Editor's note: The Birger Sandzén Memorial Gallery and Cori Sherman North provided permission for Resource Library to publish the following essay included in the gallery guide for the exhibition Thirty Years of the Prairie Water Color Painters. If you have questions or comments regarding the essay and associated materials, please contact Birger Sandzén Memorial Gallery directly through either this phone number or web address:


40 Years of the Prairie Water Color Painters

By Cori Sherman North


American artists of the mid-twentieth century helped to popularize watercolor as a serious art form, with the potential to express a wide range of artistic style and subject. By the time the Great Depression had taken hold from the early 1930s, artists were challenged to find new ways of working and of sharing their work with the public. In the Middle West, transplanted Swedish professor Birger Sandzén (1871-1954) had been an active participant in American watercolor groups around the country from the nineteen-teens, sending his paintings to shows mounted by the New York Water Color Club, the Philadelphia Water Color Club, the California Water Color Society, and the International Water Color Exhibitions organized by the Art Institute of Chicago. Determined to promote the medium close to home, Sandzén invited colleagues around the region to establish a 'Prairie Water Color Painters' club. Dues would start at $1 per year and members would have the opportunity to exhibit in traveling shows circulating throughout the academic year, October through April. The group's first exhibition was held in January of 1934 at Kansas State College in Manhattan, ushering in a tradition that would last through the early 1980s. Sandzén remained president of the organization until 1950, just a few years before his death in 1954, and was able to see his watercolors sent with twenty-eight other Prairie Water Color Painters' work to be exhibited in Derby, England, in 1949.

From that first exhibition in 1934, well-known artists from the Midwest and mountain states were happy to claim membership in the neophyte watercolor society. Sandzén asked his friends to join with him to establish a new forum for his favorite medium, including Albert Bloch (1882-1961) at the University of Kansas; Colorado artists Vance Kirkland (1904-1981) and Albert Byron Olson (1885-1940) of Denver and Eve Drewelowe (1899-1988) and Muriel Sibell Wolle (1898-1977) in Boulder; Henry Varnum Poor (1887-1970) in New York; and Doel Reed (1895-1985) and Oscar Brousse Jacobson (1882-1966) in Oklahoma. Over the years, talented Bethany College students of Sandzén's were also invited to show with the long-standing group, including Margaret Sandzén Greenough (1909-1993), Dolores Runbeck (1898-1994), Signe Larson (1908-1993), Carl William Peterson (1919-2009), Charles B. Rogers (1911-1987), and Zona L. Wheeler (1913-1998). Other Kansas artists of note quickly became active members, such as John F. Helm, Jr. (1900-1972) at Kansas State University, Karl Mattern (1892-1969) at the University of Kansas, State Architect Charles L. Marshall (1905-1992) of Topeka, and William Dickerson (1904-1972) of the Wichita Center for the Arts and Clayton Henri Staples (1892-1978) of Wichita State University. Today, only a very few of the younger watercolorists who joined in the latter days of the club are still painting, such as Oscar Larmer of Manhattan and Patric Rowley of Wichita.

This exhibition shares only a small sampling of the hundreds of artists who were involved in the watercolor society over the decades. Most of the forty artists' paintings in this selection are from the Sandzén Gallery's permanent collection, but some of the works have been borrowed from other sources around the state: the art collection of Bethany College in Lindsborg, the Spencer Museum of Art at the University of Kansas in Lawrence, the College of Fine Arts at Wichita State University, the collection of Jon and Lila Levin of Manhattan, and from the James and Virginia Moffett Collection of Kansas City.



Birger Sandzén moved to Lindsborg, Kansas, from Sweden to take up a teaching position at Bethany College in 1894. His first classes were in languages and voice, and the young professor quickly added watercolor painting to his course offerings. By 1899, Sandzén was heading the college's art department and he began to influence the culture of the region. Training at the Artists' League (Konstnärsförbundet) in Stockholm, Sweden, which had been established in 1891 by progressive, modern artists who believed that art has an important role in every life, had a strong influence on Sandzén's own philosophy and guiding principles. Determined to see arts education flourish in the American Midwest, in 1913 he began the Smoky Hill Art Club. Its membership paid annual dues for the direct purpose of buying art for Bethany College. The club bought prints and paintings from local exhibitions, which often hosted guest artists from around the country, as well as new art books for the library and art supplies for local members. Albert Bloch's watercolor, Autumn Evening of 1928, from the Gallery's collection and included in this exhibition's checklist, was an Art Club purchase in 1929. Sandzén personally oversaw the Smoky Hill Art Club until 1945.

