Art on the Prairie

Driving across the plains was mesmerizing. All along the horizon, the vast sky melted into the wide expanse of rolling prairie. What a boundless landscape! I was heading west to my first artist residency at the Homestead National Historical Park (HNHP) in Beatrice, Nebraska. This was the blank canvas I was looking for—a wide open space with new vistas, new challenges and, most important of all, the opportunity to create something new.

The artist residency program at the HNHP is one of fifty such programs offered through the National Park Service. Artists are invited to live and work on site to experience and interpret the unique themes of their respective parks.  During my 2010 residency at the Homestead National Historical Park, I caught a glimpse of what life was like as a prairie homesteader. I spent two weeks sketching the native prairie in the105 degree August heat and researching the daily lives of these pioneers. I read their journals and viewed vintage photographs of family life on the plains. I discovered that, like me, these pioneers were seeking new opportunities on the boundless prairie landscape.

As a result of my time at the HNHP, I was able to create a body of work that I titled The Homestead Series. The twelve watercolor paintings that comprise this series were complete just in time for the 150th anniversary of the Homestead Act. Soon the twelve paintings were touring the Midwest to celebrate this landmark event. One of the venues that exhibited the Homestead Series was the Cultural Center in Pierre, South Dakota, home of the South Dakota Historical Society Press. There, Nancy Tystad Koupal, editor of the Pioneer Girl series, saw the exhibit. What a thrill to receive her phone call asking if I would be interested in creating the Pioneer Girl book covers!  My prairie vista suddenly expanded to include South Dakota and the most famous homesteader of all, Laura Ingalls Wilder.

Since then, I have created all four cover images for the Pioneer Girl series. My Inspiration for the first three of these paintings comes from Wilder’s beautiful descriptions of the prairie in her Little House books and from my time spent hiking through the abundant grasslands that surround my Iowa home. Each image represents a season, both literally and figuratively, in Wilder’s pioneer life, with the first three featuring spring, summer, and fall on the Ingalls family’s South Dakota homestead. For Dakota Twilight, the watercolor I created for Pioneer Girl: The Revised Texts, the prairie is dressed in its colorful autumn array, bathed in the soft light of a midwestern sunset. Laura and her sisters are eagerly heading home across the fields for supper. It’s the end of another day exploring a boundless prairie where there are always new vistas on the horizon.

—Judy Thompson

Note:  The Homestead Series will be on exhibition at the Homestead National Historical Park until November 2021.  You can also view the Homestead Series on Judy’s website.

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