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Prairie Paradise
"NEBRASKA" Exhibit Offers a Breath of Fresh Air
John Ruff

Aimee Tomasek takes a photograph most mornings while walking her dog and posts it on Facebook with the caption, “Another Beautiful Day in Paradise.” Where is this paradise, you ask? Tomasek lives outside of Kouts, a farm town that sits on the northern edge of the Indiana cornbelt, population around 2,000. Tomasek, who is associate professor and chair of the art department at Valparaiso University, has an eye for places like Kouts; for places like Avery, Wisconsin, where she grew up; for places like Clarkson, Nebraska, where her ancestors homesteaded. In the photos she takes of people from Clarkson, you can see in their faces how relaxed they are, how they are comfortable, confident, and unapologetically themselves. This is because the person behind the camera is not a stranger. She’s a friend; she’s family. She knows them.

Farmer

The seed for the exhibit “Another Beautiful Day in Paradise: NEBRASKA” was planted sometime last spring, when Tomasek took it upon herself to find a way to display recent works of painter Lee K. Johnson, whose art was introduced to her by a colleague and friend, Eric Johnson, dean of the College of Engineering at Valparaiso University and Lee’s son. The elder Johnson is a distinguished painter, now retired from teaching, who, after working in acrylics for many years, has returned to oil painting. The works Tomasek chose for the exhibit include large, bold abstractions in oil along with a selection of smaller pastels, all inspired by landscapes near where Johnson was born and raised.

Tomasek approached Brian Johnson, dean of the university’s Chapel of the Resurrection (no relation to Lee or Eric), to see if the Chapel could host it. Brian Johnson embraced the project, in part because the Chapel staff had chosen the theme of sacred spaces and places as a liturgical focus this year.

Tomasek herself has been taking photos of Clarkson, Nebraska, since the early 1990s and chose a selection of those photos to round out the exhibit. Then late last spring, Tomasek enlisted two colleagues with Nebraska roots to do some writing for the exhibition—senior research professor of theology Frederick Niedner and recently retired English professor Edward Uehling. Finally,  she recruited a current Valparaiso student writer with a connection to Nebraska, Grace Biermann. On Sunday, September 20, those writers gave a public reading in the Chapel. It was a beautiful day in Valparaiso, and the Chapel of the Resurrection turned out to be the perfect sacred place at which to get a rich dose of Nebraska and Nebraskans, in words and in images of surprising power and beauty.

Elba

The first thing I noticed in Johnson’s abstract paintings is how the topography twists and rolls, and how alive the landscape looks from top to bottom. My favorites remind me of a passage early in Willa Cather’s great Nebraska novel, My Ántonia, where her narrator, Jim Burden, remarks how in frontier times “the whole country seemed somehow to be running.” Later he remarks how he felt “motion in the landscape; in the fresh, easy blowing morning wind, and in the earth itself, as if the shaggy grass were a sort of loose hide, and underneath it herds of wild buffalo were galloping.” Johnson’s landscapes gallop for me, with the Nebraska prairie animated and spiritualized in the bold, undulating strokes and in the vividness and variety of his palette. I love the oils, especially “Elba: Across the North Loup River.” And whoever thought you could represent Nebraska in pastels? Johnson does it. If you look closely at the paper, you will see how sometimes the surface is bare and the texture of the paper breaks through, perhaps to remind us how delicate and vulnerable the marks we make upon the earth really are.

It was great looking at those large abstract paintings by Lee K. Johnson—no farms or fences visible, just all that tectonic energy in vivid color—as Frederick Niedner began the program on September 20 by revivifying 100 million years of Nebraska geological history in his essay, upon which he then laminated 10 million years of human history, as if to correct the record for those of us who “drove through Nebraska once” and think “there’s nothing there.” It proved a great prelude to the local history Niedner wrote of tiny West Point, Nebraska, and Niedner’s personal history there. West Point is a little town on the Elkhorn River in eastern Nebraska, seventy-five miles northwest of Omaha. Niedner moved to West Point as a boy when his father accepted a call to be a pastor there. In West Point, Niedner writes, “nearly everything in that community centered around two sources and shapers of life, farming and the church.” Niedner’s essay “Grown Up Along Flat Waters” does justice to both, though it is the former—farming and farmers, Earl and his wife, Julia, in particular—to whom he gives his deepest and most affectionate attention.

