Harvey Dunn-WWI Illustrator

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BPIB.COM

On the heels of a World War I documentary on SDPB TV, we are reflecting on those days. Today we remember Harvey Dunn. Dunn was an artist and the majority of his work is housed in the Smithsonian Institute located in Washington DC but over 100 pieces of his work are in the South Dakota Art Museum in Brookings. Lynn Verschoor is the director and joined us now.

This conversation has been edited for web use, to listen to it in its entirety click here

Cara Hetland:              

Welcome to "In the Moment," I'm Cara Hetland sitting in today for Lori Walsh, and on the heels of a World War I documentary on SDPB, we are reflecting on those days. And today we remember Harvey Dunn. Dunn was an artist and a majority of his work is housed in the Smithsonian Institute located in Washington, D.C. Over 100 pieces of his work are in the South Dakota Art Museum in Brookings, and Lynn Verschoor is the director of that art museum in Brookings, and joins us now. Lynn, welcome to "In the Moment."

Lynn Verschoor:          

Thank you Cara, it's nice to be here.

Cara Hetland:              

So happy to have you. So let's start and talk a little bit about Harvey Dunn. Give me a little background of his history.

Lynn Verschoor:          

Well, Harvey was the son of homesteaders, and he lived around Manchester, South Dakota, and he was raised on that farm. And he was really the workhorse in the family, he was a very big boy, and so took a lot of responsibility for the heavy, heavy work. And so then he decided, by working with his mother, he sort of determined that he really wanted to be an artist. And so then he made a decision to come to South Dakota Agricultural College, and study with Ada Caldwell, then went onto the Chicago Art Institute and then studied with preeminent illustrator there, Howard Pyle. And then he, at the ripe old age of 23, opened his own business in New Jersey, across the river from Manhattan. And there he became a very famous illustrator.

Cara Hetland:              

Working on a farm, how do you even figure out that you know how to draw?

Lynn Verschoor:          

Well you know, that has always been real puzzling to me, because I think what they had for reference was magazines that they probably got, and books, and calendars, things like that. But Harvey's mother would have him sit down and draw with him in the evenings, because she was an amateur artist, but she was also studying to be a teacher. And so they spent a lot of evenings drawing together. And then, being the rascal that he was, he would draw at school on the chalkboard until the teacher hid all the chalk from him, and then he began to carve things in the side of the building. That's the rumor I've heard.

Lynn Verschoor:          

Anyway, he was just predetermined to do this, and I think it was a huge loss for his family on the farm, you know to lose him. And there's a great story where his father was trying to lure him in and offered him 640 acres if he would stay, and Harvey said no, I really want to go. So he offered him to get the money if he would plow these acres for another farm, they would give him $1.25 an acre to plow the field by hand with a team of horse. $1.25 an acre, so he could use that to pay his college tuition.

Cara Hetland:              

So all of the school was a canvas for Harvey Dunn.

Lynn Verschoor:          

Yes, it was. Yeah his whole life, because he really believed that if you didn't have a life inside of you there was nothing you could express on the canvas. So he often encouraged his students if they really didn't know where to focus their energies, to go out and get a life and come back.

Cara Hetland:              

And then he served in World War I.

Lynn Verschoor:          

Yes he did, yes. The day before he 34th birthday he received a call to join the forces. He was a captain, and then he joined the forces and spent his time in France, and he had attached himself to company A of the 167th infantry, and stayed with them until they reached their objective. And so, as he went around, he made himself kind of a metal sketch box that hung around his neck, and it had a scroll. So he would load paper in there and then he would go over the top with the boys and he would be sketching as they went. And sometimes he would sort of wake up in the morning, or if he laid down for a little break, he would be all alone because they'd moved ahead without him. So he would be running to catch up with the group, because they had to move when they had to move.