Through the Art Institute of Chicago, Sandzen participated in the "International Water Color Exhibition" which traveled to Paris, France, in 1928 and showed the European salons what innovative work was being produced in the New World. Actively showing in so many other venues around the world over so many years must have spurred the Kansas painter on to attempting his own local organization for the medium.

In the fall of 1933 Birger Sandzén wrote to a list of colleagues suggesting a new cooperative exhibition program, in which each member artist could send in two watercolors which would then all be organized into shows that would travel around the region during the following academic year. At that same time the watercolor group was being called together, Sandzén and John Helm, professor of art at Kansas State, had also conceived of a working plan to promote the arts of Kansas and distribute art shows to underserved communities around the state, at a minimum cost through a 'Kansas State Federation of Art.' Helm became Director of the Federation and served for decades, efficiently collecting and shipping out exhibitions to schools, libraries, and art centers all over state and region. The Prairie Water Color Painters collaborated with the Federation throughout the group's long history. The Federation developed an exhibition "season" of modest shows loosely based on the academic year. Works were returned to artists during the summer, usually in July and with a receipt and note of thanks from Sandzén or Helm. Membership dues of $1 had to be paid before an artist could participate in the circulating exhibitions, but there was always hope of sales made from any of the ten to twelve scheduled venues.

Sandzén contributed two paintings to the first watercolor exhibition in 1934, Rocks and Ice and Old Pine. A few of the works in that first show are in the Sandzén Gallery's permanent collection and are displayed in this exhibition. Albert Byron Olson sent two watercolors from Denver, including his stunning piece Bridge at Ronda, Spain. Records show that this watercolor was returned to Olson at his Denver residence, and then in 1935 traveled to the University of Oklahoma in Norman for the exhibition, "Southwestern Conference of Higher Education: Artists of the Southwest," before eventually being bought by Margaret Sandzén. Alice Twitchell Whittaker's Looking Down, Muriel Sibell Wolle's Structure, and Edith K. Woodbury's Mountain Peaks of New Mexico were also in the first exhibition and all later given to Dr. Sandzén on the occasion of his 75th birthday in 1946.

Other charter members include Ethel Greenough Holmes (1879-1964), a Kansas City patron of the arts who introduced her nephew Charles Pelham Greenough to young Margaret Sandzén who became a Greenough in 1942, and Dolores Runbeck who was first a student then colleague of Birger Sandzén at Bethany College. Many Sandzén students were active watercolor painters, such as Myra Biggerstaff (1905-1999) who managed in 1934 to organize a dual showing of her and her mentor's work in Uppsala, Sweden, soon after her graduation, and Louis Hafermehl. Both Biggerstaff and Hafermehl's watercolors in this exhibition show scenes from Sandzén's studio, a small building behind the professor's home in Lindsborg. As a Bethany art student in the early 1930s, Zona Wheeler was uniquely placed to be the only Prairie Water Color Painter to be a charter member and exhibit virtually every year from 1934 until 1985. Early on, the Boulder, Colorado, group called "The Prospectors" were also regularly involved with the Kansas watercolor shows. Eve Drewelowe Van Ek, Muriel Sibell Wolle, Gwendolyn Meux Waldrop (1893-1973), and Frances Hoar Trucksess (1898-1985) were connected to the University of Colorado and maintained long friendships with Sandzén. Drewelowe exhibited over decades, despite the loss of her watercolor, Cactus Challenger, that disappeared between venues during the 1944-45 season.[1]

In March of 1936, Birger Sandzén wrote to Charles Marshall, inviting the Topeka architect to send watercolors to Lindsborg for the spring "Midwest Art Exhibition," along with some biographical notes. Sandzén went on to assert that, "We would like very much to have you join the Prairie Water Color Painters, but naturally, without paying dues ($1) until next fall."[2] Marshall proved to be an essential addition to the club, tirelessly promoting the medium and serving on the Federation's Board of Trustees as well as President in many the final decades of the organization. For the first several years, Sandzén kept all the membership records, oftentimes jotting lists of those members paid up or of exhibition checklists with artist and painting titles in his art register notebooks, which are preserved in the Sandzén Gallery's archives.

