The art of history

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.

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.

As soon as people walk into the museum, they pass by a tidal wave of used compact discs put together in a sculpture called “Event Horizon,” by artist Leticia Bajuyo.

“We wanted to immediately make an impression with people,” Ruschman said. “As people come in, it used to be they’d just walk in and make their way to the ticket desk. Here, we’ve taken a wall that was otherwise overlooked and given it to the artist.”

Another gallery features a selection of pieces from current Herron School of Art and Design students, spotlighting the next generation of Indiana’s great artists, Ruschman said.

“It includes a wide variety of works, paintings, sculpture, photography, to show what students are doing now — what’s important to them, subject matter, commentary,” he said. The rest of the exhibition shows what has come before and what’s out now. This is looking at the future.”

If you go

“200 Years of Indiana Art: A Cultural Legacy”

What: The story of Indiana told through its artwork, from pioneer artists to contemporary works.

Where: Indiana State Museum, 650 W. Washington St., Indianapolis

Pieces: 173

On display: Through Oct. 2

Hours: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Saturday; 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Sunday

Admission: $13 for adults, $12 for seniors age 60 and up, $9.75 for Indiana college students, $8.50 for children ages 3 to 17, free for kids 2 and under.


Johnson County Roots

Johnson County contributors to “200 Years of Indiana Art: A Cultural Legacy”


When: 2013

Artist: Jim Kemp

County connection: Greenwood

Information: Kemp, a New Albany native, was a full-time professional potter for more than 30 years. He established a home studio in Greenwood, and was a regular at juried art fairs around the country, earning many awards for his colorful ceramics.

“Red Snapper Still Life”

When: 1905

Artist: William Merritt Chase

County connection: Nineveh

Information: Chase, considered one of the greatest American painters of the late 19th and early 20th century, was known for the lush brushwork and dark palettes of his fish still-lifes. After leaving Nineveh, he studied painting in Indianapolis before working in New York City and Germany at the Munich Academy of Fine Arts.

“The Sky is Falling — Funky Chicken”

Artist: Donna Stader

When: 1985

County connection: Greenwood

Information: Stader followed the traditions of many 1970s textile artists by using unconventional materials, innovative techniques and provocative designs to buck tradition of conventional quilting.

“Old Spears Mill”

Artist: John Ottis Adams

When: 1902

County connection: Franklin

Information: Adams spent time in Franklin as a youth, before going on to attend Wabash College. He and artist T.C. Steele would later founded a studio called The Hermitage, where other artists could gather in Franklin County and paint the surrounding landscape.

— Information from the Indiana State Museum

Author photo
Ryan Trares is a reporter for the Daily Journal. He can be reached at or 317-736-2727.