About eight years ago, the Helen Foresman Spencer Museum of Art organized an exhibition called "Rural America," a group of 20th-century American prints from the collection of Kansas University alumnus Steven Schmidt. The artworks depicted rural existence in both realistic and heroic viewpoints.
When Schmidt suggested the museum do another exhibit this year on rural America life, Steve Goddard, senior curator of prints and drawings, suggested taking a different tack with the artworks.
Goddard drew together scholars in architectural preservation and the material culture of the Great Plains as well as Douglas County farmers to help create an exhibition of 66 American prints that would present the various environments built by farmers and the traditions and customs of American farms.
Helping Goddard explore the culture of farm life were Dennis Domer, Martha Gage Elton, Pete and Barbara Shortridge and retired farmers Wayne Flory and Alvin Fishburn.
"The exhibition has become somewhat documentary," Goddard said. " It's about remembering the family farm. It's about content rather than style and aesthetics."
Artists represented include Thomas Hart Benton, Charles Capps, Asa Cheffetz, Currier & Ives, John Steuart Curry, Benton Spruance, Grant Wood and others.
Goddard said the exhibit is arranged according to an essay written by the Shortridges for the exhibit's catalog: overall views of farms; cultivation, sowing and reaping, including sections on haying and threshing; elevators and silos; farmhouses and barns; weather; and fences and windmills.
Goddard said the exhibition is important because the American family farm is disappearing. Domer, in an essay he wrote for the catalog, notes that most Americans spent their lives on a family farm from 1607 to 1920, but less than 1 percent of the population in 2000 derived their income from working the soil and raising livestock.
"This recent alienation from rural life has engendered a profound ignorance of what was once commonplace," Domer, a former KU professor now teaching in Lexington, Ky., wrote. "The alienation from the land is deep in our country now, and it often degenerates into prejudice and disdain for the few clodhoppers who don't seem to know any better and have stayed down on the farm."
Goddard said the show functions as a "cultural memory," even though many of the prints portray an ideal agrarian world where humankind and nature is in harmony, labor leads to amply rewards and the traditional family is central to the social fabric.
Domer poses a thought-provoking question is his essay.
"For the generation of Americans who are growing up today the farm will usually be a matter of imagination rather than memory. Historical museums, such as the Agricultural Hall of Fame (in Bonner Springs) and countless county historical societies, try to fire this imagination with vast collections of tools, machinery and other objects that at one time or another were essential in the productive activities of farms, small and large," he writes.
"But can we really understand this material culture when removed from its time and place?" he writes. " American artists have portrayed many facets of farm life but how much sense will people make of this art who have not or will not experience any farm realities themselves?
"We know that the more people identify with art, the more they understand it on many different levels. Farmers like Wayne Flory and Alvin Fishburn, though, who got an early glimpse of this exhibition, brought life and art together in their commentary. For others less fortunate in experience, this exhibition will resonate aesthetically but not as emotionally and not with such vivid projection."
Goddard said the museum is making an effort to let people in the agricultural community know about the exhibit, and hopes they will take part in a roundtable discussion about the art exhibit and their own farm experiences at 2 p.m. April 29 at the museum.
"We want them to tell us about what's shown in the prints," he said.