LEXINGTON — “We need the tonic of the wilderness. We can never get enough of nature,” said Henry David Thoreau.
A visiting art exhibit from the Sheldon Museum of Art at the Dawson County Historical Museum is challenging people, like Thoreau’s quote, to explore the relationship people have with the places they inhabit.
“The thirty-second annual Sheldon Statewide exhibition , ‘From Where I Stand,’ presents works by 14 diverse artists who explore the relationships people have with the places they inhabit,” according to the exhibit’s pamphlet, “Instead of relegating the landscape to serve as a mere background for their compositions, these artists treat it as a significant component of their work.”
The information goes on to say landscape becomes a means of investigating ideas such as national identity, work, leisure customs, social justice and personal narratives.
The exhibit, “provides opportunities to consider the complex and often-fraught, connection between humanity and the landscape,” according to information from the Sheldon Museum.
“I like to have different items in the art gallery,” DCHM Executive Director Crystal Werger said, “We do local exhibits, but I also like to bring in items from outside the community.”
One of the older works in the gallery is “The Rocky Mountains, Lander’s Peak,” painted by Albert Bierstadt in 1869.
The piece depicts an idealized vision of the Rocky Mountains with a community of Shoshone Native Americans encamped along the banks of the river.
The imagery is beautiful, but a darker meaning lurks under the surface of the work. Prints like these were created for a West Coast audience and used as propaganda to justify the belief of Manifest Destiny, according to the Sheldon Museum.
The piece shows the American West as an idealized Eden, ripe for colonization, at the heavy expense of the natives who already called the area their home.
“Today they provoke a more critical look at the immense cost of staking a national identity in unbridled expansion,” according to the Sheldon Museum.
Other pieces celebrate those who work the landscape itself, like the farmer. A print from 1915, “Furrowed Fields,” by Paul Burlin shows a farming scene with long straight trenches receding into a mountain in the foreground.
“The neat furrows are a testament to the careful work and partnership of the farmers, whose success depended on a combination of unwavering diligence and good fortune,” according to the exhibit.
Other paintings and photographs depict the results of natural disasters.
In “Dust Storm, Cimarron County, Oklahoma,” the photographer Arthur Rothstein in 1934 captured an image of a father and his two sons escaping a dust storm, heading for a ramshackle hut for shelter.
Rothstein had been hired by the Farms Security Administration during the Great Depression, he was assigned to the Great Plaines where severe drought and misguided farming techniques brought on a period of ecological disaster known more popularly as the Dust Bowl.
The photographs taken by Rothstein were intended to draw awareness of the conditions in the Plaines and draw support for relief programs.
More than that, the pictures promoted a common humanity among the people who saw them and helped depict exactly what their fellow countrymen were enduring.
In a 2006 woodcut by Margo Humphrey, “Louisiana, LOUISIANA!” depicts a vibrant but chaotic scene, intended to show the effects of Hurricane Katrina.
“Humphrey’s work has long been focused on the experiences of African Americans, often regarding social justice and the struggle for equality,” the exhibit states, “This print reflects Humphrey’s outrage over Hurricane Katrina’s disproportionate effect on black residents of New Orleans and the tragedy of natural calamities in general.”
“People will always have an important relationship with the spaces they inhabit,” according to the exhibit, “Whether they look to the land in anticipation of a bountiful harvest, to deliver astatic inspiration, or to provide outlets for work or leisure, the ties between people and their surroundings are inextricable.”
When asked about the importance of the theme of the exhibit, Werger said. “It’s a great theme, we always encourage people to reflect on what they see in the art. The theme is what made me decide to host the exhibit.”
“It sparks thought, that’s what we wanted,” Werger added.
Werger extended thanks to the Lexington Community Foundation, who is paying the cost of hosting the exhibit.
“From Where I Stand,” will be on display throughout February, ending on March 2. The next stop for the exhibit will be Cornerstone Bank in York, from March 4-30.