Art in Kansas: The Legacy of Birger Sandzén
by Dalia Miller
Photos: Kip Miller
When it comes to art, there is something about the vast prairie state of Kansas. Being Midwesterners and avid print collectors, my husband and I often travel to Kansas City, Missouri to visit my brother, Dan, and sister-in-law, Flo. All four of us have been avid art collectors for decades, and we love to explore the art scene in both states together. So on a recent November day, masks in place, we took our first flight since the onset of the pandemic to Kansas City. My hometown was as beautiful as ever, even with a pronounced chill in the air and trees nearly bare of leaves. This time we would be traveling with friends Jim and Mary, who share our art collecting "disease" and whose comfortable six-passenger van is ideal for touring. The plan is to head toward the town of Lindsborg, Kansas, home of the internationally renowned artist Birger Sandzén (1871-1954), then continue on to Wichita, famous for its historic old town and world-class museum. "I am totally excited to return to Lindsborg," I tell my husband, recalling a previous visit made in midsummer 2007.

"Nocturne," Logan, Utah, 1935, oil on canvas, 40 x 48 inches, Birger Sandzén Memorial Gallery, Greenough Collection

Swedish-born Sandzén ranks as one of America's greatest artists, whose prolific output of vibrant paintings is widely represented in America's top museums. His work is also augmented by an equally impressive portfolio of lithographs and woodblock prints. Born in 1871 in Blidsberg, Sweden, Sandzén demonstrated an innate talent for art from a very early age. He began his art education at the secondary Cathedral School of Skara followed by a single term at the University of Lund before pursuing a professional art course. But Stockolm's Royal Academy had a long waiting list, so Sandzén furthered his studies under the renowned etcher and painter, Anders Zorn, at a new school which would later become the Artists League of Stockholm. By 1894, he found himself in Paris studying under Edmond Aman-Jean, a symbolist painter who was known for his portrait and mural work. It was here that Sandzén found a community of American students with whom to practice his English language skills and inspiration to explore the New World. The young artist had read about Bethany College in Lindsborg, a Swedish community in the Kansas heartland, and wrote to the college's president, Dr. Aaron Swensson, to ask if he could use an artist on staff. Swensson replied to Sandzén immediately, saying Bethany already had an art professor but offered a teaching position in modern languages and voice, as Sandzén was also an accomplished tenor soloist. Sandzén arrived in Lindsborg for the fall semester of 1894, and became head of the art department in 1900, a position he retained until his retirement in 1946 at age 75. Following a sabbatical in Europe over 1905-1906 Sandzén began changing his painting style dramatically. By 1911 he had started experimenting in a free-flowing sort of pointillism and by the mid-teens developed his own brand of optical mixing using broad brush strokes of thick paint that combined to form recognizable scenes of Kansas and Colorado sites. His legacy is honored at a small museum created by his family on a corner of the Bethany College campus, which showcases some of his vivid oil paintings and houses his entire output of prints.

"How did Lindsborg become a magnet for Swedish immigrants?" my husband asks as we pile into Jim and Mary's van. "It turns out that thousands of Swedes headed to America's Midwest in during the 1800s where vast stretches of farmland were readily available," Dan explains. "Apparently, back in Sweden a strong population growth and continued crop failures meant less availability of farmland in a country that was fundamentally agricultural. Moving to North America offered Swedes opportunities no longer available in their homeland," he adds. During the period of 1850 to 1950, more than 1.3 million Swedes settled in America's heartland, primarily in parts of Illinois, Iowa, Minnesota, Wisconsin and Kansas. New immigrants found ideal farming conditions in America and a warm embrace, and after eight decades of sustained migration from Sweden, some 824,000 Swedes had made America their new home. Minnesota was the most Swedish of all the states and Svenskamerika became the label attached to the rich cultural traditions the Swedes perpetuated in their new communities.