Lynn Verschoor:          

And there's a very funny cartoon that was in papers around the country early on that sort of talked about Dunn's, well his temperament, but also who he was as a human being. There's a young private, you see a picture of Dunn sitting in a chair with these paintings around him, and he has an easel and he's painting, and of course smoking. And a young private walks up and he said, "General Pershing presents his compliments to Captain Dunn and wants to know when you'll kindly move your easel back a foot or two because we want to return the barrage," because there's this image of bombs bursting overhead. And he said, "Present my compliments to General Pershing and tell him I can't move for an hour or two until I finish his composition sketches." So he was quite a character, even in the war. He had quite a reputation. Kind of a daring, daring individual.

Cara Hetland:              

And so were all of his images battle scenes from the war, or?

Lynn Verschoor:          

Well he often sketched just buildings and images in small communities. We received one of his notebooks, and it's just some beautiful kind of compositions of the buildings and the cities. He put soldiers in as well. They were just kind of rough sketches, but yeah, there was soldiers and their equipment, and things like that. So it was pretty much all battle scenes, or things associated with the war.

Cara Hetland:              

And so when you receive a Harvey Dunn notebook, what do you do?

Lynn Verschoor:          

Well, we received one from the family, and so we're going to have it conserved, and then we're going to try to reproduce some of the individual pages so that they're accessible. But then exhibit it as it is as an object.

Cara Hetland:              

But when you have it your hands, obviously you're wearing gloves, you can't lick your finger and turn the pages, right?

Lynn Verschoor:          

You have to be very careful. The public won't be able to be allowed to do that, but we will provide images from the book when we exhibit it so that they can see what they are.

Cara Hetland:              

And the level of excitement for you?

Lynn Verschoor:          

We'll be receiving seven pieces from the American History Museum in the Smithsonian to augment our exhibit. And so these are pieces that we have borrowed in the past, but there's some of his sketches, which are, as horrific as some of the imagery is, the sketches just really are beautifully done. His draftsmanship at this phase in his life was just fantastic. And so they're really beautiful pieces. And since he'd had ten good years of experience as an illustrator, he was really good at just going into a situation, capturing what's the story here. And then that's what he would record. So, it was really a perfect time for him to be there, to make use of all of his skills.

Lynn Verschoor:          

And there's even a quote here that talks, a military historian Edgar M. Howell writing in the Smithsonian Journal of History in 1968 talked about Dunn. He said, "his work stood out. Whatever the merits or weaknesses of the group as combat artists, either together or individually, whatever their cooperative talents, the work produced by Harvey Dunn has always been by far the most popular. They have an undeniable appeal which most of the pictures his fellow artists oddly lack." So that's kind of interesting.

Cara Hetland:              

And were his sketches, were they just pencil, were they colored, did he color them in later?

Lynn Verschoor:          

Well, yes, what he did was, he took some ... he didn't take his paints out like in that cartoon, but he did have charcoal, and he had pencils, and things that he could carry easily. And then what he would do is when he had a moment, when it was quieter, he would add some color maybe if he had some watercolors. Just depended upon the day, I think. So some of them are just quick sketches, and then some of them are a little more finished.

Lynn Verschoor:          

But a big thing that happened to Dunn was, following the war he really thought that the War Department would hire him to stay on, to complete some of these sketches into paintings. And it was very sad, very hard for him when at the end of the war they just sort of released him, just discharged him and said they were done. And so when he went home, that had a profound impact on him. Because after you serve in the war and you experience the immediate, as he said, "blood and guts of the event," it's really hard then to come back and sort of re-immerse yourself in advertising and illustrations for magazines and books.

Lynn Verschoor:          

And so when he got back, while he was gone a lot of his students took over some of his assignments in different magazines. And so when he returned he said that's fine, you all deserve to do that. So then what he focused on was teaching. He decided, it's time for me to think about what my legacy really is. And he was a very smart businessman. So yes, he kept up with illustrating, but it was for like the American Legion Magazine and things like that. He left his students to do their work.