From these personal logbooks, it is known that two David Fredenthal (1914-1958) watercolors collected by Birger Sandzén were both in the 1936-37 Prairie Water Color Painters circulating shows: Workmen Going Homeand Old House,both listed with a $35.00 selling price. This was the only year the New York-based watercolorist showed with the group, and the pieces were received from Colorado Springs where Fredenthal had spent the summer studying mural painting at the newly-renovated Fine Arts Center with Boardman Robinson (1876-1952).[3] From 1935 through 1938, Fredenthal was on scholarship to the Cranbrook Academy of Art in Michigan, where Sandzén's close friend Carl Milles (1875-1955) was a visiting artist from Stockholm, Sweden, in the same time period. It is interesting to speculate which of the influential, established artists introduced the young artist to Sandzén, right before his career path led to Guggenheim Fellowships, Life Magazine war correspondent assignments, and solo exhibitions around the world.

Most of the extant records of the watercolor society, however, are found in the papers of Charles L. Marshall, in Hale Library's Special Collections at Kansas State University. Minutes from annual meetings, checklists from some years' traveling exhibitions, and correspondence with Sandzén, John Helm, Zona Wheeler, Sue Jean Covacevich (1905-1998), and other members provide a glimpse into the workings of the art society through the years.

Decades of Success

The underlying purpose of all the organizations Sandzén helped to found was to promote the arts and artists and to put original art within the reach of all. The democratic guidelines established at the outset ensured that the Prairie organization was membership-driven and a cooperative effort, and directed toward communities all across the state, regardless of population density or cultural venues available. If a Kansas town did not have a museum or art center, watercolors could be displayed in the school or at a local bank or public library. By the 1940s, annual dues had increased to $2, but the cost for hosting an exhibition remained fairly steady for decades at a $5 fee ($8 for non-member institutions) plus shipping costs for one way. Members' dues and the exhibition fees went towards shipping costs and an annual spring mailing of brochures listing the available shows and timetables for the next academic year. Artists were responsible for matting their watercolors to a standard 22 x 30-inch size and for delivering to Sandzén at Bethany College, and then to John Helm from 1942 at Kansas State.

The Prairie Water Color Painters present a dynamic cross section of unfolding American history, from the first years of the depression in the 1930s through World War II when many of the membership were serving in the armed forces. Paul Kubitschek (1916-1988) first attracted notice as a youngster of eleven from Salina who entered the local Mid-West Art Contest and was awarded a Sandzén lithograph as a prize by the professor himself. Kubitschek went on to study with Sandzén at Bethany College and joined the ranks of Prairie Water Color Painters for the second exhibition year, 1935-36. The young Kansan served in the army overseas, but even as a responsible Staff Sergeant, he continued to practice his art during off-duty hours, as his 1943 watercolor, Church of East Durham, Norfolk, England, attests.   

In an October 3, 1942, letter to Charles Marshall, Birger Sandzén describes the general wartime atmosphere as, "Just now very unfavorable for us artists. Very few people have time to think of art. Right here in our little town we are training young men for air service. Only eight miles northwest of Lindsborg there is a cantonment of 50,000 acres with 50,000 soldiers. You can imagine what this village looks like on a Saturday afternoon or evening--."[4] Californian Wataru Oye (1912-2001) found himself in the middle of that cantonment, based at Camp Phillips outside Salina, Kansas, as a member of the prestigious 442nd Combat Group, 100th Battalion, composed entirely of Japanese-American troops. He was introduced to Sandzén, possibly thru the "Hobby Huts" maintained by the USO and to which the Kansas Federation of Art donated art supplies. A few letters written to Oye's uncle, Frank Nakata, at the Heart Mountain internment camp in Wyoming, tell the story of the Sandzén family's warm welcome to the soldier and the invitation extended to return to study at Bethany College as soon as the war was won.[5] Oye served in France and Italy, earning a Purple Heart for injuries sustained, but kept his uncle apprised of his efforts recovering and getting back to Kansas. The veteran arrived in Lindsborg in November of 1945, where he promptly joined Sandzén's watercolor society and contributed to the February, 1946, portfolio gift for Sandzén's birthday.