The colorful wooden dala horse has become the icon of Lindsborg.
Lindsborg was no exception. Located in McPherson County in the center of the state, Lindsborg was first settled by a group of immigrants from Värmland, led by their pastor, Olaf Olsson. According to my guidebook, the town had successfully maintained its Swedish character over the decades and is renowned for its excellent Liberal Arts College, Bethany. Today Lindsborg is widely referred to as "Little Sweden" and has become a popular tourist destination. It's our second time in Lindsborg, and during our 2007 summer visit we stayed at a quaint Swedish inn, ate some exemplary meals, and had plenty of time to explore the town's traditional shops. On the town's attractive red-brick Main Street, sidewalks are dotted with colorful "dalas," stylized wooden horses painted in vivid colors and accented with creative designs. The horses also come in miniature sizes that are painted locally, but carved from Swedish pine trees and imported. So beloved are the dalas that they have become synonymous with Lindsborg and with anything Swedish. The shop manager at Hemslojd says the dala tradition dates back to the winter of 1716 when King Charles XI waged war and many soldiers were quartered in private homes. They survived Sweden's brutal winter huddled near fireplaces and passed the time carving horses for young children, receiving sustenance from grateful mothers. The horses were primarily painted in red, a pigment that was readily available, and embellished with decorations. The tradition caught on. Today more than two dozen four-foot-wooden horses are scattered along Lindsborg's shopping area and the dala has become the town symbol, available for purchase in a variety of sizes and colors.

Rosberg House, one of Lindsborg's historic B & B's, embodies Swedish hospitality.
Sandzén arrived at Bethany at the age of 23 and remained there until his retirement at age 75. Tall and blond, he carried himself with dignity, retaining his old world manners, even wearing a suit and tie when painting in his studio. Sandzén was punctual to a fault, with a well-balanced temperament. He was also a creature of habit. He always espoused an "art for all" philosophy, promoting the teaching and collecting of art in every school. According to Louis Hafermehl, a student and close friend: "We all admired what he stood for. He made it clear that if art didn't have value, nothing did!" This amiable nature and eagerness to serve made him a beloved local figure.

Sandzén spent his entire career at Bethany College, generating an
enormous body of work and a lasting impact on the American art scene.

Sandzén took on a very full teaching schedule from the very onset. In addition to art, he also taught fencing, music, and several foreign languages, squeezing in quality time to mentor his students. His exceptional time management skills allowed him to generate a huge output of art. During his lifetime he produced a prodigious amount of oil paintings, prints, watercolors and sketches. But that was just the tip of the iceberg. He also took time to sing in Bethany's student musical productions and found special joy in mentoring his students. Sandzén also managed to correspond with numerous art colleagues both in the U.S. and in Europe, always promoting the burgeoning art scene in Kansas, Colorado and the Santa Fe/Taos area.

Aware of Sandzén's exceptionalism, we can hardly wait to visit his memorial gallery. But lunch comes first and we head to Crown & Rye, a Main Street restaurant now under new management where we devour burgers and share a couple of home-made pies. According to owner Brandi Swenson, Lindsborg was severely affected by the pandemic like everywhere else, but that she hoped things are starting to turn around. "As do all of us," I assure her. In the center of the restaurant a large facsimile of the Swedish crown hangs overhead, reminding us of the deep pride the townspeople have for their motherland.

The Sandzén Memorial Gallery opened its doors on October 20, 1957

The Birger Sandzén Memorial Gallery was established soon after the master's death in 1954 at the age of age of 83 by daughter Margaret Sandzén Greenough and son-in-law Charles Pelham Greenough, 3rd, with the support of Bethany College. Anecdotally, the Greenoughs sold a lot of IBM stock to help finance the project. A small, modern museum was designed to display a selection of the master's oil paintings and store his entire output of graphics. It would also have enough space to showcase the work of other regional artists.

And colleagues there were! Sandzén was a principal founder of the Prairie Print Makers, a membership organization created to popularize printmaking as an art form, providing its members opportunities to purchase fine art for the modest fee of $5. Among its charter members were Lloyd Foltz, Arthur W. Hall, Norma Bassett Hall, C. A. Seward, Charles M. Capps, Herschel Logan and a few others. The print society was modeled after the better-known Chicago Society of Etchers, but was more democratic in its organization and included more varieties of prints in its offerings. Beyond lithographs, there were also fine examples of wood engravings, etchings, aquatints and drypoints. All of us have been Prairie Print Maker collectors for at least 20 years, a passion that was ignited at Jack and Georgia Olsen's landmark American Legacy Gallery in Kansas City. The gallery has since closed and the Olsens have both passed away, but at a recent Soulis auction in Lone Jack, Missouri, selections from their personal collection, which included some choice Sandzén paintings and prints, brought in record prices.