Lynn Verschoor:          

But then he became a very famous teacher, and a lot of professional artists went to study with him. And he just, he didn't teach technique, he taught a philosophy of life. And that's what I referred to earlier when people would be working with him, and they were really floundering, he would challenge them to dig deep inside of who they were and what they knew, and then that's what they were to be putting on the canvas.

Lynn Verschoor:          

So that's what he did after the war. Things change for him. And then also following the war, he started to return to South Dakota in the summers, because he just really missed the land and the people. And the one thing about Harvey as an illustrator more than any other illustrator, he was so tied to South Dakota. I mean that's truly where his heart was. And so it was important for him to come back. And so when he was here, he would just walk the fields and stare at the sky for hours, just soaking it all in. And he just really spent a lot of time out in the land, reliving his youth from a different perspective now that he wasn't plowing and having to do all that work.

Lynn Verschoor:          

But it really meant a lot to him, so he came back and then because of him returning here, he created this prairie series. Which is primarily what South Dakotans know him for, is his prairie series. And so he kind of relegated those to the basement and didn't share them with anybody out east, but when Aubrey Sherwood visited him he shared them with him, and so he invited Dunn to bring them back to South Dakota, and then they had an exhibit in the Masonic Lodge in De Smet. And then he gifted 38 paintings to the South Dakota State Agricultural College, and then that's how we have them, South Dakota Art Museum, today as a result of that initial gift.

Cara Hetland:              

I have this quote here that Harvey Dunn once told his students, "that a picture should have four dimensions: length, breadth, depth, and an undefinable quality called spirit." So that's what you're talking about when he really worked with his students to dig deep within themselves?

Lynn Verschoor:          

Yes.

Cara Hetland:              

So how then did the war and what he saw there, and what he illustrated there, really, what did he bring back as his spirit in his work after the war?

Lynn Verschoor:          

Well, I think it was a passion for the landscape here. Because he really was, what am I leaving as a legacy, I've done all these illustrations. And when he did those illustrations, when he was done with them, he would paint over them, or burn them, or whatever. Some of them were saved, thank goodness, but a lot of his work was destroyed because he was a businessman and it was done.

Lynn Verschoor:          

And so a big thing for him really was the teaching. He felt like he needed to give back what he had been given by his teachers. And so that's what he did with his passion. He really wanted to help other people find their voice and to get better and to express themselves. So teaching and then returning to South Dakota was really important to him. And I think when you see, he worked for the American Legion Magazine and so as a result was able to finish some of his paintings for their covers. And so that was somewhat satisfying. But I think it was really giving back with teaching and coming home.

Cara Hetland:              

And who are some his more famous students?

Lynn Verschoor:          

Oh my goodness, you had asked me that, and there's hundreds of them actually. Many, many. I'm drawing a blank right now, to tell you the truth, sorry about that.

Cara Hetland:              

That's okay. But can you tell with your eye a difference between Harvey Dunn's work pre-war versus post-war experience?

Lynn Verschoor:          

Well, the difference between Dunn's work, I have to say is probably as he got older, he got really loose. You can tell he was just really enjoying himself. The brushstrokes got looser and looser. We just did big touring exhibit with the Norman Rockwell Museum, it was called Masters of the Golden Age, Harvey Dunn and his students. You could just see, as he aged, the work got looser and looser, and he was thoroughly enjoying experimenting with paint. Because when he was younger, he was very much about rendering things for other people. All his jobs were for other people. But as he got older, and started doing more studio work with his students and with his teachers, the work just got looser and looser and really expressive.

Cara Hetland:              

All right, Lynn Verschoor, I want to thank you for taking time and coming on the program today, I really appreciate it.

Lynn Verschoor:          

Yes, this was really fun. I have to say, Harvey Dunn is one of my favorite topics.

Cara Hetland:              

I can tell. Thank you so very much.

Lynn Verschoor:          

All right, thank you.

 

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