Despite the demands of a wartime economy, the Prairie Water Color Painters were not forced to take a hiatus during those challenging years. Paperwork retained by Zona Wheeler of Wichita reflects an active exhibition schedule kept up by the club during the years 1942 through 1955. In a letter to Charles Marshall dated September 29, 1942, Birger Sandzén is planning the 1942-43 exhibition season, as he tenders the request, "May we have two of your lovely water colors for this season's exhibition of the Prairie Water Color Painters?" Sandzén went on to explain that, "At this time our friend John F. Helm, Jr. of Manhattan has kindly consented to receive the contributions."[6] Thereafter, Helm took responsibility for the physical logistics of collecting, packing, and shipping all the traveling works of art each fall, but Sandzén continued to keep the membership rosters and watercolor checklists each year until the late 1940s. By 1949, when the membership planned an exchange program with a gallery in Derby, England, Helm was taking care of all correspondence and member lists.

More artists joined the Prairie Water Color Painters during the 1940s and 1950s. Lindsborg artist Signe Larson moved to Kansas in order to study with Birger Sandzén, refusing to let deafness stand in the way of a successful career. Larson exhibited with the group from the 1940s through the 1960s, garnering many awards and purchase prizes along the way. Her 1980 watercolor included in this exhibition, New House, Old House, records colorful local history of some feuding neighbors. Native Kansan Charles Sanderson (1925-1993) influenced many younger watercolorists as he taught in Wichita, exhibiting widely and participating in many of the state's art associations. Along with the the watercolor shows of the 1966-67, there was an additional exhibition offered by the modernist artist, "Water Colors by Charles Sanderson." There were seven bookings for the Sanderson show that year, at a charge of $7.00 rental fee, while the two Prairie Water Color Painters shows "A" and "B" remained at a $5.00 per venue.[7]


The Waning Years

Although its founder, Birger Sandzén, died in 1954, the 1950s brought further interest in watercolor exhibitions, with art sent out to tour Kansas as well as to other states, such as California, Utah, Oklahoma, Texas, Nebraska, and New York. But the 1960s ushered in new challenges. As early as 1962, Marshall was desperately trying to recruit new watercolor painters. Public appetite for watercolor shows ebbed and flowed over the decade, with expanded offerings in 1966 of young artists' watercolors along with the usual circulating shows. But, subsequent years saw a decline in interest. 1968's exhibition of watercolors had to be supplemented with prints, and the minutes of the annual meeting on May 4th report, "Discussion about the Prairie Water Color Painters Show. In the last few years, there has not been much participation. Last year 82 artists were contacted and only 14 artists submitted work."[8]

The situation worsened in the 1970s, and it appears there were some years that the Federation did not manage to schedule or send out any exhibitions. John Helm died in 1972 and proposals to end the programs began to be exchanged among members. That year Charles Marshall wrote to Kansas State University's president, Jim McCain: "We are contemplating putting the Federation on ice after this year's annual meeting in April"..."I have to admit that the change of times, increase in cost of express charges and the change in freight techniques has helped bring us to this decision of folding up."[9] But, in September later the same year, an announcement was sent out to all members that two sections of Prairie Water Colors were going to be offered again, due to popular demand. Then in 1974 it was decided to skip the entire program series in favor of oil painting shows.

By spring of 1976, Marshall was writing to the Federation's director Winston Schmidt (architect and amateur watercolorist working in Hutchinson, Kansas) and commented, "I suspect that many of us have lost some of the dedication of years past. This amounts to the fact that times have changed in regard to art needs. There are more places for an artist to exhibit now, than 15 years ago."[10] By the end of the year, the group had decided to put together only a small show of watercolors and drawings to keep the cost of shipping down. The program limped along, skipping more years here and there until 1985, when Oscar Larmer sent an open letter to the membership reminding of the fact they had been inactive the last four years, that neither a director nor sponsoring institution could be found, so, it should be decided to officially end the exhibition society.

