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Archive for Sunday, July 29, 1990

BIG ART IN LITTLE SWEDEN

July 29, 1990

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South of Salina, about halfway to McPherson, a colony of artists is at home in a small, sophisticated town called Lindsborg.

It's the same town that advertises itself along Interstates 70 and 135 with signs urging tourists to visit "Little Sweden, USA" and has a Main Street lined with stores selling imported Swedish crafts.

Art galleries with exhibits of landscapes and local art mingle with stores that sell "dalas," colorful wooden horses with Swedish words painted on them. Artists with regional reputations mingle over cups of strong coffee with the descendants of Swedish immigrants at the local bakery.

And each year the town fills up with tourists in search of quaintness and scholars in search of the paintings of Biger Sandzen, a Swedish impressionist who worked for 60 years to encourage the arts in Kansas.

ACCORDING TO artists and art teachers living in Lindsborg, it's about as close to paradise as anybody deserves to get.

"It's an atmosphere that's more European than any town I've seen in Kansas," said Lee Becker, a Lindsborg painter. "The townspeople are very accepting of all these strange artists here. You can take a walk down the street late at night, and nobody will bother you. You can take your easel onto farms, and the farmers will say hello, and they may even bring you a cup of coffee."

Both tourism and the arts are serious industries in this town of 3,300 people. It has four galleries, including the Biger Sandzen Memorial Gallery on the campus of Bethany College, the small Lutheran school at Lindsborg's north end, and the local arts council lists more than 70 visual artists in its directory.

LINDSBORG WAS a startling discovery for Carolyn Kahler. Two years ago, Kahler, a textile artist, moved from the Northeast when her husband, Bruce, started teaching history at the college. Now Kahler is the chair of the Bethany art department, which will celebrate its 100th anniversary with conferences and exhibits the weekend of Oct. 4.

"When Bruce first visited here, he came back just bubbling about the arts community," said Kahler, whose department now has about 30 majors out of a 700-member student body. "When I came here, I knew the town was small, but what I found was they didn't have a smallness in attitude."

Many people attribute the rise of the Lindsborg arts community to Sandzen. Legend has it that Sandzen, who was born in 1871, left his native Sweden to study art in Paris, where he was influenced by the pointillist painter Georges Seurat.

EARLY IN his career, he read a book by Carl Swensson, the first president of Bethany College, describing Lindsborg.

"Sandzen wrote a long letter to the president of Bethany detailing his credentials," said Larry Griffis, the director of the Sandzen Gallery and the man with most of the answers to Sandzen questions. "Dr. Swensson wrote a very short reply to him, which was `Come at once.' Sandzen sailed to America, and he got to Bethany on the first day of classes in the fall of 1894 at the age of 23. He stayed there until he retired from the faculty in the middle of 1946."

The Sandzen Gallery has many of the artist's paintings, prints and drawings on display. In the main gallery, Sandzen's large late-impressionist western landscapes confront visitors with their strong brushstrokes and brilliant colors, held together in bold, ordered compositions.

SANDZEN ALSO put a lot of work into promoting the arts in Kansas until his death in 1954, Griffis said. He lectured across the country and collected art and fabrics, putting together a large sampling of Asian art and fabrics. Some of those pieces are now on display at the gallery, which opened in 1957. A biography of Sandzen, by former Bethany President Emory Lindquist, is being prepared for publication, Griffis said.

Today, the gallery brings in art shows for the community, including a show of contemporary Swedish art last spring, and it buys or receives art from the community's artists.

"I don't think there's an artist in Lindsborg who isn't represented in the collection," he said. "We obviously have a problem displaying them all because of our lack of space."

BEYOND THE college, Lindsborg residents seem to pride themselves on supporting the local arts. For example, the Lindsborg Arts Council lives partially off a $100,000 endowment given some 40 years ago by Ludvig Peterson, the late local bank president, said Harold Elmquist, the council's director.

