S.D. artist helps protect grasslands – posthumously

S.D. artist helps protect grasslands – posthumously
At last they've found a good use for one of Harvey Dunn's prairie paintings.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is selling prints of Dunn's "The Prairie Trail" to help fund the Harvey Dunn Grassland Preservation Project, which may just well change the way some South Dakota farmers plant their crops.

The way I heard it, the project will assure that native grasslands will not be plowed up to take advantage of the high prices of corn due to the ethanol frenzy. I say: "Go for it, since I remember the dust storms of the 1930s, which were partially caused by the same thing.

Phyllis and I tramped the ground near Manchester when I was writing the Dunn biography ��Where Your Heart Is. We might even have trod on "The Prairie Trail" ��which showed a team of work horses pulling a wagon with two sullen characters in it: the driver (a man with a whip) and a woman (holding an umbrella to shield herself from the South Dakota sun).

While the emphasis is on the horses, the wagon and its human occupants, the farmers���like Bill Wilkinson of Lake Preston ��see the native prairie as painted by Harvey Dunn as even more important to the picture.

That's why the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is so interested. The federal agency says one framed print of the painting will preserve an acre of grassland ��and with 24,000 acres in Brookings and Kingsbury counties alone, that's a lot of prints!

The South Dakota Art Museum ��which owns the original painting���sells the framed prints for $400, not much for assuring that one acre (4,840 square yards) will never see a plow.

Farmers who participate in the program would get about $500 an acre, which isn't bad when you think of the high prices it would take to convert it to cropland. Besides that, they can use it as pastureland for their animals, and they can cut it for hay each year when the nesting season is over.

I'm getting to sound like a die-hard environmentalist, but as we walked along Redstone Creek, we could see that grass was the right choice for that particular area.

Phyllis and I learned a lot about Harvey Dunn, South Dakota's premier artist from then on. (The purists call him an illustrator, not an artist.) Although he died way back in 1952, he lives on, both in my books about him and in the work of his students.

One of them, Grant Reynard, said in describing him: "He was a whale of a man, with a head reminding you of a cross between and Indian chief an a Viking. He looked as though he could easily bite a spike in two with one crunch of his broad jaws."

When Harvey taught them ��which he did occasionally ��he stressed: "Sing a song that's yours to sing!" In other words, "Paint what you know." He did just that with his prairie series, which he apparently didn't show to anyone ��until he revealed them to actual South Dakotans.

Now Harvey Dunn, some 72 years after his death, has come back to his own state ��which he never really left ��to help fund the grassland project which bears his name with the products of his brush and palette knife.

I wish him and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service the best of luck in their joint endeavor!

© 2007 Robert F. Karolevitz

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