Tag Archives: Oscar Howe

Carnegie Museums and Libraries

Writing a biography of Andrew Carnegie, back when I still worked almost entirely for textbook publishers, I was impressed with how his impoverished youth influenced the way he later spent the huge fortune he earned. He started working at age 12, shortly after his family arrived in the United States in 1848. He was a “bobbin boy” in a weaving factory. He worked hard, but he understood that the most important thing for getting ahead was education. He read constantly and went to night school. The efforts paid off, and he found himself with increasingly important jobs. By his mid-20s, he was superintendant of railways in Pittsburgh. He used his income to invest in new technologies and inventions, including sleeping cars for trains and steel mills. He recognized the potential of steel and bet everything on the belief that steel would become vital in the U.S.—which it did. The Carnegie Steel Company made him fabulously wealthy.

The rags-to-riches story was delightful, but it was what Carnegie did with his money that made him so memorable for me. He believed that “A man who dies rich dies disgraced,” and he set about giving away most of his fortune. He set up charitable agencies, museums, and child-welfare centers, both in the U.S. and the British Isles. He never forgot the lesson of the importance of books and learning, and so much of his fortune went to aiding colleges, funding scientific research, creating museums, and building libraries across the United States, Canada, Britain, and even farther afield—thousands of libraries. (I recently read the wonderful book Up from Slavery, by Booker T. Washington, and learned that Carnegie contributed a library to Tuskegee Institute, as well.)

Today, Carnegie Libraries and Carnegie Museums make up the single largest group of related historic buildings in the country. And why do I mention this here? Because there is a Carnegie Library in Mitchell, SD. The 109-year-old library in Mitchell is now home to a combination of Corn Palace memorabilia and books, tools, mementos, and records tracing the history and genealogy of the Mitchell area. The dome of the library was painted by Oscar Howe, the Sioux artist about whom I posted earlier. The building is also notable for being one of only three surviving buildings in Mitchell built of local red quartzite.

Mitchell-CarnegieLib

Here are two of the many displays, one a memento from the Corn Palace and one about local history—the country’s first flour mill was built here. Note on the poster about the mill the reference to the Jim River—because even in something as serious as a museum display, folks are too laid back up here to call the river by its formal name, the James River.

Mitch-CarnegieLibCP-ad

Mitch-CarnLib-info-first-fl

(And if you get to Carnegie’s hometown of Pittsburgh, PA, don’t miss the Carnegie of Natural History Museum. I posted last year, on my World’s Fare blog, about my favorite part of the museum: the Hillman Hall of Minerals and Gems.)

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Dakota Discovery Museum—Part 2

The second floor of the museum is an art gallery. A large section is dedicated to Oscar Howe, the Sioux artist I posted about previously. The museum displays bronzes by Remington and Russell, plaster casts of Gutzon Borglum’s miniatures of the faces destined for Mt. Rushmore, work by Western painter Harvey Dunn, and the model created by sculptor James Earle Fraser of his most widely circulated work—the buffalo that graced the buffalo nickel (though the statue End of the Trail is better known, and Washington, D.C. would not look the same if he had not decorated so much of it). For Charles Hargens, there is a display of his art studio, as well as a gallery of original paintings and illustrations. Hargens was best known for recreating the West for such magazines as the Saturday Evening Post, Colliers, McCall’s, Boys’ Life, and more (and whose prints and posters you can still buy online).

Through the splendid bookstore, and then outside, where Rod Brown led me and a handful of other visitors through the four historic buildings that have been moved onto the museum’s property. We toured the 125-year-old Methodist Church (still used for special events and weddings), a prairie schoolhouse (the one-room variety), a train depot (Milwaukee Line came through here), and ended up at Beckwith House. This handsome, Victorian confection was built for Louis Beckwith, the enthusiastic booster who got Mitchell to build the original Corn Palace in 1892. Wagons, a tractor, and other memorabilia are scattered around the site, to add to the sense of history. Great fun.

The Old Schoolhouse

The Old Schoolhouse

Beckwith House

Beckwith House

Buckboard Wagon

Buckboard Wagon

If you do find yourself in Mitchell, this is another worthwhile stop.
http://visitmitchell.com/attractions-posts/dakota-discovery-museum/

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Oscar Howe

Oscar Howe in front of the Mitchell Corn Palace

Oscar Howe in front of the Mitchell Corn Palace

While Oscar Howe is closely associated with the Corn Palace, his career extended far beyond it, and I saw things he’d done in several other locations I visited in Mitchell.

Howe’s story is one of success despite an inauspicious beginning. Fortunately, South Dakota has long been a state that valued and recognized artistic skill, which led to Howe’s not only being able to pursue art, it also resulted in his eventually being named Artist Laureate of the state.

Howe, a Yanktonai Sioux, was born in 1915 on the Crow Creek Reservation of South Dakota. Poverty haunted his childhood, but his youth was also enriched by the stories of the history and legends of his people shared with him by his grandmother. His love of art emerged early on, and he would draw with whatever medium he could find, from drawing with twigs in the dust to using charcoal from the wood-burning stove. His talent was recognized and he was enrolled in the famous art program of the Santa Fe Indian School. Here, we was not only instructed in art but was also encouraged to take pride in his cultural heritage.

Upon returning to South Dakota, Howe taught for a while in the state capital before being selected to paint murals under the Works Progress Administration’s South Dakota Artist Project. He then served in North Africa and Europe during World War II. After the war, among the art projects he took on was designing the murals for the Mitchell Corn Palace—a relationship that would last from 1949 until 1971.

During this period, Howe also earned both a B.A. (at Dakota Wesleyan University in Mitchell, where he also taught as Artist in Residence) and M.F. A. (at the University of Oklahoma). The Howe Gallery not being open yet at the Corn Palace, the majority of his work that I saw, other than in photographs, as at the Dakota Discovery Museum (about which more in a later post), which is located on the grounds of Dakota Wesleyan.

A collection of Howe’s work can also be seen at the University of South Dakota, where he was a member of the art faculty and artist-in-residence from 1957 to 1961.

Howe received numerous honors, local, national, and international, and in 1954, he was named Artist Laureate of South Dakota. Other important awards include the Waite Phillips trophy for outstanding contributions to American Indian art from the Philbrook Art Center, Tulsa, Oklahoma in 1966; the South Dakota Governor’s Award for Creative Achievement in 1973; and the Golden Bear Award from the University of Oklahoma, Norman, in 1970.

Howe’s work became widely recognized, both for its style and for its interpretation of themes from Howe’s heritage. He is also widely credited with leading the way for other Native American artists to break away from stereotypes of “Indian Art.” I found his work to be accessible and evocative. I also loved the fact that he recognized the remarkable opportunity afforded by association with the Corn Palace—which continues the tradition of highlighting the work of local artists.

After a remarkable, influential life, Howe succumbed to Parkinson’s disease in October 1983.

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