Among living artists, residents point to Lester Raymer with a great deal of pride. Now 84, Raymer paints dark, almost medieval portraits of clowns and jesters. Several of his paintings hang at the Sandzen Gallery.

He also is a woodcarver; his intricately constructed toys are now on a six-state tour. The town, through the Lester Raymer Society for the Preservation of Art in Kansas, hopes to open Raymer's Main Street studio as a museum sometime in early 1991.

OTHER ARTISTS with Lindsborg connections include C. Louis Hafermehl, who was chair of the art department at the University of Washington, and Carl Lotave, whose altar paintings featured strong, distinctive portrayals of Christ, according to Don Weddle, a Lindsborg artist and Bethany graduate. Lotave taught two years at Bethany. He died at a young age in New York.

"Sandzen gave Lotave his French name," said Weddle, who taught art at Wichita State University for 33 years. "He had a Swedish name, but Sandzen said he couldn't survive in the United States as an artist with a Swedish name."

Townspeople also point to Becker, painter Steve Scott and photographer Terry Evans, who teaches at Bethany, as up-and-coming contemporary artists.

And a group of landscape artists, led by University of Southern California teacher Keith Crown, comes through each year to paint the rolling hills surrounding Lindsborg.

"It's remarkable that painters of this caliber chose this little town to come to," said Mark Espring, one of the two managers at the Swen & Me Gallery on Main Street, where paintings from the group are on display.

WEDDLE AND Espring say the town is extraordinarily hospitable to the arts and crafts. Several townspeople have devoted themselves to preserving Swedish crafts, such as carving the "dala" horses, and art collectors can be found all over Lindsborg.

"We could go around town and go into people's homes, and there wouldn't be one without an original piece of art on the wall," Espring said. "It doesn't matter if it's a rich house or a poor house. It's almost expected of people."

And the artists have formed a support group for each other, Weddle said.

"If I'm feeling depressed about something I'm doing, I can go down the street and find someone I can talk to about it," said Weddle, who grew up in Lindsborg. "I'll probably still be depressed, but it helps to be able to talk about it."

ONE PROBLEM for artists in Lindsborg seems to be in separating the tourist-oriented material from genuine fine arts and crafts.

"I get a lot of people coming in looking for the crafts, and instead they find paintings," Espring said. "If they think they're in the wrong place, they leave. But sometimes I get them interested in art."

Weddle said he is grateful for the tourist pull the town does have.

"If it wasn't for the toursits, we'd be in pretty desperate economic shape," he said. "The oil industry and agriculture wouldn't help us now."

The other problem on people's minds is the college itself. Some said they fear Bethany's commitment to teaching art may waver as the number of college-age students decreases. Just last year, the art department decided to discontinue its graphics arts program because it couldn't hire a good teacher, Kahler said.

ALSO, AT the beginning of the year, Bethany's president, Peter Ristuben, died unexpectedly. Ristuben was an African art collector, and residents saw him as a strong supporter of the arts, Weddle said.

"The college has a long tradition of supporting and teaching the arts," said Weddle, who has an art degree from Bethany and also studied at the Art Institute of Chicago and the University of New Mexico. "We hope that whoever comes in to replace him is as strong a supporter."

Music and theater have always accompanied the fine arts in the Lindsborg community, residents say. Lindsborg's annual Easter performance of Handel's "Messiah" is nationally known; last Easter it was featured on the news show "CBS Sunday Morning." The local theater company is performing "Annie Get Your Gun" this weekend.

BUT IT seems that the visual arts, be they carving "dalas" or painting brilliant landscapes, form the backbone of this little town with a big reputation for the arts. For example, after living in the big town of Wichita, Weddle says his art was bolstered by his return.

"I like being five minutes away from anyplace I need to go," he said. "One night this summer, after a concert, I drove out to Coronado Heights outside of town, and I got out and watched the sunset. Imagine, being in a place where you can see a full sunset all the way across, in total solitude."

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