made Natural
Visual artists of Downstate Illinois
See Illinois (unpublished)
These notes were taken from the draft of my never-published guide to Illinois history and culture. See Publications for more about that project.
Landscapes were attempted by a great many Illinois painters, in spite of the fact that, in scenic terms, there isn't much landscape in Illinois to paint. Interestingly, it has been central and east central Illinois, which has the least scenery in the state, that has attracted painters and photographers of the most skill.
I also explored this topic in Flat Land into Landscapes.
The old Grand Prairie of east central Illinois boasts a landscape as majestic as the one that inspired the painters of New York’s Hudson Valley School in the mid-1800s. The trouble is, that landscape is buried under some 300 feet of old mud and rock, a loss to travelers and tourism promoters alike. In few places is it truer than in the Grand Prairie that beauty is in the eye of the beholder. The farmer and the town jobber each found the Grand Prairie beautiful for their purposes, as did the railroad engineer for his. Tourists have had to look harder, including those with paint brushes in their hands. As one critic put it, painters from the East who visited Illinois in its early years were “artistically uneasy” with the flatness they encountered in Illinois. The picturesque then meant mountains and trees. Romantics in search of the sublime—or in search of scenes sellable to patrons—thus found nothing in the Grand Prairie to paint. Painters seldom lingered in Illinois therefore, but moved west in search of the elevated topography that might inspire elevated sentiments.
More recent painters have seen the Grand Prairie with more open eyes. Billy Morrow Jackson was among the first of a wave of contemporary painters and photographers who found a subject in the Grand Prairie beginning in the 1970s. Some 50 miles up I-74, Harold Gregor was doing similar canvases. Gregor gained national prominence in the early 1970's. Widely shown and collected, Gregor also was one of the most influential teachers in the Midwest, and in 1993 was awarded the Illinois Academy of Fine Arts Lifetime Achievement Award.
Jackson and Gregor were part of the photo-realists reaction in the late 1960's against Abstract Expressionism that then dominated American painting. Their painstakingly rendered images are realer than real, with a clarity at every point of perspective unachievable by the eye, even (on this scale) the camera.
Jackson and Gregor had successors, if not followers. The rediscovery of the Grand Prairie as a subject—or more accurately the revelation of it, since it had never before been looked at artistically—was part of a wider movement to root images in the American plains. Among the younger painters who put rural east-central Illinois on canvas is James Winn, a former student of Gregor who grew up in Metamora, on the western edge of Illinois’s Wisconsinan landscape, and lives in Sycamore, on its northern fringe; Winn’s work been compared to Constable’s and Turner’s, and his canvases have been praised as “beautiful soliloquies on the act of light.” James D. Butler’s canvases recreate the world he first saw as a child from atop a hillside of his native Iowa. George Atkinson uses pastels to render scenes from the landscape that lies mostly within a drive from Springfield. Since the 1980s George Atkinson, a master of contemporary Midwestern rural realism, has used pastels to render scenes from the landscape that lies mostly within a short drive from Springfield. Less known are Michael Dubina, Edward Herbeck, Ann Coulter, and Fred Jones.
Winn’s pictures embrace, even celebrate the results; Winn is said to feel humility and wonder at looking at the old Grand Prairie and seeing, as one writer put, “seeing order everywhere proclaimed.” Most of his fellow painters and photographers are less impressed; as J. B. Jackson once put it, the qualities that make land habitable do not necessarily make it beautiful. Landscape photographer Gary Irving once wrote that his favorite parts of Illinois the Grand Prairie, remind him of the African veldt. The comparison seems generous, if not ludicrous; the wildest critter on these plains is chickweed. Irving however was referring to the Grand Prairie’s flatness, not its fauna.
Lumped together as “heartland painters” or “prairie painters” for purposes of shows or sales, these artists constitute a group, if not a true artistic school. They share strong ties to the region’s universities. Gregor was a Distinguished Professor of Art (later Emeritus) at Illinois State University campus in Normal from 1970 to 1995, and Dubina and Winn studied there. Jackson took a master’s degree in fine arts from the University of Illinois and returned there as a professor beginning in 1954. And all use light in ways that suggest the American Luminists of the 19th century (in Butler’s case Martin Johnson Head, in that of Atkinson, Frederick Church).
The group's work has struck a chord with audiences off the campus too. As I noted in The Tourist’s State Capital, the state’s Art-In-Architecture Program paid painters Gregor, Winn, and Butler to create major works for the new Illinois State Library building in Springfield. Considered especially fine are Illinois Spring Morning and Illinois Autumn Evening, two enormous landscapes (96 and 126 square feet) by Bloomington’s Gregor.
Of course, the subject of most of these works is not landscape (or at least not only landscape) but skyscapes. (An exception is Jackson, who usually reduces his to a monochrome backdrop, the better to bring the viewer’s eye down to earth.) The sky (more accurately, clouds) are the mountains of the Grand Prairie. The skies of Winn, Butler, and Atkinson in particular are stages for meteorological melodrama. No wonder that so many of these artists have been compared to Turner and Constable.