In the minutes of the last annual meeting in 1985, the history of the organizational beginnings were reflected upon: "The Federation of Art was conceived by Birger Sandzen in 1933. Sandzen was an art professor at Bethany College in Lindsborg. He had a characteristic style in his oil and watercolor paintings, and a special interest in block prints and lithography. Some three years earlier, Sandzen, along with C. A. Seward of Wichita, and other printmakers had initiated the Prairie Print Makers, and they needed a way to distribute their art in Kansas. The general art tempo in the state was not very strong in 1934. The number of artists was small and exhibitions of art work were hard to find...There was a need for some organization to generate art exhibitions and make them available to the various schools, local art associations and others needing display of art."[11] The association of artists and water color painters had had great success in creating a dynamic cultural climate in the region.  As Zona Wheeler summed up, agreeing the Federation and Prairie Water Color Painters had reached the end of useful service, it "was a wonderful conception and did a magnificent job of for years, benefitting members and artist-contributors as well. The memory of it should never be lost."[12]


1 Letter from John F. Helm, Jr. to Birger Sandzén, June 25, 1945; Sandzén Archives, Birger Sandzén Memorial Gallery, Lindsborg, Kansas.

2 Letter from Birger Sandzén to Charles L. Marshall, March, 1936; Charles L. Marshall Papers, Hale Library Special Collections, Kansas State University, Manhattan, Kansas.

3 Stan Cuba, Pikes Peak Vision: The Broadmoor Art Academy, 1919-1945 (CO: Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center, 1989), 117.

4 Letter from Birger Sandzén to Charles L. Marshall, Oct.3, 1942; Charles L. Marshall Papers, Hale Library Special Collections, Kansas State University, Manhattan, Kansas.

5 Four letters from Wataru Oye to Frank Nakata; Frank Nakata Collection, MSS 322, Holt-Atherton Special Collections, University of the Pacific Library

6 Letter from Birger Sandzén to Charles L. Marshall, September 29, 1942; Charles L. Marshall Papers, Hale Library Special Collections, Kansas State University, Manhattan, Kansas.

7 Minutes for 1967 annual meeting of the Kansas State Federation of Art; Charles L. Marshall Papers, Hale Library Special Collections, Kansas State University, Manhattan, Kansas.

8 Charles L. Marshall Papers, Hale Library Special Collections, Kansas State University, Manhattan, Kansas

9 Letter from Charles L. Marshall to James McCain, Mar. 6, 1972; Charles L. Marshall Papers, Hale Library Special Collections, Kansas State University, Manhattan, Kansas.

10 Letter from Charles L. Marshall to Winston Schmidt, March, 1976; Charles L. Marshall Papers, Hale Library Special Collections, Kansas State University, Manhattan, Kansas.

11 Charles L. Marshall Papers, Hale Library Special Collections, Kansas State University, Manhattan, Kansas

12 Letter from Zona L. Wheeler to Charles L. Marshall, Sept., 1985; Charles L. Marshall Papers, Hale Library Special Collections, Kansas State University, Manhattan, Kansas

About the author

Cori Sherman North is Curator at the Birger Sandzén Memorial Gallery. Ms. North curated the exhibition Thirty Years of the Prairie Water Color Painters, held February 1 through April 19, 2015 at the Birger Sandzén Memorial Gallery.


Related images


(above: Albert Byron Olson, 1885-1940, Bridge at Ronda, Spain, ca. 1933, Watercolor on paper; 21 x 16 inches. Greenough Collection, Birger Sandzén Memorial Gallery, Lindsborg, Kansas)


(above: Birger Sandzén, 1871-1954, Leadville Mine, Colorado, 1941, Watercolor on paper; 21 1/2 x 29 3/4 inches. Greenough Collection, Birger Sandzén Memorial Gallery, Lindsborg, Kansas)


(above: Eve Drewelowe Van Ek, 1899-1988, Mount Moran, 1937, Watercolor on paper; 18 3/4 x 22 1/2 inches. Greenough Collection, Birger Sandzén Memorial Gallery, Lindsborg, Kansas)


Resource Library editor's notes:

The above essay was published in Resource Library on May 14, 2015 with permission of the author and Birger Sandzén Memorial Gallery, which was granted to TFAO on May 12, 2015. Resource Library wishes to extend appreciation to Cori Sherman North for her help concerning permission for publishing the above essay. On May 19, 2015, Ms. North forwarded the above three images to accompany the essay.

To view the illustrated checklist for Thirty Years of the Prairie Water Color Painters, please go to Birger Sandzén Memorial Gallery's website exhibitions section. For a checklist definition, please see Definitions in Museums Explained.

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