Follow the Stories | Portland, Oregon (2005)
Who Were the Prairie Print Makers?
There was something perfect about how little a woman paid recently for a color woodcut print made by Norma Bassett Hall, an Oregon native who made the print back in the 1920s. The woman, who brought the piece to the Portland ANTIQUES ROADSHOW, spied the print while rummaging around a Goodwill store.
"I was just looking for something, who knows what, and it really caught my eye," she said. "I thought the colors were very beautiful. There just seemed something about it, that this was a piece that was nice, that was lovely."
More on this diverse school of artists who prided themselves on making affordable art for ordinary people
The price tag didn't dissuade her: it was $1.49. "It just seemed like it shouldn't be $1.49," she said.
Most artists would be upset if they knew that one of their prints sold for such a paltry sum. Hall, though, was part of a Midwestern group of artists known as the Prairie Print Makers, who prided themselves in making affordable art for ordinary people rather than for just art collectors. They might have been pleased to discover that one of their prints was so appreciated — and had sold for such an affordable price.
The Prairie Print Makers group was formed on December 28, 1930, when 11 of Kansas' best artists, also friends, gathered in the Lindsborg studio of Swedish-born Birger Sandzen, an artist who had been inspired to teach at Bethany College in Kansas after reading a description of the college in Carl Swensson's I Sverige in 1890. The Print Makers' purpose was spelled out in an invitation to join the organization made to the Wichita artist William Dickerson: "The object of this group is to further the interest of both artists and laymen in printmaking and collecting."
Many of the printmakers in the group were also professional graphic artists who took up printmaking as an avocation. Each year, they would commission a print by someone in the group and they would give it to all their members. The 34 gift prints made annually over the group's history included traditional printmaking techniques such as lithographs, etchings, drypoints, aquatints, and wood engravings. Todd Weyman, the Swann Gallery appraiser who assessed the Norma Hall color woodcut, noted that this printmaking technique took a large amount of skill.
"For each color you see in this print, which are maybe seven or eight colors, a different block is made," Weyman noted to the print's owner. "So there's quite a bit of craft used to create a woodcut like this."
The group helped sell members' work to a wide audience by sponsoring inexpensive traveling exhibitions. These exhibitions met a public eager to purchase prints that were more affordable than those sold by European printmakers who were popular at the time, such as Sir Francis Seymour Haden, Anders Zorn and James Whistler. Carl Smalley, an art dealer who sold the works of Sandzen, expressed the democratic attitude of the group when he wrote, "I have dreams of providing original prints and good paintings for the walls of every schoolhouse in Kansas." Until the Prairie Print Makers ended its run in 1965, they never raised their $1 annual membership fee.
The artistic philosophy of the Prairie Print Makers was substantially different from that of more renowned Midwesterners such as Thomas Hart Benton or Grant Wood. These two artists often delved into the realm of the mythic Midwest rather than a more realistic, honest vision of Midwest life, which was preferred by the Prairie Print Makers. Over time, these artists expanded their membership to include Eastern printmakers as well as ones from the Southwest, and their identity became more and more diluted. Hall, in fact, only passed through Kansas for a residency there in 1923, and was typical of the later diversity of the Prairie Print Makers. She moved to New Mexico in 1942, and while living there she did block prints of the Southwest. Over her lifetime, her art depicted a variety of subjects including Kansas farm scenes, Oregon mountains and New Mexico pueblos. The subject of the Hall print that came into ANTIQUES ROADSHOW was even farther from the Midwest, depicting a home not on the Kansas prairie, but on the Isle of Skye in Scotland.
See the Portland, Oregon (2005) page for a list of all appraisals from this city.
Much of this account was taken from the gallery guide to the 1988 exhibit The Prairie Print Makers: The Gift Prints. Selections from the Bud and Ruby Jennings Collection at the Spencer Museum of Art at the University of Kansas.
More ANTIQUES ROADSHOW articles from the Prints & Posters category:
Jules Chéret: Elevating Ads to an Art Form (St. Paul, 2005)
WPA: Putting Art to Work (Houston, 2006)
Finding a One-of-a-Kind Map (Tucson, 2007)
Dennis Gaffney is a freelance writer in Albany, New York. He has been a contributor to Antiques Roadshow Online since 1998.