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.

Stacking Hay, Cover Art with a Story

The best cover artwork has a backstory about its creation, and in the case of the latest Pioneer Girl Project book, I have a personal connection.

Once the Pioneer Girl Perspectives authors were on board, we had to consider what the book would physically look like. The first decision was obvious; we wanted another original watercolor from the artist Judy Thompson, who created Silver Lake Reflections for the cover of Pioneer Girl: The Annotated Autobiography. We asked her to follow the spring-like Silver Lake Reflections with a summer painting, and she suggested a haying scene.

This topic is appropriate as Wilder’s Pioneer Girl is littered with examples of her own hay-stacking familiarity:

 “The wild grass, so tall and thick in the sloughs and the blue joint grass on the upland all made good hay. Pa cut and raked the hay. Ma and I helped load it on the wagon and unload and build it into the large stacks to feed our horses and two cows through the winter that was coming.”—Laura Ingalls Wilder, Pioneer Girl, p. 198

Though you can still find a few hay stacks in the Dakota countryside, by the time I was helping my dad in the late-1990s and early 2000s, a single person used a tractor to cut, rake, turn, and bail the hay rather than stack it. Technology also helped lessen common haystack problems like spontaneous combustion due to summer heat and moldy stacks from the inability to repel water during a storm.


Camilla, Janet, Janice, and Doug Pflaum rake hay into a stack on their farm near Letcher, South Dakota, circa 1924. Photograph courtesy of Jennifer E. McIntyre.

I am a third- or fourth-generation South Dakotan, depending on which ancestral line you follow. The prairie and lifestyle of Dakota also inform my own childhood experiences, even though I grew up over one hundred years after Wilder did. My maternal grandmother, Janice Pflaum, graces the monitor background of my work computer, making haystacks with her siblings in the mid-1920s. Much like today and in Wilder’s time on the farm, the whole family pitched in to get the work done. I shared the photograph with Thompson as she was researching positioning and other aspects of her painting, such as the long, thin-handled rakes.

In addition to the photograph of my family, Thompson and I looked into hay stacking during Wilder’s time, ensuring accuracy in the figures’ clothing and the tools that would have been used.

The final product is Summer Fields, a watercolor painting that shows Laura Ingalls as a young pre-teen raking the hay into a stack as her father, Charles Ingalls, loads more onto the wagon. Off in the distance viewers can see the Ingalls homestead. What a great image to introduce a book that studies Wilder’s life and work!


Summer Fields by Judy Thompson, © 2016

Jennifer E. McIntyre

All in a Cover

“Don’t judge a book by its cover” is a phrase that librarians, parents, and others caution young readers with. I’ve always taken issue with that phrase because, for me, the cover is an introduction to what I will be reading, a reminder of the world I will be jumping into every time I turn a page. Thus, from my point of view, the cover is an important part of the reading process, and a degree of judgment seems only natural. A good cover draws readers into the story before they have even cracked the spine. PG cover 72dpi 220px

The goal of the publisher is to create a cover that both attracts readers and provides a window into what the book contains. Some artistic license may be involved in conveying the essence of what readers can expect to experience. Even though there is a photograph of Laura Ingalls with her hair loose down her back, when we released the cover image for Pioneer Girl: The Annotated Autobiography, a “hair controversy” ensued. In general, some readers claimed, the real Laura Ingalls would have worn her hair up, but when I look at the artist’s rendition on the cover of Pioneer Girl: The Annotated Autobiography, I am immediately transported to the wind-swept West and the beginnings of an American writer’s journey.

The cover does a great job of what it should do: catch the reader’s eye and engage the reader’s mind. As Nancy Aguilera wrote on this website, “I imagine Laura walking away . . . with her bonnet on and hair braided, under Ma’s watchful eyes, and then as soon as she’s out of sight she takes off her bonnet and shakes out her hair, enjoying the feel of theCover- By the Shores of Silver Lake warm prairie breezes blowing through her beautiful thick hair while she sits gazing at Silver Lake.” According to an Amazon reviewer, “The cover is beautiful, and not only does it look so much like teenage Laura, it also fits really well with the Garth Williams illustrations we are all familiar with.”

Deb Hosey White, in her blog on Goodreads, goes further: “If ever there was a book that felt special when I first held it in my hands and began turning the pages, this is the book.” The reader’s experience should begin from the moment they see and pick up the book, and that is what the Pioneer Girl Project production team aimed to do in creating this cover and the book it encloses. Based on the overwhelmingly positive comments and industry reviews, I would say they have succeeded. The New York Times Book Review even featured the cover along with their best sellers lists in the Sunday, April 12, print edition.NYTimes 4-12-15-1

Pioneer Girl: The Annotated Autobiography is a scholarly book (in fact, it has been called the encyclopedia on all things Wilder), but it is also the story of a woman’s childhood and adolescent experiences, and the watercolor painting by artist Judy Thompson illustrates this combination wonderfully well.

Jennifer McIntyre

Meet Artist Judy Thompson

Judy Thompson: Silver Lake ReflectionsAdorning the cover of Pioneer Girl: The Annotated Autobiography is a stunning watercolor by award-winning artist Judy Thompson.

Made possible through a donation from De Smet Farm Mutual, Thompson’s Silver Lake Reflections captures a glimpse of Laura during her homestead years in Dakota Territory. In the painting, Wilder is depicted as a young person sitting in the lush prairie surrounding Silver Lake. This image is based on an early photograph of Laura Ingalls with her sisters, Carrie and Mary.

Born and raised near Chicago, Illinois, Judy Thompson now lives in Orange City, Iowa.  Predominantly self-taught, she has been selected twice as an artist-in-residence with the National Park System and is an approved teaching artist for the Nebraska Arts Council. The Iowa Arts Council awarded her a grant in 2012 that enabled her Homestead Series to tour the Midwest in celebration of the 150th anniversary of the Homestead Act. This year, one of her projects can be found in the South Dakota 2014: Artists Respond to the State’s 125th Anniversary exhibitat the Center for Western Studies in Sioux Falls, South Dakota. She teaches drawing and painting techniques and is a member of the National Art Education Association and South Dakotans for the Arts.

Ingalls, Carrie, Mary, and Laura id126 LIWHA

Carrie, Mary, and Laura Ingalls, ca. 1879–1881. Laura Ingalls Wilder Historic Home and Museum

When asked about her inspiration for the painting, Thompson said, “Like Laura, I have a love for the prairie. Its wide horizons, wild grasses, and endless skies provide a boundless landscape for an artist to grow in, explore, and create. In Silver Lake Reflections, I wanted to portray Laura in her prairie setting as a young person who is inspired by the wild beauty which surrounds her Dakota home. The setting of the painting is taken from Wilder’s book By the Shores of Silver Lake, after Laura and her family have moved to Dakota Territory, where they eventually acquire a homestead claim.” Thompson emphasized that Wilder’s own descriptions of the landscape surrounding Silver Lake inspired the composition. “Laura is depicted as a teenage girl, feeling the prairie wind in her face while she sits by the shores of the lake with a newly built town suggested in the background” (back cover).

About her technique, Thompson says: “Watercolor is a very spontaneous medium which creates a fresh, free-flowing feel to a painting—just right to portray the graceful grasses of the prairie and the wide, deep Dakota sky. The impressionistic style of this painting creates a sense of place without restricting the viewer’s imagination. Multiple washes of color provide just enough detail to describe the essence of the subject.”

To see more of Judy Thomson’s work, visit

Jennifer McIntyre