Two interrelated exhibitions at the Spencer Museum of Art explore the Dust Bowl of the 1930s and the relevance of its lessons for today’s farmers, environmentalists, artists and scientists.
“Dust,” in the museum’s 20/21 Gallery, was inspired by the selection of Timothy Egan’s “The Worst Hard Time” as the Kansas University Common Book for 2013-14. Artistic documentation of the Dust Bowl, much of it federally sponsored, yielded iconic symbols representing the hardship suffered by rural Americans in the 1930s and the humanity that triumphed in its wake. In addition to expressing the spirit of an era, artworks act as historic documents that help researchers understand the ecological disaster that sparked the Dust Bowl and the transformation of the land following the storm.
The objects on display in “Dust” tell similar stories using artists’ tools, primarily the camera. Thomas Hart Benton’s lithograph depicting the fictional Joad family, central to the plot of “The Grapes of Wrath,” tells perhaps the most famous Dust Bowl narrative of all, and is included in this exhibition.
“1 Kansas Farmer,” on display in the museum’s lobby, features posters created by KU advanced graphic design students. The series, inspired by the prolific work of Dust Bowl artists and scientists, makes sly reference to the billboards spotted along Kansas highways declaring that “1 Kansas farmer feeds 155 people and you.” Each poster addresses a specific environmental issue facing Kansas farmers today.
Free related programs kick off with a “Dust” Gallery Talk from 10 to 11 a.m. Sept. 26. “Art and the Dust Bowl,” a lecture by curator Kate Meyer, is planned for 5:30 to 6:30 p.m. Oct. 2. “A Conversation with Artist Scott Jost” is planned for 5 to 6 p.m. Nov. 13. Jost’s work “A Book of Nine Februarys,” featured in the “Dust” exhibition, chronicles the artist’s struggle to remember a 1994 dust storm he experienced near Salina and to contemplate the legacy and impact of droughts and weather events in the Great Plains region.