7 May 2013

When he came to the University of Wisconsin College of Agriculture in 1936, John Steuart Curry became the first ever artist-in-residence at an American university. At first blush, an artist-in-residence at a land grant university college of agriculture seems odd. If thought of at all, state university colleges of agriculture are seen as technocratic institutions probably dedicated to figuring out a way to grow more corn. If Curry’s tenure at Madison seems odd to us, though, it is only because we know far less than we should about the role of these institutions in American history.
By way of introducing my argument, let us consider this Curry painting entitled Osage Orange. The Osage orange tree features large in Curry’s reimagining of his native Kansas. The plant is a major formal element in at least three of his paintings, it is featured in his mural at the Kansas State House, and he chose it as the image of his textile design for Richard Wright’s American Way design collection.
The prevalence of Osage orange in the Kansas landscape can be attributed to the work of one man, Jonathan Baldwin Turner. From Massachusetts, Turner came to teach classics at Illinois College in 1833. Once in Illinois, Turner’s interests turned away from the classics, and he is now famous for two major contributions: popularizing Osage orange as a hedgerow and popularizing the idea of the land grant university. Lacking trees to build fences, the pioneering farmers of the plains needed another option. In this dense fast growing tree native to region where Oklahoma, Arkansas, Texas and Mississippi meet, Turner saw a solution that would within three years of planting be, “horse-high, pig tight, and bull strong.”
Turner’s work with the Osage orange anticipates the work of the land grant universities that his ideas would help establish. In the 1850s, Turner called for a system of higher educational institutions supported by the federal government that would teach agricultural and industrial arts. His ideas found their way into the Morrill Land-Grant Act of 1862 that founded the land-grant university system that we know today. The land grant university was a major force in the modernization of the countryside. Through various extension outreach activities, the state agricultural college helped to bring the urban values of specialization and efficiency to farmers.
Considered in this context, I think that Curry’s Osage Orange takes on a deeper meaning. In my presentation today, after a brief overview of his life and work before Madison, I am going to situate Curry’s time at Madison into the history of American agriculture, the University of Wisconsin, American art, and rural culture. I will suggest what his role as artist-in-residence meant for each of these branches of history. Ultimately I will argue that Curry’s participation in the modernization program of the College of Agriculture suggest a particular reading of his work. While his often idyllic depictions of Midwestern agriculture and rural life have often been dismissed as romantic depictions of a bygone era, his association with and activities within the University of Wisconsin College Of Agriculture significantly complicate a simplistically romantic reading of his work.


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