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Cindy Lange-Kubick: War in the corn and then a truce — the art of two small-town Nebraskans

September 3, 2018

DAVID CITY — When Cole Sartore was in middle school, his parents took him to a gallery opening in David City.

The Bone Creek Gallery of Agrarian Art’s early exhibition included the works of its cornerstone artist: Dale Nichols. One of the Butler County town’s own who had painted fields and barns and rural landscapes in clear, bold colors during the height of the American Scene Movement.

It’s been a decade since Sartore first visited the small David City gallery. He’s 24 now.

He studied anthropology and art history in college. He’s started the Lincoln Art Company, a gallery and art appraisal service in his hometown.

He owns a number of Nichols’ pieces and, this spring, he curated a show about the artist and his counterpart from Shelby — Terence Duren — for the 10th anniversary of Bone Creek.

He spent a year acquiring paintings for the show and researching the artists. He set to work writing an accompanying book, “Worthy Rivals: Dale Nichols and Terence Duren,” detailing the lives of the two men and their contributions to the art world, filled with their paintings and black-and-white photographs.

Sartore knows more about Nichols — and Duren — than most art lovers, in or out of Nebraska.

But during that 2008 road trip with mom and dad, the paintings on the walls didn’t especially speak to him.

“Being 13 or 14, your attention span isn’t that great,” he says. “I just wanted to get home and watch TV.”

* * *

Time Magazine’s Aug. 20, 1945, issue was filled with stories about the bomb. “The Atomic Age: A Strange Place.” “U.S. & The World: Awful Responsibility.” “Atomic Age: Tomorrow.” “Manhattan District.” “Doubts & Fears.”

Two weeks earlier, the United States had dropped nuclear bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, killing 135,000 people. And just like that, World War II — “the greatest and most terrible of wars” — was over, humanity left to grapple with a weapon that could end life for everyone.

But the magazine made room for its traditional sections, too, and in Arts & Entertainment it featured another kind of battle.

War in the Corn.

“One fertile undulating corner of Nebraska last week produced a bumper crop of artistic excitement,” began the two-column story on Page 58. “David City and Shelby — 18 miles apart — were each sporting a one-man painting exhibition by a native son.”

The story went on to describe a feud that had played out between the two artists earlier that summer, when they held competing shows in their respective hometowns.

It labeled Nichols a “Landscaper” and Duren a “Lampooner.”

It quoted them both.

Nichols: I shall never be guilty of painting in the style of viewpoint of Terence Duren. Never! Never!

Duren: I concur heartily: Mr. Nichols will never draw or paint like I do. Never!

Both men had been featured in the Omaha World-Herald that year and the article was largely based on those “verbal altercations,” Sartore said.

“Time picked up on it and I’m sure they were both very happy to have publicity in one of the country’s top-selling magazines.”

That story ended up being the impetus for the Worthy Rivals exhibition.

The gallery had wanted to do something special for its anniversary, said curator Amanda Mobley Guenther.

Mobley Guenther had staged a Nichols show in 2011, and in her own research, had come across the Time story.

She tucked it away. And then the 10th anniversary approached.

“I knew of Cole,” she said. “And I knew of his interest in Dale Nichols. I didn’t have to get him excited.”

Initially, the gallery planned to publish a short catalog to accompany the show. “Worthy Rivals” arrived from the publisher last month; 145 pages of hardbound beauty and fascinating biography.

“Not to brag, but it’s absolutely remarkable that such a small, young institution can put out such quality scholarship,” Mobley Guenther said. “And in this case, it’s all due to Cole’s work.”

* * *

Visitors to the museum can dive deep into the work and lives of the Worthy Rivals at Bone Creek, if they can find the small brick building, just beyond street construction in the town square.

But it’s worth the search.

The Time article is reproduced in 7-foot-tall splendor, a window into the beginnings of the exhibit.

The work of the two men hung side-by-side — harvest scenes and portraits, mythic figures and horse-drawn wagons and paintings with a similar color palate — allowing viewers to see the Landscaper and the Lampooner’s artistic viewpoints of similar agrarian scenes.

“I started gathering pieces and it quickly became apparent that both artists had paintings that overlapped in theme,” Sartore said. “I’m over the moon every time I see a new work by either artist.”

The young curator did a deep dive into the artists’ lives as well.

Nichols, who felt the loss of his mother’s attention when his baby sister was born and suffered from lifelong feelings of abandonment. (The artist married five times.)

Duren, who contracted polio, or possibly meningitis, as a child and was bedridden for a year, kept occupied with sketchbooks and colored pencils. (Duren never married and was likely gay.)

Sartore charted their artistic arcs and the similarities that stretched beyond their upbringing in small Nebraska towns. Two men who attended the Art Institute of Chicago in the 1920s, played piano, loved Jazz, painted in Guatemala, had their work hung in Grand Central Station.

The list goes on, Sartore said.

“I was really just trying to share their work and share their story. It was really a labor of love.”

The show runs through Sept. 23.

And visitors can show their love, too.

There are two large pickle jars in the main gallery stuffed with money, laminated postcards of two distinct, yet similar paintings beside each jar.

“Who wins the rivalry?, a sign says. “Vote here!”

Terence Duren?

Dale Nichols?

War in the Bone Creek Gallery.

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