The Accidental Art Safari

I am looking at the world from a familiar view. That is, the landscape through the window of my Expedition, rocketing down an interstate. Since we moved away from the Midwest in 1991, I have logged many, many thousands of miles back and forth across America. Today, I begin an epic trip, even for me. My journey has a purpose, to move my son, his dog, and meager possessions, from San Francisco, California to our (and their new) home in Parkville, Missouri. A round trip journey of 3,600 miles, which I must complete in four and a half days. I feel rather like Bilbo Baggins, off on a late-in-life adventure.

I like driving long distances, radio playing oldies from my youth, and long stretches of time to think about my life and plan my next painting or story. The first leg of my trip will take me west via I-70 to Denver, Colorado, a route I have never driven. I’ll swing north at Denver to I-80 then west again until my destination. It is mid-October, the air is cool, crisp and the soft blue sky has a clarity illuminating distant objects out to the far reaching horizon. In Kansas the land is populated with farmsteads, vast fields carpeting the land on all sides, and the ever present grain silos. I take all this in as I drive, filed away for later use in a sketch or story. Later, I am fifty miles from Denver, the night is pitch black. I seem to be the only car on the interstate. Topping a rise, a light winks in the distance. As I get nearer I can see it is a car, parked on the opposite median of the highway. In front, illuminated by the car’s headlights, are four men in sweats, doing rapid pushups. My car glides by, and I am again engulfed in the Stygian night, with absolutely no explanation of what I just witnessed. I will never know. My world is once more reduced to the illuminated ribbon of concrete, stretching in front of my car lights in a seemingly inexhaustible supply.

Weariness and hunger interrupt my trek, so I pause for breakfast in Rawlings, Wyoming. One of my favorite things about long distance drives is a morning meal a roadside café. If one is seeking, this is where one will discover an authentic rural America. Across the country local farmers, workers, business owners, social groups, all gather in local cafés for a bit of morning gossip, and fuel for their work day. In Rawlings I am seated between two tables, one is a meeting of a local organization, the other, a group of older ranchers and cowboys. The ranchers’ conversations center mostly on firearms, which gun is good for what, and which gun is best. Cowboy hats and boots are much in evidence. One man is so cowboy in dress and deportment he appears to have parked his horse outside. I am having a wonderful time eavesdropping. From the menu I order the ham and eggs, full order of ham. When breakfast arrives, the ham steak is larger than a dinner plate. I eat half, and save the rest for a rolling lunch as I continue my relentless crusade.

Much later, deep into the night, I am past Salt Lake City driving through the Great Basin country. As I drive, a story pops unbidden into my head. Days later, I will write this story called The Debt. Of course, as always, I have my sketchbook and water colors, in order to write down notes and visually record life around me. At last, one hundred thirty-five miles short of San Francisco, I stop to sleep.

Saturday morning, I am in the city, where my son has booked me into Toyo, a nice hotel in Japan Town. A big farewell dinner with his friends is on the venue for Saturday night. On Sunday morning we load the Expedition as full as it will go. So full, that the only space left for the poor dog is on top of a pile in the back seat. In short order all is ready. We are on our way, turned 180° and pointed east.

Once again the drive, back through the Great Basin, the mountains, and high plains, now with two drivers I get to sleep part of the way. Next morning, I awake to a beautiful sunrise over the plateaus and grazing lands in eastern Wyoming. Soon, we are rolling through the fertile flat cropland of Nebraska. Just after noon, we see a sign for Cozad, and the Robert Henri museum. Now Henri (pronounced hen rye), is one of the greatest American painters and one of the founders of the Ashcan school of art. The thing is, I have driven past his boyhood home and museum over one dozen times in the past ten years, always with no time to stop and learn more about the artist, and his towering talent. Today, I figure we can take the time. Let’s stop shall we? My son is always up for an adventure, so we veer off the highway at Cozad.

The museum is easy to locate, and I am excited to confirm what I am positive I know about Henri, and see some of his work. We park and knock on the door of an old house, which appears to house the museum. No one there. Well darn. Since it is about one PM we elect to find a local café. Easy enough, as we spot a nice eatery just two blocks down the same street. The regular lunch crowd has cleared out and we have the place to ourselves. Our waitress is friendly as we inquire about the museum. Oh, comes the reply, the museum is closed on Mondays. Well, a shrug, we tried. I add, the thing is, we are both artists and interested in Robert Henri. Our meal is finished and our waitress brings the bill… and a pleasant surprise. The café owner overheard us, and phoned the museum docent, Jan Patterson, explaining to her, I have two men here who want to see the museum. Our waitress goes on, if you are still interested, Jan will meet you there in about five minutes? Wow! Now that is small town hospitality. With many thanks, we pay our bill and head back to the museum.

