Just the gift prints
The text of this book consists of three short essays by cultural historian Karal Ann Marling and art historians Elizabeth G. Seaton and Bill North. The latter two are both curators at the Beach Museum of Art at Kansas State University. In addition to providing a very brief overview of the group’s formation and its activities, the essays provide some insightful context on how the Prairie Print Makers fit into the American art scene of their time, growing out of a need for inexpensive art during the Great Depression, and how they eventually disbanded as abstract expressionism rose to prominence.
In addition to active members (the artists invited to join the group), the Prairie Print Makers had associate members. These were not artists but rather patrons and supporters of the arts, print collectors, and so on. In exchange for a modest annual membership fee, these associate members would receive a gift print each year. The Prairie Print Makers produced 34 of these gift prints from 1931 to 1965 (they skipped 1963), usually printed in editions of 200. The exhibition by ExhibitsUSA consisted of these 34 gift prints, and that is what is illustrated in the book. Each gets a full-page reproduction. Four are color prints, the rest black and white. Seeing all the gift prints assembled in one location is nice, but it’s kind of a lazy way to put together an exhibition on the Prairie Print Makers. A few of the gift prints were made by artists who clearly were not among the organization’s best. There are also examples of great artists turning in merely good work, sometimes not in their medium of expertise. One matter I’ve never found explained, in any source on the group, is how these gift prints, and the artists who made them, were chosen. Other than a concerted effort at variety in subject and style, there seems to be no rhyme or reason to the selection. Was it a competition, or did the board just delegate an artist to do the job each year? If the latter, on what basis were they chosen?
Each gift print is accompanied by a short write-up, mostly consisting of biographical information about the artist. One of the most valuable aspects of this book is that it lists bibliographical references for most of the artists whose work is included in the volume, which brings the reader’s attention to some sources that are more informative than this one. Though Seaton’s and North’s essays are pretty good, the brief text of the book provides only the barest-bones overview of the Prairie Print Makers. A more thorough and attractive introduction to the Prairie Print Makers is the 1984 book of the same title by Barbara Thompson O’Neill, George C. Foreman, and Howard W. Ellington. It goes into much more detail on the formation of the group and the careers of its founding members, and the images chosen for reproduction are among the best works of some of the more important artists in the group.
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Prints reproduced in the book
Norma Bassett Hall, La Gaude – France, color woodcut, 1943
Luigi Lucioni, Theme in White, etching, 1955