INDIANAPOLIS — Through two centuries of work, artists have helped the story of Indiana come alive.
Delicate drawings show pioneer towns carved out of the Indiana wilderness. Civil War soldiers take cover behind ice-covered rocks in a powerful oil painting.
Natural beauty, from the beaches of Lake Michigan to the hills of Brown County to the Ohio River valley, reveal what drew settlers to the area in the first place.
Indiana’s racial diversity, industrial heritage and changing future is told using bright oil paints, limestone blocks and bronze.
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To celebrate the state’s bicentennial this year, the Indiana State Museum is taking visitors on a journey through 200 years of art history. The exhibition explores the role art had in shaping Indiana, from before it was founded through its agrarian roots to industrial and modern society.
From Native American artwork to masterpieces by T.C. Steele to contemporary artists such as Greenwood native Jim Kemp, museum officials hope that the breadth of the exhibition hammers home just how vital Indiana’s artistic contributions have been.
“The art made reflects the time it was created — it reflects the technology and the knowledge and the opportunity that is available to do it,” said Mark Ruschman, chief fine arts curator for the Indiana State Museum. “What I want everybody to take away from the exhibition is a better understanding of what things were like and how they got to where they are today.”
“200 Years of Indiana Art: A Cultural Legacy” was designed as a walkable art history book, using 173 pieces to take visitors from the earliest examples of artwork in the state through its various inceptions and styles.
The exhibition includes all kinds of different media. Oil paintings by Jacob Cox hang near masterpiece quilts by Susan McCord, just around the corner from a stoneware vase by Karl Martz.
“When putting this show together, the criteria was fairly broad and I had a lot of latitude to work with,” Ruschman said. “I wanted the work to be of high quality, I wanted it to represent as much of the state as possible, and I wanted people to have an understanding of where we’ve been and how far we’ve come.”
Johnson County is well represented in the works. Kemp, who made unique pottery and ceramic works in his Greenwood studio, is represented by a bright red, orange and yellow wall hanging.
In her colorful abstract weaving “The Sky is Falling — Funky Chicken,” Greenwood native Donna Stader shows how contemporary artists in the 1970s broke ranks with traditional textile arts to create provocative designs.
Probably the most famous local artist is William Merritt Chase, born in Nineveh before moving to New York City and later Munich, Germany. His “Red Snapper Still Life” captures Chase’s masterful use of lighting and color to tell a story.
“He went on to become one of Indiana’s most famous artists, known worldwide,” Ruschman said. “He became one of the most prominent American artists of his day, and is still considered one of our most important artists of our time.”
The exhibition is centered in two main galleries on the museum’s third floor. As soon as people walk into the main gallery, they are presented with minutely detailed drawings and rough paintings, showing settlers establishing the first communities in Indiana.
Often, these “pioneer artists” traveled from town to town.
“They were itinerant artists, looking for work,” Ruschman said. “There weren’t large populations of people living in one place, so artists looking for business had to travel.”
Many of the pieces, particularly showing the state’s early history, are more documentary than fine artwork, Ruschman said.
“These were not tremendous works of art. But they speak very much to the point that artists were doing these types of things. It wasn’t about sweeping landscapes or famous people’s portraits,” he said.
The narrative of the show moves through important periods in Indiana art, from the rise of noted groups such as the Hoosier Group and Brown County Artists Colony, to the more industrial scenes in the art, to the avant garde use of glass, ceramic and technology.
To cover such broad ground, Ruschman worked with other museums, historical institutions and private collectors to amass a representative group of artwork.
“I wanted this show to represent as much of the state as possible, being that it’s our bicentennial,” he said. “I wanted others to feel like they had a stake in the show.”
The exhibition spills out throughout the rest of the museum, as well. Five public art installations have been included to showcase the importance of large-scale modern art in the community, Ruschman said.
The estate of George Rickey, a South Bend native and internationally famous sculptor, contributed a pair of his kinetic geometric metal pieces.
A special gallery was created for a work by Indianapolis-based artist Anila Quayyum Agha. Using a large, laser-cut cube of patterned wood, a light bulb and six white walls, Agha projects the geometric patterns of the Spanish fortress the Alhambra onto every surface.
200 Years of Art: An Indiana Legacy
Showing now through October 2 at the Indiana State Museum, 650 W. Washington St.
Visit indianamuseum.org for hours of operation and admission fees.