"So glad to see you," says gallery director Ron Michael who had been expecting us. Museum attendance nationwide is slowly beginning to awaken after the pandemic's darkest days and I am pleased to spot several other visitors who have ventured out in the November chill. We head into the museum office where curator Cori Sherman North is seated, flashing a big smile. Both she and Ron are well acquainted with Dan who frequently stops at the gallery on business trips in the area. Ron, a distinguished art graduate from the University of Kansas who began his career 23 years earlier at the gallery, has been serving as director since 2014. Cori is an accomplished curator with notable publications on regional art under her belt. Among those is Birger Sandzén: Celebrating the Vision, a full-color volume issued to commemorate Sandzén's exemplary life with carefully curated selections of paintings and prints. Cori is also the co-author of a beautiful book on the graphics of Maurice R. Bebb, known for his color imagery of birds. She and Ron have leveraged public awareness of the museum and of Sandzén's immense contributions throughout America by originating several major exhibitions that celebrate his work. When asked about Sandzén's staggering "output of art," Cori nods her head, smiling: "It really is incredible. All told, we can account for some 2700 paintings, and 328 block prints, drypoints and lithographs in one or two editions, with a total of 33,000 impressions issued from 1916-1954. And who knows how many watercolors he completed!"

Such productivity puts other artists to shame. And Sandzén made it look effortless in spite of his full-time teaching load that included summer classes. I smile at Ron and Cori, thinking how blessed they are to be charged with promoting such a worthy man, one who found the time to develop warm relationships with both American artists and colleagues in Europe, to foster public interest in art, even to sing in his lovely tenor voice at Bethany's Messiah Festival during Easter. He enjoyed going to Kansas City to visit colleagues and was often invited to lecture at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art. For his unstinting contributions to the art world, Sandzén received four honorary degrees. He especially loved to promote art at Kansas schools, inspiring young students to consider art as their life's work. For his tireless dedication to the world of art, he was inducted in the Royal Order of the North Star in Sweden by the king in 1940. Sandzén was happily married to Alfreda Leksell, a gifted pianist, and they were blessed with a daughter, Margaret Elizabeth, who added much joy to their lives. According to Ron, "one of Sandzén's proudest moments came when his work was featured at two major exhibitions at the celebrated Babcock Galleries in New York."

Untitled Smoky River Scene, 1953, oil on board, 20 x 24 inches, was the last painting completed by Sandzén.
We spend a good hour examining Sandzén's paintings in the gallery. Many admirers liken his post-impressionist style to Van Gogh or Cezanne. Some call him a "tonal landscapist." Over the years his palette has always remained active, colors becoming more pronounced or muted, his strokes softening or intensifying, but always celebrating nature, especially the Smoky Hill Kansas landscape he returned to repeatedly. According to Margaret Conrads, former curator of American Art at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Sandzén's art is often described as "Cézanne meets Van Gogh meets Matisse." Indeed, the master's technique combines the structure of Cézanne with the impasto technique of Van Gogh and the fauvist colors of Matisse. Many art auctioneers feel that the market for Sandzén is just coming into its own. At a recent Soulis auction of selections from the personal collection of Jack and Georgia Olsen in Lone Jack, Missouri, Sandzén's oils and prints broke previous records. In the fast-moving Santa Fe art market, his oil paintings at galleries such as Owings and Zaplin Lampert, typically approach the half million mark. A new world record for a Sandzén oil was set in August 2011 at a Santa Fe auction when a large canvas, Summer in the Mountains, brought $632,500.

"Cathedral spires," 1923 oil on canvas, Manitou, Colorado, 80 x 60 inches,
Greenough Collection. From the Garden of the Gods Park.

