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Nebraska library includes extensive collection of fine art

March 4, 2018

CHAPPELL, Neb. (AP) — One of the Panhandle’s best-kept secrets isn’t a secret at all. It’s hanging in plain sight on the walls of the Chappell Memorial Library and Art Gallery.

The library itself is unassuming, built of smooth red brick. A hint of what’s inside lies in the last two words of the building’s title — because of its art collection the library in Chappell is no ordinary library.

Inside hangs artworks that belonged to the wife of the town’s namesake, Charles Henry Chappell, an Illinois railroad man, the Scottsbluff Star Herald reported. Chappell was responsible for building the train depot in town, which was platted in 1884 as part of Cheyenne County. Legend has it that when lumber, rails and other supplies were sent from Omaha to the rail station he built, the instructions read, “Send this to Chappell.”

His wife, Orianna Ward Chappell, never lived in Chappell past the completion of his railroad work. But while living in Chicago she would frequently ride the passenger train to visit the town.

Chappell died in 1904. According to a brochure describing the collection, Orianna Chappell traveled extensively after his death, collecting the works of various masters from around the world, including oils, etchings, engravings and prints. An early member of the Chicago Woman’s club, she was a life member of the Chicago Art institute and the Chicago Historical society.

She provided funding to build the library and gallery as a memorial to her late husband and donated her extensive (and expensive) collection. She supervised its unpacking, but couldn’t be on hand when the building opened to a lot of local fanfare in 1936. Among the 200 or so artworks hanging in the public library for the past eight decades are etchings by Rembrandt, Whistler and Jean-Francois Millet. She died in 1942.

In her Chicago mansion, the artworks were displayed throughout various rooms. According to the brochure, “The large oils were seen in the living room, the etchings in the library, the Japanese and Chinese prints were found in the dining room, while the engravings were hung in the spacilus halls and the watercolors in the guest rooms and in her private rooms.”

In Chappell, they hang almost frame-to-frame, filling the gallery space just off the main book collection. Each piece is numbered, and a catalog available to visitors includes a description of each one.

Also in the gallery is a substantial collection of works by Chappell artist Aaron Gunn Pyle. The most prominently featured artist, Pyle was born in Kansas but lived most of his life in Chappell. Rumored to be reclusive and eccentric, he tended to his family’s 128 acres of farmland and painted the residents, animals and landscapes of Nebraska in the mid-twentieth century. But in the late 1920s, Pyle had attended the University of Washington for two years and briefly took classes at the Cornish Art School in Seattle. He later studied at the Denver Art Institute, and attended the Kansas City Art Institute from 1938-1941 under the guidance of American regionalist Thomas Hart Benton.

“Pyle actually was a working farmer, who painted only when the chores were done, and his subjects closely related to his life on the farm,” the brochure states. “In other words, he followed and believed what his mentor stated were the virtues of rural life and their relation to true artistic expression.”

Benton held his pupil in high esteem and accompanied him on painting expeditions to Nebraska.

“Although the exigencies of running a farm took most of his time, he had become successful enough with his paintings to be rated as a leading Nebraska artist,” Benton wrote. “He was a true Regionalist, perhaps closer to being a real one than any of the rest of us, for he lived continually with his subjects. Aaron, some twenty years younger than I, was big and strong, handy with tools, used to outdoor life, and above all quiet, quiet like the land he came from.”

Pyle reportedly painted a mural in a Sidney bar for a couple of bottles of bourbon, but by the end of his career he had created distinctive paintings of Nebraska life and landscapes that sell today, more than 45 years after his death, for thousands of dollars. Nebraskans came to know him for his numerous illustrations of Nebraska life and landscapes for the Omaha World Herald. He exhibited his work at the Associated American Artists in New York, at the Joslyn Art Museum, the Denver Art Museum and the Old World Art Gallery in Kansas City. He died in Chappell in 1972.

The rest of the collection consists of prints and paintings by American, European and Asian artists. Some of the Pyle works are on loan from local families and collectors. A basement gallery contains the Bergstrom Rock and Gem Collection, an extensive display of rocks, gems and fossils, including agates and mastodon teeth. The library also includes a digital collection of the town’s weekly newspaper, “The Chappell Register,” published continually since 1887.

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Information from: Star-Herald, http://www.starherald.com

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