True to her word, our guide arrives and we begin a private tour of the life of Robert Henri. Immediately I am chagrined to discover nearly everything I thought I knew about Henri’s early life, is dead wrong. It seems, as many of us have, I have taken my idea of his life from the novel Son of a Gambling Man [Sandoz]. It is true, his father, John J. Cozad, was a gambler and founder of the town of Cozad, Nebraska, which is where the resemblance begins and ends.

It seems that the elder Cozad killed a man. In October 1882, Cozad became embroiled in a dispute with a rancher, Alfred Pearson, over the right to pasture cattle on land claimed by the family. When the dispute turned physical, Cozad shot Pearson fatally. Cozad was eventually cleared of wrongdoing, but the mood of the town turned against him. He fled to Denver, Colorado, and the rest of the family followed shortly afterwards. To disassociate themselves from the scandal, family members changed their names. The father became known as Richard Henry Lee, and his sons posed as adopted children under the names Frank Southern and Robert Earl Henri (pronounced “hen rye”). In 1883, the family moved to New York City, then to Atlantic City, New Jersey, where the young artist completed his first paintings. –(Wiki)

Somewhat chagrined, and disabused of my certainties, I open up to learning more about Henri. Until recently, the family home housed the museum. Enough money was raised to build a brick, climate controlled building adjacent to the home to house the art collection. The next hour plus is spent learning about the life and work of Robert Henri.

For those unfamiliar with his work, in 1929 Robert Henri was considered one of the top three living influential painters in America. As a teacher Henri’s legacy is far reaching and instructive to generations of painters. The significance and often formative influence of Henri as a teacher and mentor to women artists is an acknowledged fact. -(Wiki)

The museum building houses a small, but important collection, Paintings (including some of Henri’s student’s work), plus letters, water color sketches, and pencil drawings. When we visited, the museum’s signature work, Henri’s painting of Queen Mariana of Austria, Queen of Spain (after Velasquez) was on loan to the Mississippi Museum of Art for a show. In return, Mississippi sent Henri’s Young Woman in Yellow Satin to Cozad. Both works made a brief stop in Omaha at the Gerald R. Ford Conservation Center for a good cleaning. -(Wiki)

The painting on display today is one of Jessica Penn, a former Ziegfeld Follies dancer, and is a significant work of Henri. Young Woman in Yellow Satin was most recently owned by Mr. and Mrs. Lyle Cashion, Jr., and donated to the Mississippi museum. At 77” x 38” it is a notable work of a subject [Penn] that Henri painted more than once. Jessica, the model, nearly comes to life in her ethereal beauty. Her obvious charms validate her famed Ziegfeld association. It is not difficult to understand why Henri was enthralled by this model. Penn herself was a well known artist’s model and actress of her day. She posed for many great artists. A native of Des Moines, Iowa, Penn was oft married (four times) including a union with famed painter Louis Loeb.

Jan explains to us that the museum is thrilled to have Young Woman in Yellow Satin on loan. Not only because it is a wonderful work, but also, as she expounded, the Mississippi museum verified that the painting of Queen Mariana is far more important and valuable than they at the Henri museum realized.

It was a wonderful intermission on our long journey. A bonus for us is that Jan Patterson is clearly devoted to her self-assigned job of keeping Robert Henri’s life and memory alive on the Nebraska Prairie. Jan’s knowledge base, and enthusiasm altered an impromptu museum visit from a dry pedantic presentation, into a thoroughly enjoyable and interactive learning experience.

Even a good time must come to an end. We were yet 360 miles from our destination. Once again on the east bound interstate, we laugh at our good fortune, and the verities of small town people. What, for me, began as a long distance trek to relocate my son from San Francisco to Parkville, unpredictably morphed into an accidental art safari. The two of us will not soon forget our personally gleaned education about the life and art of Robert Henri, by our generous guide, Jan Patterson. Not to mention our open arms reception by the town of Cozad, Nebraska. Like Bilbo Baggins I left home on an unexpected trek and returned with the gold of new knowledge and a good feeling about my fellow man. By late Monday night we are back in Parkville, and a new chapter in our lives begins.

Comments
  1. Profile photo of Richard Reeve
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    You really did go “There and Back Again,” Kevin! It’s so nice to hear that small town hospitality is still alive in these days of fearing strangers too.

    1. Profile photo of Richard Reeve
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      I meant to add that when we moved from San Francisco to Pennsylvania I would have liked to have driven across the nation. I thought it would be a great adventure, filled with those roadside detours like your art gallery visit, but my kids were not sold on the idea, preferring the convenience of flight while our possessions followed by truck. Maybe in a few years when we’re “empty nesters” we will be able to do the trip in a leisurely way.