A landmark exhibition on B.J.O. Nordfeldt, a fellow Swede and friend of Sandzén's,
showcases the breadth of his oils and color woodblocks.
It has been a great afternoon, but Jim signals that it is time for us to move on to Wichita. "This was very inspiring," says Mary as we pile into the van. "I learned so much." The city counts numerous cultural landmarks within its bounds such as Exploration Place, a science museum sited on the undulating Arkansas River. The structure is entirely surrounded by water and features exhibits popular with both children and adults. But our target tomorrow is the Wichita Art Museum (WAM), a world-class institution that showcases both traveling exhibitions and its own curated shows featuring the Midwest's finest artists. Two years ago, we enjoyed the museum's landmark retrospective on the aquatints of Charles M. Capps, one of the Prairie Print Makers. This time we are looking forward to a well-reviewed show on Lloyd Foltz, another important artist from the group. Opening soon after is a retrospective on the aquatints of Doel Reed, another Prairie Print Maker who provided the 1941 gift print for the group. Also currently on display is a major show of B.J.O. Nordfeldt, a Swedish contemporary of Sandzén's who was based in Chicago when the two connected during exhibitions there, but later settled in Santa Fe. The two Swedes had a warm friendship and maintained an ongoing correspondence. Nordfeldt is acclaimed internationally for his extraordinary oil landscapes, portraits and unique color woodblock prints. The WAM is especially known in museum circles for its exemplary exhibitions on the work of printmakers. Many are researched and organized by guest curator and art historian Barbara L. Thompson, granddaughter of C.A. Seward.

The historic Hotel at Old Town was converted from a Keen Kutter warehouse for tools.
We head to the Hotel at Old Town on First Street where we stayed for the first time two years earlier. Converted from a 1906 Keen Kutter Warehouse for garden and household tools, the charming hotel has welcoming public spaces and spacious rooms. It is also within walking distance to several restaurants housed in vintage buildings and a Saturday farmer's market. "It's so nice to be back here again," smiles Flo as she surveys the lobby area. We sleep in until eight and after a generous breakfast at Eggcetera, make tracks to the museum. All at once, the famous Kansas wind kicks up, amplifying the chill factor, and I quickly zip up my coat. We arrive at the WAM to find it experiencing light attendance and practically have the entire space to ourselves. The Foltz exhibition is part of its ongoing commitment to celebrate the work of its Wichita-based printmakers, a project that began with shows on Seward and Arthur Hall lithographs and etchings.

At the WAM, a show on the printmaking techniques of Prairie Print Maker Lloyd Foltz
was researched and organized by guest curator Barbara L. Thompson.
Printmaking in America flourished after World War I and the Depression years. American artists tried to reach a broader audience by creating prints that were easily affordable. The WAM has some 277 prints by the various Prairie Print Makers in its collection, 13 of which are by Sandzén. We are quite taken by Foltz's work, its precision, dramatic use of dark and light, and how easily he was able to move from one graphic technique to another. But then Wichita had a sizable commercial print industry where artists could learn the basics. Jim had purchased a Foltz oil at a Soulis auction two years earlier. "It's quite thrilling to experience the full range of his print-making talents," he comments excitedly. We walk under the museum's colorful Chihuly chandelier toward the gift shop, just restocked with artisanal Kansas crafts by a talented new buyer and, like magic, our holiday shopping is happily fulfilled in just over an hour. At Reuben Saunders Art Gallery on Douglas Avenue, a long-time mecca for regional art, I notice that contemporary selections are now the mainstay of its business. But two small Sandzén oils are hung in a prominent spot and there is a modest section devoted to the Prairie Print Makers and other artists of that era.

A Chihuly glass chandelier welcomes visitors headed to
the museum gift shop brimming with artisanal crafts.

At the Reuben Saunders Gallery, two small Sandzén oils are hung
near a modest section devoted to the Prairie Print Makers.
It's our grand finale in Wichita and we head to Cafe Bel Ami on William Street, an elegant, high-ceilinged restaurant known for its classic French-Mediterranean cooking and exceptional service. Joining us at dinner is Pam Van Landingham, an old friend and expert print and frame restorer who owns and operates The Frame Guild on Douglas Avenue. Over the years, Pam has rescued many of Dan's prints and a couple of ours and is frequently used by the Sandzén Gallery for restoration work. It's a feast to remember and we hold up our wine glasses and toast Sandzén, the catalyst for our Kansas art escapade.