CoupleNiedner celebrates in words the same virtues in the same sort of people Tomasek is drawn to with her camera. Niedner’s Gravel Schmitty, both in his name and in his generous spirit, belongs to a Nebraska pantheon of strong humans who hardened their hands and bent their broad backs working that land while serving others. In his writing, Niedner’s tone is nostalgic, his mode elegiac, and the effect he achieves in certain lyrical passages is stunning. His passages on the sights and sounds of life on the farm will take your breath away. I will long remember and be grateful for the privilege of listening to him read on that Sunday afternoon.

How would it feel to follow Frederick Niedner in a public reading, before a hundred or so people in a huge chapel, with my parents there, some of my teachers and classmates, but mostly strangers? I don’t know, but I wonder if I could be as composed as young Grace Biermann was, or as brave or as accomplished. Biermann, a sophomore majoring in English and humanities, has childhood memories of Nebraska that are more recent than Niedner’s. In her writing, rural Nebraska is the backdrop for a girl’s first experience of romance and heartbreak; it is the setting for a wedding and a funeral. There is pain and confusion frankly expressed, but also moments of great pleasure and comfort; one description of utter exhilaration Biermann experiences while driving with her cousin and her sister in an all-terrain vehicle across a bumpy field is pure Cather. And how about this passage—which starts “back east”—from “Second Person, Past Perfect”:

There are too many trees here. You are not opposed to trees in their own right, but there are certainly too many here. Imagine, on some country roads you cannot even see the sky. You need to see the sky. You got a taste of the sky when you were young, and went west for the first time in your short life. You had not known until then how little air you had been breathing. But then you clambered out of the stuffed, stifling car and stood there on the gravel of the old lane, and smelled the air, pungent with cattle. There was so much air, so much sky, and as you stood there and looked around you, you could begin to feel the soaring freedom of it, of nothing but that sky and the rolling hills. You could breathe, you could shout, you could fly.

Biermann’s participation in the program, and the publication of her work in the book, makes this project all the more special for having been so multigenerational. The program would not have been complete without her contribution.

I went to the exhibit for the first time by myself, and have gone several times since, looking for signs of Willa Cather’s Nebraska in the artwork on display. As I read and reread the childhood memories of Niedner, Biermann, and Uehling, Jim Burden’s memories of life on the prairie and in the little town of Blackhawk kept surfacing. Edward Uehling’s father in “Decoys” will forever be for me a real-life version of Jim Burden’s grandfather. And I will never again read about Jim Burden and his Bohemian friend Ántonia out loose on the Nebraska prairie and not be reminded Uehling’s boyhood adventures with his Estonian friend Uno. If I couldn’t have had my own happy boyhood, I might have taken Edward Uehling’s, or at least borrowed several chapters from it. In “Decoys,” he makes it that appealing, to have such a father and such a friend, and so much free time in that wild, beautiful place to fully enjoy being a boy and a good man’s son. “Paradise” is right—it is neither an exaggeration nor an ironic use of that word in “Decoys.”

Uehling’s “It Comes With the Territory” is a different kind of thing; it more clearly anticipates or acknowledges Paradise Lost. It is really good writing about hunting, this time for pheasants, not ducks. It’s also a wonderful account of companionship, though with much more time for the author’s solitary musings. More than in “Decoys,” hunting is a pretext for an extended meditation, maybe the most beautiful writing of Uehling’s I have ever read, all about paying attention and about learning to see, and learning to be present, and grateful.

I am grateful to Aimee Tomasek for putting the book and exhibit together, and for giving her Nebraska to us with such a richly human face. It was a rare achievement to bring such words and images into that large sacred space of the Chapel of the Resurrection. Tomasek had it right. It was “Another Beautiful Day in Paradise: NEBRASKA. 

 

 

John Ruff is professor of English at Valparaiso University.

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