There’s a series of homestead paintings by Harvey Dunn, which gives a glimpse into the world of western US culture in the late 19th century. The subjects of Dunn’s abstract paintings, unfeigned homesteaders, are real people digging out a tough life, but one too, that is fulfilling and simple.
The homesteaders and farmers of the western United States, were what Dunn knew. Having grown up in the Dakotas, and himself living in a sod house, in the late 19th century it’s of little doubt he literally experienced what he painted. Although Dunn eventually left the Dakotas to attend art school in Chicago, the people, places and occurrences of that region were memories he carried with him.
I recently had the opportunity to see his works in a gallery setting and I was moved by the honesty in the artwork he created.
Dunn captured the essence, the key fundamental of homesteading, whether in a rural setting, cityscape, apartment or anywhere for that matter; he understood it’s challenging magnitude. And maybe that’s what keeps us at it everyday, perhaps even the reward.
With a keen sense of realism, Dunn breathes life into these simple painted vignettes, whether farmer and trusty oxen clearing a field, children playing outside a schoolhouse or a woman leading an oxen, the viewer feels the purpose in the daily work of the homesteader.
The idea of purpose resonates with the homesteader. Why do we do this, what’s the point, who reaps the benefit, these are the questions we ask ourselves occasionally — part of the challenge of it all.
So seeing these works of art forever documenting a way of life, I wonder how do I relate to these paintings. And I realize; I carry on traditions long forgotten, perfect skills that are undervalued, and put my own particular spin on life.
The subjects Dunn portrayed weren’t giving their all with the intention of writing a blog about their experience. These homesteading pioneers weren’t trying to impress anyone. Dunn depicted men and women sometimes struggling, but always surviving.
That’s what homesteaders do, make it through hardship always surviving. So in the gallery in the presence of Dunn’s artwork I feel inspiration, because I know he and those he painted, would be proud of me and the many folks out there carrying on the legacy they left behind.