Mountains’ grandeur makes our physical insignificance moot by putting us in touch with the sublime. The open prairie on the other hand merely leaves one feeling small. Even the Brobdingnagian scale of the modern farm—a 12-row combine is not much smaller than a GI Bill bungalow—is rendered inconsequential by its surroundings. As photographer David Plowden observed about his photo, Sunrise on the Prairie Near Funks Grove, Illinois, “The farms seem always to be in the distance . . . looking like scale models, so vast is the flatness.”
The iconic farmstead of old scarcely exists in today’s Grand Prairie. Most traditional barns are long gone. Built for wagons, they are too small to house many of today’s giant machines and have been replaced by multi-purpose prefab metal sheds that are all engineering and no craft or character. Such traditional accoutrements of animal husbandry as silos and chicken coops are absent as well, since grain farmers are specialists who keep few if any animals apart from pets. The ideal farmstead consists of a suburban-style ranch house amid a manicured lawn, more like an exurban estate than a working farm. Such a farm is an expression of economics and technology. Its virtues are efficiency and ease of maintenance—not beautiful to a painter or photographer, however much it inspires bankers.
One can still see a corn crib here and there. (Corn can be stored on the ear to dry in corn cribs for several months while its owner waited for the best possible price before selling it.) Corn cribs figure iconographically in Jackson’s painting; Gregor has painted a whole series of them, as Monet did haystacks. Such works may come to have documentary value, because corn cribs are becoming rare too, as today's farmer is more likely to shell corn in the field with a combine and dry it in mechanically heated and ventilated bins, nature being dilatory and undependable.
Atkinson in particular has devoted himself making a faithful record of such farms. His work on these lines harkens back to the artistic convention of the late 1800s, when, a generation of itinerant painters moved through Illinois and commemorated the state’s transformation of the wilderness. In these (usually commissioned) works the natural was typically reduced in such works to a line of trees in the distant background while human contrivances—buildings, fences, grazing stock (themselves artifacts of human invention, thanks to selective breeding), orchards, and of course the farm house—were thrust into the foreground where they might be admired properly.
The latter-day idylls of Jackson, Gregor, et al offer no such progressive balm. They are romantic in very different terms. In his 1887 novel, The Graysons, Edward Eggleston described a then-old farmstead that had lost its “raw look of newness,” indeed that its aspect had been so softened by weather as to have become a part of the landscape. Critic Robert Bray, rereading the book, noted that after only a half-century or so such farms no longer showed evidence of having been imposed on the face of the land by humans but looked as if they belonged in and to nature.
This is the subject of the Heartland Painters: not humanized nature, but the human made natural. To the mind inclined to see them that way, these relics of the golden age of Illinois farming. With their peeling paint and drooping fences they are as romantic, as doomed, as tragic as were the Indian ruins or the old French settlements along the Mississippi, whose “its luxuriant verdure and quaint eighteenth-century atmosphere” charmed such itinerant artists of the 1800s as Seth Eastman or Rudolph Kurz.
If Illinois’s best landscape painters paint like photographers, one of the best landscape photographers of the 1990s used his camera to paint with. As Larry Kanfer points out in the title of a published collection of photographs, it is not the quick look that allows one to see the beauty in east central Illinois but the second, and third glance. And a second glance is not what most travelers give it. (Illinoisans drive through the countryside as if they are hurrying to get out of the rain.) Under the blaze of midsummer glare or the leaden gray of Illinois’s winter overcast, things are a dull as dirt. The beauty of the Grand Prairie is a matter of a shadow from a fence falling here, a mist there, the sun coming out after a summer storm and glinting off a wet road and turning it into a shimmering ribbon draped across the landscape.
What they so often miss can be seen in Kanfer’s “Equilibrium.” Here Kanfer applies a lesson Dutch landscape painters learned 350 years ago, which is that flat land is beautiful only when revealed by angled light. In the photo, light reflecting from water collected in swale reveals a subtle curve that is otherwise invisible; were a viewer at the scene to take a few steps in one direction or another, or were the sun to slip slightly in the sky, that light would disappear, and with it the curve. As Champaign photographer Raymond Bial has said, it is usually no more than an hour, and often only a few minutes, before “the light changes, and the first pickup [of the day] roars down the blacktop to shatter that mood.”
Ultimately nostalgic, the least of these images come close to the banalities of calendar art. (Literally; Kanfer’s 2000 “Prairiescapes” calendar was named the best scenic wall calendar in the U.S. by the International Calendar Marketing Association.) They may be damned by the cognoscenti as “accessible” because of their popularity with a public that stubbornly clings to its preference for figurative art. But while these images may not be great artistically, they are greatly Illinoisan. They are popular with a broader public, one suspects, not merely because they are pretty but because they validate the region’s landscape as worth looking at. Thus the photo-realists of the Grand Prairie perform the same role performed by painters in Illinois’s pre-camera days. They convey the mysteries of the land to people who otherwise might not see it—including those who live just up the road. ●